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Time is Running Out for Christine Quinn

August 14, 2013

New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has led the Democratic primary candidates for New York City mayor in almost every poll taken so far. This has understandably led the media to treat her as the favorite to get the nomination. But a deeper look into the polling shows why she’s unlikely to win the Democratic nomination.

Quinn laid the foundation for her campaign by working closely with incumbent Michael Bloomberg, moderating her more liberal positions and keeping a tight rein on her liberal City Council colleagues. As a result, she began the race with high name recognition and a commanding lead in the polls.

But as the campaign played out, the downside to Quinn’s strategy became clear. Gaining high name recognition by close affiliation with a sometime Republican, sometime Independent mayor is not necessarily the best tactic for winning over Democratic primary voters. In particular, Quinn’s support for the City Council bill that suspended mayoral term limits only for 2009 won Quinn a lot of disapproval. As a result, Quinn’s polling showed high negatives. In other words, Quinn has a low ceiling.

In many cities, a low polling ceiling wouldn’t be a big deal in a race with five major candidates – the winning candidate might not need to take even 30 percent of the primary vote. But New York City elections require a winning candidate to take at least 40 percent of the vote. If no candidate gets to 40, there is a run-off between the top two finishers.

Quinn’s much higher negatives than Bill Thompson and Bill De Blasio suggest that she might lead them in the initial vote but lose to either of them in the run-off. And sure enough, when pollsters started running hypothetical run-offs, Quinn came out on the short end against either Thompson or De Blasio.

All of this was true even while Quinn was leading in the polls. This week, Quinnipiac released a poll showing that De Blasio has taken the lead for the first time – 30 percent to 24 percent for Quinn. No one poll should ever be taken as definitive, so we shouldn’t assume that De Blasio is actually going to outdo Quinn on primary day. But the poll’s hypothetical run-off tallies corroborate previous polling, showing Quinn losing two-person races to De Blasio by 54 – 38 and to Thompson by 51 – 41.

Moreover, the Quinnipiac poll suggests the possibility that Quinn might not even make the run-off at all. Quinn placed second in the poll, but only two points ahead of Thompson – well within the poll’s margin of error.

With only four weeks until primary day, it’s hard to see how Quinn gets to 40 percent. And even if she qualifies for the run-off, it’s hard to see how she gets to 50. Not only would she have to overcome her high negatives, she would have to deal with the fact that the unsuccessful Democratic candidates are more likely to endorse her run-off opponent than her, and the cumulative impact of three or four of those endorsements could be substantial.

At this point, I would give odds that Christine Quinn will not be the next mayor of New York.

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