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There were few scarier places in American history than New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Republican running for mayor (and trailing badly) suggests that his opponent will return the city to those days. Even a cursory glance at data shows that this is rhetoric, not reality.

Having shed its social media enthusiasts after the primaries, the New York City mayor's race has moved on to a more traditional match-up between that Republican, Joe Lhota, and his Democratic rival, Bill de Blasio. A poll released on Tuesday suggests that de Blasio will almost certainly win. He leads overall by 33 points among likely voters. Lhota trails in every single major demographic group and in every borough, even the city's most Republican, Staten Island. Among white Catholics, Lhota's up by 5 points, and that's as good as it gets.

Last weekend, the New York Daily News explained how Lhota (left, at right) hoped to close that gap: by suggesting that a de Blasio win would mean a sharp increase in crime and a dramatic downturn in the economy. It was a combination of the two strategies employed by the last two Republican mayors: the Rudy Giuliani anti-crime pitch combined with the Michael Bloomberg pro-Wall Street one. As the paper notes, he made both pitches after he won the Republican nomination last week.

Philip Klein, writer for the conservative Washington Examiner, offered the informal Lhota campaign motto on Twitter.

This is becoming a popular conservative theme: Liberal policies will run cities into the ground. Just look at Detroit! (But not San Francisco.) The Lhota-de Blasio race, with its clear delineation between a classic Republican and a liberal Democrat seems like a proving ground for the thesis. But there is little reason for New York voters to worry about the worst case — or even a bad case — happening.

Lhota's Giuliani strategy: Crime

What Lhota says, per the Daily News:

On crime, he’s been eager to criticize de Blasio, warning at his Tuesday night victory party that “handcuffing and demoralizing our police officers will have catastrophic consequences.” Contrasting himself with the Democrat, who has called for dramatic reforms to policing, Lhota added, “I will support the NYPD and believe that stop-and-frisk must continue.”

What reality says:

Rudy Giuliani, for whom Lhota used to work, became mayor of New York in 1994. While he was mayor, crime dropped significantly. When Bloomberg took over in 2002, that decline continued. Here's the number of major felony offenses and murders committed in the city since the year 200 (via the NYPD).

Mayor Bloomberg is quick to give the credit for that drop to his policy of stop-and-frisk, allowing police to detain and search people with only minimal cause for suspicion. Lhota alludes to that in his comments.

That policy was declared to be unconstitutional earlier this summer, given that it disproportionately affects people of color. Very disproportionately — four out of five people stopped were black or Hispanic. And we've also noted that the city's drop in crime has been largely independent of stop-and-frisk.

And for that matter, of Giuliani and of Bloomberg. On Tuesday afternoon, the FBI released its annual overview of crime data for 2012, allowing us to see a better picture of how crime has evolved over time. Here's New York's state crime count per 1,000 people, since 1970.

By the time Giuliani became mayor, the reduction in crime was almost complete. Moreover, comparing the state to the country at large, you can see that this decline wasn't unique to New York State.

New York started in a higher place, no doubt a function of population density, but came to rest in the same area as the rest of the country.

Which suggests that the crime drop in New York City was not primarily a function of policy decisions emanating from City Hall. And, therefore, that the huge crime rates in the 1970s are quite unlikely to return, even if those policies change. Why crime fell so dramatically across the country over the last 40 years is a matter of contention; there is a compelling case to be made that it is linked to the decreased use of lead in gasoline. (That argument also explains higher crime rates in cities: more densely packed cars emitting lead-bearing pollution.) But the point is this: Unless Bill de Blasio calls for the reintroduction of leaded gas, there's absolutely no reason to think that New York crime rates will return to the level of the 1980s — or even the much-higher rates of crime that were in effect when Giuliani left office.

Lhota's Bloomberg strategy: The economy

What Lhota says, per the Daily News:

Lhota has attempted to seize on the anxieties of upper class New Yorkers, by slamming de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” slogan, which posits that inequality is ruining the fabric of the city.

“This tale is nothing more than class warfare,” the Republican said in Tuesday night’s speech. “It’s this kind of thinking that brought our city to the brink of bankruptcy and rampant civic decay.”

