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.
A high-level staffer with one of the challengers' campaigns says that Menino's dominance in that poll could backfire, however, noting that, thanks to the poll, many in the city — including in the media — expect Menino to capture more than 60 percent of the preliminary-election vote. That's an unreasonable expectation. But there have been no other polls to correct the misimpression; Menino and Flaherty have their own polling figures, though neither camp has been willing to leak its numbers.
The big question being asked inside the campaigns is whether the Globe, or some other media outlet, will run a poll before the preliminary — one that, for the first time, asks how voters might cast their ballots in the four-way primary. That could re-set expectations to a more realistic level. Or, it could set off the "Menino is beatable" talk early, driving up anti-incumbent turnout for the preliminary. Some are even suggesting that Menino's early ad buy is intended to boost his numbers in such a poll. Menino's campaign treasurer, David Passafaro, shrugs off the suggestion, saying that the plan was always to begin airing ads right after Labor Day, adding, "We are entirely on our original schedule."
Taking the hits
Of more concern to Menino HQ, the mayor's opponents believe that his numbers have dropped since that May poll, thanks to their steady, if unexciting, campaigning. While large numbers of Bostonians may still like Menino personally, they say, those voters are increasingly willing to believe it's time for change.