On election night, 2009, I gathered with a bunch of friends to watch the election returns on CNN. The network was mostly focused on the two races with major national implications – the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia – but we were far more interested in another showdown that night.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, seeking his third term in office, faced re-election and was anticipated to prevail by upwards of 20 points over his Democratic opponent, New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson. It was poised to be a snooze of a race, but I had a hunch it might be closer than expected.
Lo and behold, the polls closed, the numbers began pouring in and not only was Bloomberg massively underperforming, but Thompson, for a brief while, actually grabbed the lead. As it turned out, Bloomberg wasn’t so unstoppable after all and Thompson was scoring victories in both Brooklyn and the Bronx. By the end of the night, Bloomberg would win by 4 points, but it didn’t matter. That daunting luster which encapsulated Bloomberg and his candidacy had entirely faded. He was a joke who had just spent $64.8 million to Thompson’s $3.8 million to win by less than 5 points.
How did this happen? What forced Bloomberg to stumble from a 19 point victory in 2005 to a 4 point squeaker in 2009? And what caused Bloomberg to free fall even further to today, where he sits atop an anemic 39 percent approval rating?
The irony is, for a guy who’s served three terms as the leader of one of the world’s most populous metropolitan areas in the world, Bloomberg has, in actuality, never been all that popular.
In 2001, Bloomberg, then a registered Democrat, expressed interest in seeking the mayoral seat which would soon be vacated by the term-limited incumbent Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Alas, Bloomberg realized he couldn’t win in the Democratic primary, so he switched to the GOP. Even after that, he still couldn’t catch a break, trailing Democratic opponent Mark Green in the polls. In the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, however, Giuliani’s approval rating skyrocketed and he endorsed Bloomberg for the general election. That endorsement, combined with Bloomberg outspending Green by 5 to 1, gave Bloomberg the edge on election night, where he prevailed by a measly 2 points.
In his 2005 re-election bid, Bloomberg triumphed by 20 points over Democrat Fernando Ferrer. That victory might lead one to believe Bloomberg was riding widespread popularity among New Yorkers, but, in actuality, it was more because Bloomberg outspent Ferrer by a jaw-dropping 17 to 1. No, that’s not a typo. 17 to 1.
That’s just the thing. Bloomberg was spending his way to one election victory after another and, by the aftermath of his 2005 victory, voters were feeling fatigued. Alas, that wouldn’t be the only thing they tired of when it came to Bloomberg.
Following his re-election victory, Bloomberg opted to raise property taxes as a means toward a balanced budget. This move alienated conservatives who’d backed both of the mayor’s election bids in spite of Bloomberg’s liberal views on social issues. By this point, liberals and Democrats, too, were wary of Bloomberg, who was the key proponent of housing the 2004 Republican National Convention, in support of George W. Bush’s re-election, in New York City. In other words, Bloomberg was making few friends but many enemies.
Nonetheless, Bloomberg was so enamored with himself that he craved a third term, which, of course, should have been impossible, given the city’s term limits on the mayoral seat. To nix this, he called on the City Council to temporarily revoke the two-term limit, citing the Wall Street financial crisis as needing someone with his economic experience. In a divisive and close vote, which would later cost several councilmen their jobs, Bloomberg’s wish came true and he could seek the third term.
Were New Yorkers, in reality, craving another four years of Bloomberg?
Well, the New York City media certainly thought so, and they played up Bloomberg’s re-election bid as an unstoppable juggernaut force. Bloomberg, they thought, was again going to outspend his Democratic opponent by a massive margin, with the city’s business community again turning out to re-elect their man.
Alas, as already pointed out, the media wasn’t entirely spot-on this time. The Bloomberg fatigue finally kicked in and the incumbent almost lost his job. If not for his massive spending, which put organizers on the ground on just about every corner, he probably would’ve reached defeat.
Fast-forward to the present and Bloomberg’s never been more unpopular. As mentioned above, his approval has plummeted to a dreadful 39 percent, with Republicans the only group to express support for him. Bloomberg’s numbers may take an even steeper fall now, in the wake of Schools Chancellor Cathie Black’s resignation. Black, a former executive at Hearst Magazines, was appointed to this position by Bloomberg, despite not having a shred of experience in education. This selection garnered fierce criticism right from the get-go and Black left office with an approval rating of 17 percent. Again, no typo there. 17 percent.
Oh, how the mighty fall.