The chances for front-runner Bill de Blasio to win Tuesday's New York City Democratic mayoral primary outright, or for Bill Thompson to survive for a runoff election, ride in large part on their battle for African-American votes, experts said.
De Blasio leads Thompson, the campaign's only black candidate, 39 percent to 25 percent among African-Americans likely to vote Tuesday, according to an NBC 4 New York/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll released Sunday night.
"Everyone thought that demographic was Thompson's ace in the hole, his great strength," said Democratic political consultant Bob Shrum. "The fact that he's splitting it with de Blasio hurts him. Actually, conceivably, it could save [Christine] Quinn" -- allowing the City Council speaker to squeak past Thompson into second place.
The new poll showed de Blasio, the city's public advocate, leading the field with 36 percent among likely Democratic voters overall, compared with 20 percent apiece for Thompson, a former comptroller, and Quinn.
The first-place candidate needs at least 40 percent of the vote to avoid an Oct. 1 runoff with the second-place finisher.
Quinn could muscle Thompson out of the runoff if he doesn't turn out enough support in the African-American community, but she has her own challenges in an election that has shown the city's traditional identity politics playing a diminished role.
While Thompson is in a struggle for black voters, Quinn -- who would be the city's first female and first openly gay mayor -- is behind among women, the new poll showed. She has 21 percent support from women compared with de Blasio's 34 percent, according to the poll, which was taken Tuesday through Friday. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.
"Identity politics is not always what prevails," Shrum said.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, the city's best-known activist for African-American causes, has known Thompson for decades and endorsed him in the 2009 mayoral race against Michael Bloomberg. But Sharpton has yet to -- and may not -- back a candidate in the primary. He has said he is wavering between de Blasio and Thompson.
De Blasio, more than Thompson, has been able to present his platform cogently and convey a passionate determination to usher in a post-Bloomberg era of liberal policies, experts said.
"The difference between a Billy Thompson and a de Blasio in their courtship of the African-American vote I think really comes down to two things: one, the message and two, the fire," said Democratic strategist Basil Smikle.
De Blasio has won over black voters -- including those who helped propel former Rep. Anthony Weiner to the top of the polls but then abandoned him amid his renewed sexting scandal -- by being visible and relatable, experts and voters said. He has rallied to protest the closure of Brooklyn hospitals, promoted his plan to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund school programs and billed himself as the most vehement critic of stop and frisk.
"De Blasio is just like a guy who lives next door," said campaign volunteer Sheila Baker, of Harlem, a former Weiner supporter. Of Thompson, a lower-key candidate, she said, "He doesn't come across as a regular guy to me."
Many black voters said it matters little to them that Thompson is African-American.
"Even if he's the only black candidate, if he's not qualified, he shouldn't be mayor," said the Rev. James Clemons, 53, of Brownsville, who is deciding between de Blasio and Quinn.
Michael Watkins, 56, of Crown Heights, heard Weiner speak in July at his East New York church. He counted out Thompson as a "rubber-stamper," was leaning toward Weiner and is now undecided. "For me, I don't vote based on color. I vote based on substance."
De Blasio and Thompson through recent television ads have conveyed how stop and frisk affects them personally, in Thompson's case as a black man and in de Blasio's as patriarch of a biracial family.
Thompson appeared in an ad saying he knows the need for stop-and-frisk reform, having "lived" as a man of color.
De Blasio's son, Dante, 16, is a minor celebrity after starring in one ad and appearing in another as someone de Blasio said he feared was a potential stop-and-frisk target.
The Dante ad has resonated with many voters who said de Blasio's family represents multicultural New York City. However, it steered at least one voter, Derrek Pittman, 45, of Harlem, a jewelry vendor, away from de Blasio and toward Thompson, who he said is more genuine.
"I think he used his son to get voters," Pittman said of de Blasio. "I don't think you should use tactics to get minority voters."
Christina Greer, Fordham University assistant professor of political science, said Thompson's moderate stances hurt him with some black voters.
"He's closer to Quinn than de Blasio is on Wall Street issues, and we know that communities of color are usually left out of those conversations," Greer said.
Thompson, endorsed by Rep. Charles Rangel and former Mayor David Dinkins, forced a laugh when asked if he was struggling for black voters. "Rather than talk to me about that, go talk to people in the community," he said. "I think that I have support in a number of different communities, the African-American community, the Latino community, . . . white communities across the city of New York."
De Blasio, who counts state Sen. Bill Perkins and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons among his endorsers, similarly said he is working to earn votes from across the board, not just from African-Americans.
"I think people are looking for change in this city, I think they want a new progressive approach, I think that's across all demographics," he said.