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The 1941 New York Mayoral Race

With a population of almost 8 million people in 1940, campaigning in New York City was a political and logistical challenge. The electorate was spread out over 300 square miles, from the northern reaches of Manhattan and the Bronx to the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. Successive waves of immigration had created a rich assortment of ethnic groups, with no single element sufficient in size to control a citywide election. Instead, mayoral politics hinged on the construction of ethnic coalitions. Tammany Hall dominated the Democratic Party by attracting the support of the Irish, then Jews, and eventually the Italians. In the 1930s, however, these alliances became less stable. Jewish voters divided their loyalties between the Democrats and a succession of smaller, left-wing parties tied to the labor movement, while the city’s Italian community was split between the Democratic and Republican Parties. Meanwhile, the power of the party machines diminished as the foreign-born population of the five boroughs declined and New Deal-era programs displaced the welfare functions the local machines once performed. As Chris McNickle explains in his study of New York City politics, “The implicit contract between district leader and voter, a ballot in return for bread, became harder for politicians to maintain.”112

New York City politics was changing, making it more difficult to assemble the ethnic coalitions necessary to win citywide elections. It was in this context that William O’Dwyer entered the race for mayor against Fiorello La Guardia in 1941. La Guardia’s own success illustrates the changing circumstances of city politics. First elected in 1934 on a Republican-Fusion ticket, La Guardia was a savvy politician who exploited a weakened machine in order to build a powerful if largely personal following. La Guardia’s own diverse background—the son of Italian immigrants, yet born of a Jewish mother and raised an Episcopalian—embodied the diversity of his city, helping him to build a broad base of support. During more than a decade in office, La Guardia created a new kind of big-city mayor that mixed personal popularity with an expanding reach over an array of government services. As La Guardia was fond of saying, “There is no Democratic or Republican way of cleaning the streets.” Much like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, with whom he forged a close political alliance, La Guardia understood the alchemy of public opinion and executive power.113

As a candidate for mayor, William O’Dwyer endeavored to use his own compelling biography to compete with La Guardia. Born in County Mayo, O’Dwyer could count on the support of his fellow Irish New Yorkers, but he distanced himself from Tammany Hall in an effort to attract independent and weakly affiliated voters, namely, Jews. Throughout his political rise, in fact, O’Dwyer remained in, but not entirely of, the Democratic Party. Instead, O’Dwyer used his record as Brooklyn district attorney, where he gained notoriety for his prosecution of organized crime to build a reputation as an independent-minded official untainted by corruption.114 In early 1941, the O’Dwyer campaign asked Edward Bernays for help in devising a strategy for the race.

Five weeks before Election Day, Bernays presented the campaign with a set of recommendations that emphasized O’Dwyer’s personal qualities rather than his party affiliation.

The O’Dwyer race for mayor gave Bernays an opportunity to put in practice a set of techniques he had long argued should be central to a modern political campaign. In an essay entitled “Putting Politics on the Market” (1928), Bernays insisted that “big business is conducted on the principle that it must prepare its policies carefully ... in selling an idea to the large buying public. ... The political strategist must do likewise.”115 Crafting such a strategy should begin with a survey of current opinion. “The first thing a sales manager does when he tackles a new sales problem ... is to study the public to whom he can sell.” Similarly, “A survey of public desires, demands, and needs ... made as scientifically as possible . would come to the aid of the political strategist whose business it is to make a proposed plan of the activities of the party and its elected officials.”116

Surveys and other sources of social scientific data revealed a complex society composed of “an almost infinite number of groups whose various interests and desires overlap and interweave inextricably.”117 Consequently, Bernays argued, a modern campaign of persuasion required close study of the “group formation of society” and the various cleavages that form along “economic, social, religious, educational, cultural, [and] racial” lines.118 “The public is not made up merely of Democrats and Republicans,” Bernays noted. Instead, “the public is, in fact, many publics,” and “the ordinary person is a very temporary member of a great number of groups.”119 These multiple affiliations could be “directed by conscious effort,” making it the job of the modern campaign manager “to educate emotions in terms of groups” and craft political appeals that “will best serve to reach the groups he desires to influence.”120 This could be achieved through mass communication and the manipulation of “symbols which stand in the minds of the public for the abstract idea the technician wishes to convey.” Accordingly, “The motion picture . the radio, the magazines, the direct mailing piece, the word of mouth spoken thought, the parade, the mass meeting ... every method of approach to the public through the senses” may be employed.121 Bernays described his plan for O’Dwyer as “an engineering approach” to the Democratic race, and it relied on precisely the kind of targeted media and social scientific renderings of the public that would become the essence of American political work.122

