New York Mayoral Primary Could Help Define Democrats Heading Into 2022

June 20, 2021 by Dan McCue

Will it be one of the moderates or the progressives, and just what will New Yorkers make of their first-ever encounter with ranked-choice voting in a mayoral contest?

Those are some of the questions that could be answered Tuesday as voters in the nation’s largest city cast their votes for mayor, not to mention, public advocate, comptroller, borough president in all five boroughs of the city, and all 51 city council seats.

In the race for mayor, six candidates lead a Democratic primary field of 12 in terms of endorsements and media attention to succeed the term-limited current Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The frontrunners are Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams; former New York City sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia; former mayoral counsel Maya Wiley; New York Comptroller Scott Stringer; former Wall Street executive Raymond McGuire, and entrepreneur and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang.

In terms of issues, the contest has been overshadowed by de Blasio’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and the rise of quality of life issues like rising crime, homelessness and open drug use as the public health emergency has slowly subsided.

But the biggest issue heading into this weekend was whether New Yorkers “get” the ranked-choice voting system they approved in a 2019 ballot measure, 74% to 26%.

And uncertainty around that has made reading the tea leaves ahead of the vote nearly impossible for pollsters and those who follow their work.

“It’s not a polling problem, it’s a people problem,” said George Fontas, founder and CEO of Fontas Advisors.

Since February, Fontas Advisors and Core Decision Analytics, have been conducting an independent evaluation of voter attitudes on the key issues and candidates in the race.

Their findings can be found on their Pulse of the Primary website.

Fontas went on to explain that when it comes to ranked choice voting, many New Yorkers don’t feel like they really understand what it means to rank their preferences, and even those that do wonder whether there’s some kind of strategy they can employ to ensure their preferred outcome.

“And that’s really why my firm got interested in this,” Fontas said. “There was enough uncertainty about the human behavior in this particular election that nearly every poll can be called into question.”

“And we sought to understand potential voter behavior,” he continued. “For instance, how many people will rank five candidates, listing their choices one through five? How many will only rank their top two preferences?

“And then what do you do about the 25% of people who going into this last weekend still say they don’t know who they will vote for as their top choice?” Fontas said.

All this said, a few trends have emerged. While Eric Adams leads as people’s first choice heading into Tuesday, he also is the most mentioned second choice among those who rank another candidate first.

The other trend very apparent in the data presented on the Pulse of the Primary site is the power of endorsements.

Kathryn Garcia, the other leading moderate in the race, has benefited greatly from endorsements from The New York Times and The New York Daily News. Maya Wiley, meanwhile, has been buoyed by endorsements from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and a host of local progressive political figures.

Inevitably, the race is being cast as moderates vs. progressives. Beyond the headlines a figure like AOC can generate, a number of political observers believe the head to head match-up of political philosophies actually favors the moderates.

“There’s no question progressives are in ascendance in New York City,” Fontas said. “But ‘ascendance’ is a lot different from being in the majority.

“And New York, remember, has always been a socially liberal but fiscally moderate city,” he said. “While it can seem like a very liberal place to outsiders, it’s actually got a long and strong tradition of being pro-business.

“And those two philosophies really do work well together in New York City. It’s our financial strength that allows us to be the progressive city we claim to be,” he said.

In fact, in other major contests in the city — particularly the Manhattan district attorney’s race — the candidates running furthest to the left appear be struggling compared to candidates like Ocasio-Cortez in past years.

In an interview with The New York Times, Kathryn Garcia said while there was a moment when it appeared the city’s political class wanted to move “very, very far to the left,” that appearance was far from the reality she was experiencing.

“I just never believed that it was true,” she said.

In fact what establishment Democrats in the Empire state are hoping, according to a number of surveys and interviews, is that the mayoral race in New York sets up as a bulwark against the ascendance of the progressive faction of the party.

Throughout the city and its five boroughs, long time election observers say, a concerted effort to turn out the moderate vote should be very much evident on primary day. And there’s no doubt they can find the voters they’re looking for.

This is a city, remember, that elected Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican, mayor twice, and the moderate Michael Bloomberg three times before electing the much more progressive de Blasio.

And de Blasio is very much a factor in this race.

There’s a belief that while turnout overall will be low, the number of those who do vote will be bolstered by a general dissatisfaction with the outgoing mayor.

The city has been experiencing a spike in gun violence in recent months, a jump in assualts and robberies on its subways, and a marked increase in bias attacks, particularly on Asians and Jews. Many fault the mayor for having let these things happen.

The question moderates are posing to voters is whether they want more of this after de Blasio’s eight years of progressive stewardship of the city.

A recent NY1-Ipsos poll found that 46% of likely Democratic voters viewed crime and public safety as the top priority of the next mayor, and 72% said they strongly or somewhat strongly agreed more police officers should be put on the street.

A quarter of likely voters identified themselves as more progressive than the Democratic party as a whole, while a nearly equal share — 22% – said they were more centrist or conservative.

Significantly, just over half called themselves “generally in line with the Democratic Party,” and the primary election will presumably define exactly what they mean by that.

Another question sure to arise after the election on Tuesday is what happened to Andrew Yang, who appeared to be in the lead earlier this year, but saw his electoral fortune fizzle as he stumbled in answering fundamental questions from reporters about the city and the job he is seeking.

“I think the reality is he never really was the leader in the race,” Fontas said. “He had name recognition coming off the presidential campaign, but that was all before the race in New York City had really begun.

“Once New Yorkers really began to pay attention to the race, he was finished,” he continued. “Andrew Yang seems like a great guy, and he loves the city, but the thing that doomed his candidacy, in this moment, is that he lacks the experience New Yorkers are looking for.”

“And this was evident way back when we did our February poll,” Fontas said. “More than 70% of those who participated in the poll said the most important thing they were seeking in a candidate was public sector experience.

“Meanwhile, only 43% said it was very important that a candidate have private sector experience, and my conclusion, right there, was that voters are not looking for a Barack Obama ‘hope’ candidate this time around; they’re looking for a pragmatic, roll-up-your sleeves, Joe Biden candidate.”

“Even Wiley ticks off many of those boxes,” Fontas said. “She has government experience and she’s got a roll-up-my-sleeves-and-get to work kind of personality. What makes her different from the moderates is that she’s further to the left of Adams and Garcia on a number of the issues, and she’s less pragmatic and more theoretical when it comes to problem-solving.”

Election officials are not expected to complete official tabulations from the June 22 primaries until early to mid-July. Why? Well, tabulating results from ranked choice voting is quite the process.

Although unofficial results of the first-choice votes are expected to be released after the polls close on June 22, the NYC Board of Elections has said that it will not be able to start calculating full, ranked-choice results until at least the following week. So, it could be days or weeks until the official winner is declared.

New York City isn’t the only metropolis holding a primary for mayor and other elected offices in the Empire State on Tuesday. In Albany, N.Y., the state’s capitol, voters will vote for candidates for mayor and all 16 seats on the city council. In Buffalo, voters will select candidates for mayor and three city court judgeships.

Want to test your knowledge of New York City politics? Fontas Advisors has set up a game of sorts, allowing you the reader to predict how the race will all shake out. The Elections Maven website can be found here.

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