While John Liu may be running a highly energetic, decidedly populist campaign for mayor, his poll numbers have consistently remained in the single digits. Thus, if the pundits and pollsters are to be believed, the only contending horses in the race for the Democratic nomination are front-runner Bill de Blasio, former front-runner Christine Quinn, and Bill Thompson, who’s always in the middle of the pack. Yet when it comes to Liu, the handicappers just may have their own blind spot.
Consider the most recent poll, conducted by Siena College and the New York Times, in which Liu checked in at a mere 3%. At first glance, that seems low enough to write him off. But as anyone who’s ever read the Daily Racing Form knows, you need to spend a little time looking into the numbers before making a bet. And in the case of the Siena poll, Liu’s numbers don’t add up at all.
Liu, a lifelong resident of Queens, is a former city councilman who represented Flushing, an Asian-American stronghold. In the 2009 Democratic primary for city comptroller, the field included two other candidates from Queens (Melinda Katz and Mark Weprin), but Liu garnered 43% of the vote in the borough. Four years later, where does Liu place in Queens among “likely voters” for mayor, according to the Siena poll? A whopping 0.0.
Yes, 0.0, a number most commonly associated with the G.P.A. of John Blutarsky (John Belushi) in Animal House. By contrast, consider that the Liu campaign turned in 65k signatures petition signatures for Liu to get on the ballot (5k more than the de Blasio campaign), or that his total number of campaign contributors is far ahead of Thompson’s, and not far behind de Blasio’s. If you’d like to run the Queens breakdown of those numbers, go ahead. But if you’re confident that Liu will get 0% of the vote in his home borough, Dean Wormer would like to speak with you.
Because many Asians and other new immigrants have not been registered long and/or not participated in enough elections to be included on lists of prime voters, they simply are not polled at anywhere near the same rate as more established groups. In Liu’s estimation, the Asian vote in the primary will be around 15%, and he will get the vast majority of it. Is that merely a campaign pep talk?
Not according to folks unaffiliated with Liu’s campaign I have spoken with, who agree that Liu’s real poll number is at least 12%. Those ranks consist of someone best described as an insider’s insider, who has worked in and around the political racetrack for more than two decades. And it includes a current candidate for city council, who, like Liu, works closely with new immigrant communities. When I said to that candidate that the polls are skewed because of the undercounted Asian vote, he said, “Well, Mexicans love him, too.”
Perhaps Liu’s genuine popularity goes unnoticed to those not accustomed to paying attention to the goings-on among the city’s new immigrants. Many of the pollsters tend to see things through a black-and-white lens, whereas Liu’s base features many shades of yellow and brown. Liu, it should be noted, also enjoys significant black support, particularly from city workers. It is a multi-hued coalition that previews New York City’s future. Whether it’s strong enough to reach the low 20s (and thus a runoff) on primary day is a long shot, but as they say at the track, Liu is on the board.