In preparing his plan for O’Dwyer, Bernays collected a wealth of census data, market research, election results, and interviews conducted with New York City voters in order to answer a series of questions Bernays believed were keys to the race:

What groups and group alignments are there in New York? Where are the independent voters? What is the largest bloc of voters? How and what do the people feel about the two candidates? What lessons are there in the history of past elections? What are the underlying currents and opinions that represent the bases of public opinion and action . ..? What social, religious, economic and political blocs exist? What kind of leadership is there and what is it trying to do? What is the relationship of the great channels of communication—radio, motion pictures, newspapers—to the situation?123

For Bernays, effective political strategy required an understanding of the complex social structure of the electorate.

In particular, the multiethnic context of New York City politics suggested a mixture of campaign messages tailored to the concerns and prejudices of different groups. Singling out Jewish voters as the critical bloc that could swing the outcome of the race, Bernays advised using emotional appeals rather than emphasizing policy positions when addressing this segment of voters. According to Bernays:

The analysis of attitudes from a psychological standpoint, indicates that large groups of the New York public are swayed by hate and by fear, rather than by a rational approach to the administrative functions of a Mayor. The sense of psychological insecurity ... has created a situation where the appeals to the public, particularly to the Jewish public which represents the greatest independent vote, must be made upon other than straight municipal issues. They must rest upon gaining acceptance for the belief that the candidate is not anti-Semitic.124

Bernays also advised the candidate to tailor his messages to different audiences. When O’Dwyer was speaking to Italians, Bernays recommended that he should “stress complete fairness” and nondiscrimination; when speaking to German Protestants, he should “stress personal qualities” such as dignity and honesty; when speaking to Irish Catholics, he should emphasize “personal qualifications” such as O’Dwyer’s record on crime. Bernays articulated similar refinements along racial, economic, and geographic lines as well.125

Bernays also distilled a set of personal qualities of both O’Dwyer and La Guardia, what contemporary consultants call the candidate’s “favorables” and “unfavorables.” Bernays recommended that O’Dwyer present himself as a “powerful proponent for democracy” who was staunchly “supporting President Roosevelt” while maintaining “independence of Tammany and all bosses.”126 Bernays also advised that O’Dwyer stress his “steady, even-tempered, tactful, diplomatic character” as an alternative to what critics complained was La Guardia’s crass style.127 These qualities were to inform every activity of the candidate, “every event, every speech, every release, [and] every action.”128 In addition to speeches delivered in person and on the radio, Bernays recommended the campaign employ visual images through photographs and motion pictures that could “translate the planks of his platform into pictures.”129 Finally, a series of planned events would attract public attention for O’Dwyer, noting that “the more compelling the created circumstances ... the more likely it is to find a place in the medium.” In sum, Bernays envisioned a “vigorous, strong offensive” that would result in a “building up of the candidate” and “a deflation of the opponent.”130

Bernays projected a cost of $100,000 for the campaign: $10,000 for consulting fees, with the remainder going to media, campaign personnel, and related costs.131 Controlling for the size of the economy, this is equivalent to around $13 million today. By comparison, Bill de Blasio spent $13.5 million in his successful race for New York City mayor in 2013, with more than half of his expenditures going through a single media firm, AKPD Message and Media, founded by the prominent Democratic consultant David Axelrod.132

In 1941, however, an established business of politics did not yet exist. In fact, Bernays never closed the sale, and his direct involvement with the campaign ended with a set of recommendations and an invoice for $1,750 to cover services rendered.133 In the end, O’Dwyer lost the election by the narrowest margin in a mayoral race since 1909, a considerable feat given that FDR openly endorsed La Guardia against the wishes of New York Democrats.134 Four years later, however, O’Dwyer won easily in a three-way contest for mayor. It was the first time in more than a decade that La Guardia was not a candidate, a fact that aided O’Dwyer’s cause among the Jewish voters Bernays had identified in 1941 as the key to the election.135

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