What reality says:

Under Michael Bloomberg, New York City has seen significant job growth since 2002. His personal website trumpets a drop in welfare recipients. This is the legacy Lhota wants to seize upon, not the stagnancy of hyper-liberal New York in the 1970s.

But, de Blasio's rhetoric is a lot closer to the truth. The city comptroller last year released a report articulating the increasing economic gap between rich and poor New Yorkers. The data only covers the first decade of the century, but even that is telling.

The data presented in this brief shows that New York City’s income distribution is significantly more skewed than the nation’s. In 2009, the top 1 percent of national filers realized 16.9 percent of the nation’s adjusted gross income, whereas New York City’s top 1 percent realized 32.3 percent of the city’s total personal income. Conversely, the nation’s bottom 50 percent of filers realized 13.5 percent of the nation’s total personal income, while the bottom 50 percent in New York City realized only 9.9 percent of the city’s.

And 2009 came after the inequality dropped in the wake of the financial crisis. This is the proportion of all income earned in the city by a variety of income groups over the years. In 2007, before the economic collapse, the top 0.1 percent of income earners in New York City took in over a quarter of the income. As we noted last week, the economic recovery across America has almost entirely benefitted the top 1 percent.

What's more, the plight of the very poor in the city has largely grown worse. That study showing declining welfare rolls that's still prominently featured on Bloomberg's site is from 2006. A report in the Wall Street Journal in March shows how food stamp use has grown in New York state since 2006 — climbing from around 10 percent to 16 percent this year. But a report in Wednesday's Times makes clear that the city's efforts at ameliorating conditions for the working poor are still subject to criticism.

With New York City’s homeless population in shelters at a record high of 50,000, a growing number of New Yorkers punch out of work and then sign in to a shelter, city officials and advocates for the homeless say. More than one out of four families in shelters, 28 percent, include at least one employed adult, city figures show, and 16 percent of single adults in shelters hold jobs.

Advocates call for tools to transition people from shelters to permanent residences, but rents have increased dramatically since Bloomberg took office. And the administration isn't interested in tackling the problem.

Linda I. Gibbs, Mr. Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for health and human services, said there were no local resources to keep up with demand for subsidized housing after both federal and state money dried up. … Ms. Gibbs reiterated the Bloomberg administration’s long-held position that more benefits only attract more people to shelters. “That drives more demand,” she said. “It’s a Catch-22.”

Part of what de Blasio has proposed doing is instantiating a higher tax rate for city residents that earn over $500,000 a year. If it were to pass the state legislature (which isn't likely, given its narrow partisan divide), some worry it would make New York less attractive to business. As Bloomberg (the news organization) reported earlier this month, wealthy residents don't like the plan. "It shows lack of sensitivity to the city'a s biggest revenue providers and job creators," says the head of a network of CEOs. When de Blasio suggested a similar increase last year, Bloomberg (the mayor) was direct: "He wants to drive everybody out of the city."

This is a standard argument: increase taxes, drive away the wealthy. It's a common one in California, too, where a Democratic legislature and the voting public regularly consider higher taxes on the wealthy. And a 2012 study from Stanford shows that there's no reason to be concerned about losing those taxpayers. "The reason the number of California millionaires varies from year to year," it says, "has almost nothing to do with taxes, the researchers found. Instead, the numbers change as incomes fluctuate, most likely because investments are sensitive to market cycles." Each year, some people become millionaires and some lose that status. That's why the numbers change. There's little reason to think that New York would be much different.

Bloomberg's New York offers a lot of benefits for the very rich. Those working two jobs but who still can't pay rent, though, may find de Blasio's argument that there are two different experiences for city residents more compelling. There's little evidence that a turn away from Bloomberg's policies and toward something like, say, subsidized housing will bring the city "to the brink of bankruptcy and rampant civic decay." For many city residents, like the 50 percent that in 2009 brought in 0.9 percent of the city's income, a change away from Bloomberg's policies probably sounds awfully appealing.

Photo: A fire in the Bronx during the 1977 blackout. (AP)

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