Nine months ago, on the heels of the Obama-assisted deluge at the polls, political observers anticipated mayoral fever triggering huge voter turnout in the Hub this fall. Now, as the race has so far been a bust, they are downgrading their expectations — and as a result, are seeing less of a chance for a challenger to beat incumbent Thomas Menino.
A sleepy, poorly attended city election is expected to benefit Menino as it did in 2005, when he trounced Maura Hennigan by a greater than two-to-one margin.
This year, with "change" sweeping recent elections, and serious challenges from top citywide officeholders Michael Flaherty and Sam Yoon, even Menino himself seemed to assume things would be very different. To that end, he has raised far more money, run much earlier ads, and agreed to more debates than ever before (if still not all that many).
But now, some doubt that turnout cannot muster as many as the relatively meager 97,000 who voted in the 2005 Hennigan debacle, unless Flaherty and Yoon start bloodying the mayor — and perhaps each other.
Not even the most enthusiastic political pundits thought the 2009 mayoral election could attract the 236,000 Bostonians who cast ballots in last November's presidential election. But 150,000 voters seemed a realistic expectation for the final election, and many expected more than 100,000 for the city's first meaningful mayoral preliminary (which will narrow the field to two) since 1993 — especially since efforts in recent election cycles have swelled the city's registered-voter rolls to roughly 350,000 (of an eligible population of 450,000).
With less than two months remaining until the September 22 preliminary, however, Flaherty and Yoon advisers now say they are expecting less than 100,000 to show up. At-large city councilor Stephen Murphy tells the Phoenix he is guessing between 65,000 and 75,000 will turn out. Another citywide candidate expects even less. That's in line with what most others are guessing: no more than 80,000, and perhaps fewer than 60,000. That figure would be only a little more than in recent city preliminaries that didn't boast mayoral contests.
Many of those same observers still believe turnout will jump to well more than 100,000 for the final election in November. But that may also prove fanciful. The 1993 election turnout was almost exactly the same in the preliminary and the final election, at 50.3 percent of registered voters.
The reasons given for the apparent current disinterest are myriad, so much so that it's hard to say which are causes or effects of voter ennui.
Some political observers, for instance, claim that city politics simply do not capture the attention of residents, who are more interested in the action in Washington or the squabbling in the State House. Others argue that the local media is to blame for ignoring the mayoral and council races, while still others say that the public — perhaps accurately — perceives that Menino will cruise toward re-election.
Opponents of Menino charge that he deliberately suppresses news and talk of the contest, assuming that low turnout benefits him. Meanwhile, critics of the challengers charge that Flaherty, and particularly Yoon, have failed to catch fire with their campaigns. Certainly, that perception hasn't been helped by relatively anemic fundraising — a problem some blame on economic conditions and others blame on the candidates themselves.
The current campaign doldrums may end abruptly after Labor Day, when Bostonians return from summer vacations and candidates begin spending their war chests. But for now, expectations are low — which means Menino is surely enjoying his summer.
To read the "Talking Politics" blog, go to thePhoenix.com/talkingpolitics. David S. Bernstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.