Campaign Endgame: Money Talks, Lack Of It Shakes Hands

Mike Bloomberg and Bill Thompson campaigned three miles from each other in Queens on Sunday, so close yet so far apart.

On a 20-minute walk-around through bustling Flushing with Comptroller-to-be John Liu as his tour guide, Thompson reached for every hand he could, accompanied by a megaphone-wielding Mandarin speaker exhorting the crowd to say "We love Thompson! We love Thompson!"

An hour later, Bloomberg bounded on to a stage in a plaza in Jackson Heights, stood in front of a giant-sized image of himself on a billboard truck, gave a hearty stump speech and then, guarded by a sizeable force of uniformed and plainclothes police officers, was back in his SUV and gone.

The difference in approach echoed other events over the last weekend of campaigning before Tuesday's vote. On Friday afternoon, Thompson posed for pictures and chatted at some length with passerby on Fulton Street in Brooklyn, grasping for every palm at bus stops, crossing the street to visit one voter's footwear-and-bling store. A few hours later, Bloomberg strode behind a bagpiper into the grand ballroom at the Astoria World, spoke briefly to the crowd at the annual dinner for the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, and departed after a minimum of gripping and grinning.

Much has already been written about the differences in personality and style between the mayor and comptroller, but the contrast in campaign approaches reflects something more practical and perhaps more important.

While Thompson is more gregarious and probably more comfortable than the mayor with kissing babies and signing autographs (yes, really—he signed half a dozen on one block Friday alone), he doesn't have much choice but to do it. He is being so vastly outspent—he's actually laid out about a million less than Freddy Ferrer had by this point in 2005—that the personal touch is all he can pin his hopes on.

Bloomberg on the other hand, doesn't need to press the flesh. He's ahead in the polls and has the best advertising and GOTV operation that money can buy.

The street campaigns are like the opposite of the TV ad war, where Bloomberg gets access to our brains for a minute at a time while Thompson says a 15-second hello. Asked at a City Hall event Friday afternoon how he'd tackle the last 72-hours of the campaign, Thompson said, "I think you're going to see more of me," and he wasn't lying.

The meet-and-greets aren't always intellectually satisfying—I talked to three members of the Liu-Thompson parade this afternoon and only one could cite a reason for supporting Thompson, that being term limits—but at least they force political big shots to have a few moments of uncontrolled mingling with the masses.

Bloomberg fans go to Bloomberg events. But on his sidewalk tour of the city, Thompson is encountering all manner of responses, from the Asian teens who yelled "You suck!" after he passed by them on Main Street today, to the abundant indifference of Friday's Fulton Street crowd, to the people who crossed the street that day just to meet him. "You've got my vote," said one burly passerby, towering over Thompson. "Bloomberg's got to go." One teenager in Halloween gear left his encounter with the Democrat saying, perhaps mockingly, "I ain't never gonna wash my hand again."

Last week, Thompson heard the woman on 149th Street in the Bronx tell him she was going to vote for him only because she saw him with Obama, and a man on the same block exhorted him, "You gotta fix our economy." On Third Avenue in the Bronx, a business owner looked down his nose as Thompson and Attorney General Andrew Cuomo approached. "Are you gonna help us," he asked, "or are you going to lie to us?" I couldn't hear what Thompson replied.

On Fulton Street, Thompson's presence sparked political dialogue in his wake. "If he wasn't frontin' his own money, [Thompson] would be way ahead in the polls," said one man. "He's big in all the real estate," he added, speaking of Bloomberg. "It ain't for us," said another guy. "It ain't for us."

Say what you will about the sentiment, at least it's spontaneous.

Bloomberg's events, on the other hand, are scripted to let him shine. His honorable position on immigration for example, made Friday's Astoria World event a great showcase. "This country is trying to commit national suicide by closing it's borders," Bloomberg said as a roomful of well-dressed people sat and listened.

On Sunday, a pulsating sound system had been pumping up the crowd for at least a half-hour before the mayor arrived. The billboard of the mayor said he had been endorsed by leaders we trust, and then listed an odd assortment of Latino power names: Herman Badillo, Oscar de la Renta, Jose Feliciano and Dennis Rivera, the labor leader who, when he endorsed Ferrer four years ago, Bloomberg's people accused of peddling his endorsement in return for the promise of millions in benefits for his workers. (Imagine a union doing that!)

Bloomberg comes. Bloomberg speaks. The crowd listens. He talks about voting: "I show you by leading the way. I get out to vote." He talks about how before he was mayor, "wise guys" disrupted New York's classrooms: "We don't tolerate that…and that's why the school system is getting better." He talks about diversity: That very day he "drove the route of the New York City marathon" and marveled how on the blocks he passed, "Every single group in the world is represented and they all respect each other."

If the mayor had ventured onto the sidewalk, he might have been reminded (he surely knows) that, away from the marathon route, this is not always the case. That Jewish "vigilantes" rough up black kids. That black Africans get crap from African-Americans. That Latino immigrants get beaten up. But alas, after his speech ended his security detail had him across the street and on his way in about 45 seconds.

The "Meet Bill Thompson" events might not be a decisive argument for making him mayor, but they're a good example of why less money might make for better campaigns, or at least one's where some voters get to speak to people in power before they cast their vote.

If miraculously elected, will Thompson really "fix the economy" simply because some dude on 149th Street asked him too? Of course not. But at least he can't say he wasn't told. And if he fails, that man-on-the-street can know he was had.

Bloomberg's mega-spending means more ads, more posters, more high-priced consultants. But it actually buys fewer human encounters, fewer genuine shouts of "We're behind you!" or "You suck!" Or, as one woman remarked on seeing Cuomo with Thompson on Thursday, "Who the hell is this guy?"