We are finally learning what a "real" electoral challenge would look like for Mayor Tom Menino. For years, many in Boston (including here at the Phoenix) have lamented the absence of a vigorous campaign that would force the long-time incumbent to defend his record and discuss the issues. After a relatively sleepy spring and summer, that process began this past week with the first two mayoral debates: one broadcast on WBZ-TV (and WBZ-AM 1030) and one hosted by a coalition of advocacy groups in Roxbury.
The latter event, though witnessed only by the 600 or so in attendance, said much about the seriousness Menino is dedicating to this year's election, the fifth defense of his title since inheriting it in 1993. He accepted the invitation at the eleventh hour, despite previously indicating he would limit himself to select forums he had previously agreed to attend — and despite insinuations from his camp that the coalition's lead sponsor, MassVote, was not competent to host an event worthy of the mayor's participation.
Most important, the debate placed Menino in a position to which he has rarely subjected himself: public disapproval. The live audience, mostly comprised of voters already committed to a candidate, didn't go so far as to boo the mayor, but frequently gave rousing applause to the criticism heaped upon him by his challengers, despite instructions to remain silent.
The fact that Menino chose to show up at the MassVote forum is one of several indicators he is concerned about the campaign — which is particularly striking, because conventional wisdom says he has little to worry about in the preliminary election coming up on September 22. That preliminary will narrow the race to two candidates, one of whom undoubtedly will be Menino.
So why did he add the MassVote forum to his schedule, as well as other events this month where he'll deign to share the stage with opponents Michael Flaherty, Kevin McCrea, and Sam Yoon? And why has he dug into his campaign war chest to launch an ad blitz for the final two weeks leading up to a preliminary that everyone knows he is going to win?
The answer lies in the political-expectation game.
Behind the scenes, in the electoral trenches, there is a growing belief that, should Menino receive more than 50 percent of the vote on September 22 — a majority, beating all the other candidates combined — the city will hit the snooze button and sleep through the rest of the campaign season, allowing Menino to coast to victory.
If Menino's tally falls below 50 percent — that is, if more people vote against him than for him — these same strategists think the city could awaken on September 23 believing, for the first time, that an incumbent Menino could potentially lose. That could change the entire dynamic of the race, as his suddenly viable opponent receives a wave of media attention, contributions, volunteers, and buzz.
The difference of percentage points might amount to only 1000 votes or fewer, but the psychological effect could be huge. Although Menino and his advisors won't say so on the record, they want 51 percent badly — and they're not sure they're going to get it. That's why the mayor is out there, at least for now, giving the city the public debates it has wanted for so long.
The 50-percent target is, frankly, a little unfair to the mayor. In a multi-candidate field, it's tough to achieve, even for a popular incumbent. Consider that Kevin White got 42 percent in the 1979 preliminary, on his way to easily winning his fourth term as Boston's mayor.
Plus, preliminary turnout is not necessarily a good predictor of the behavior of November general-election voters. For one thing, not every anti-Menino voter in the preliminary will be one in the final. For another, supporters of Flaherty and Yoon are highly motivated to get to the polls in the preliminary, to help their favored candidate survive to the final ballot.
The race is more of a formality for Menino supporters. So, there's no real reason to think the mayor should be less likely to win were he to get just under half the preliminary votes, rather than just more than half. But expectations drive reality in politics. And expectations for Menino are staggeringly high.
One reason for that is the absence of polling that might set a more realistic baseline. Only a single public poll on the race has been conducted all year — and that one, by the Boston Globe back in May, asked how challengers would fare head-to-head against Menino, not what would happen in a multi-candidate vote. (It also polled from all Boston adults, rather than "likely voters" or registered voters; that broader pool is less likely to be familiar with City Councilors Flaherty and Yoon.)
The impression given by that Globe poll was of an inevitable rout. It showed Menino with a stunning 73 percent approval rating. In those head-to-head match-ups, Menino beat Flaherty 61-23, Yoon 63-21, and McCrea 70-7.