Our sense of history is often dimmed by the fast pace of life, so the pioneering role carved out by the recently departed Bob Price fifty years ago may be underappreciated today. Simply put, Price was among the first of the modern class of political consultant. Without him, there is no Karl Rove, no James Carville.
A half century ago, Price was the guiding force behind an event seemingly unthinkable at the time: the election of a Republican as mayor of New York City. Price’s candidate was then Congressman John Lindsay, who challenged the Democratic stronghold on the City. Lindsay today is a largely forgotten and/or underappreciated figure but regardless, the election masterminded by Price sowed the seeds for a generation of political machinations.
In addition to the city voter registration being overwhelmingly Democratic, where Republicans had not won in memory and had no meaningful organization, and where the GOP was split to boot (since William Buckley ran on the Conservative line) Price fashioned victory by forging a powerful campaign strategy and machine. The key elements were as follows.
Seizing upon the then new medium of television, as perfected by John Kennedy and to whom Lindsay was often compared, Price with media guru David Garth flooded the airwaves with shots of Lindsay talking about an issue, followed by a head shot of the candidate in a moving auto, subliminally taking the city into the future with him.This broke new ground, the idea of a candidate as star of his own ads.
Tactically, Price engineered the then third major party in New York, the Liberal Party, to endorse Lindsay.This burnished Lindsay’s credentials as a “fusion” candidate above party.More importantly it signaled to Democrats that it was fashionable to break with party orthodoxy.
To counter the split on the Republican right, Price had Lindsay campaign as more democratic than the Democratic candidate (Abe Beame).In the words of a famous broadside he fashioned and playing on the lines of a popular game show, “Will the Real Liberal Please Stand Up?”Yes, at the time, liberalism was in its ascendancy, as seen in the landslide loss of conservative Barry Goldwater in the preceding year’s presidential election.
Despite the “new look” of the Lindsay campaign, Price recognized he had to demonstrate that his Republican candidate did not have horns. Thus Price fused old politics to the new, opening over 100 storefronts across the City, and putting his candidate on display for the voters to see and get comfortable with.
Notwithstanding all the above, as election day beckoned, Lindsay’s poll numbers never shot above 42%.Thus Price and Liberal Party chairman Alex Rose developed a game plan on the run: Lindsay spent the final days of the campaign solely in African American neighborhoods.The black vote always went overwhelmingly Democratic.Lindsay could not win that segment, but if he could whittle down Beame’s margin…Sure enough, the tide turned in the waning days and Lindsay was elected by a comfortable margin (45%-39%-13% for Buckley).
That left Lindsay to govern…which is another story altogether. However Bob Price did lead the way for the rise of a political consultant class.
Kenneth T. Zemsky is the author of the recently published novel The Nation’s Hope, about the 1965 NYC mayoral campaign. He is also a managing director at AndersenTax and teaches constitutional law at Rutgers. You can follow him at KennethTZemsky.com.