KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— New York City’s mayors have struggled in their recent efforts to win higher office, but they often become national figures anyway on account of their high-profile position.
— Ranked-choice voting as well as the many twists and turns of the race makes it difficult to predict a winner in next week’s Democratic primary.
— Republicans can win mayoral elections in New York, but the Democratic primary may very well end up being tantamount to election.
NYC’s political landscape on the eve of the mayoral primaries
We hope that those vying to be the next mayor of the nation’s largest city do not have electoral ambitions beyond Gracie Mansion. No elected New York City mayor has moved on to a higher elected office since the Reconstruction era. That includes several recent mayors who turned in some of the weakest presidential campaigns in recent memory.
Michael Bloomberg, the most recent former mayor, spent gobs of money in last year’s Democratic primary only to win a single contest, American Samoa. In 2008, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) held a soft lead in national Republican primary polls that could not withstand his poor performances in the early contests, which he essentially ceded to other candidates. And the office’s outgoing current occupant, Bill de Blasio (D), was knocked out well before the voting started in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, inviting mockery and derision nearly as intense as that which he received last week when, as part of a press conference in which he ranked pizza toppings as a way to explain New York City’s new ranked-choice voting system, he picked green peppers as his top selection (“yet another inexplicable, monstrous decision by the mayor,” tweeted journalist Tim Donnelly).
But the challenge of leading “The Ungovernable City,” as Vincent Cannato dubbed it in the title of his biography of former Mayor John V. Lindsay — another failed presidential candidate, back in 1972 — remains enticing for many. Democratic primary voters will select their nominee to replace de Blasio in next Tuesday’s primary, a contest being treated as tantamount to election even though Republicans will select a nominee as well. The Democratic contest features eight major candidates who have experienced both highs and, even more so, lows during this year’s campaign.
What follows is a look at the campaign so far and the political geography and demographics of New York City.
Andrew Yang, a successful entrepreneur, is inverting the political path of the three most recent New York City mayors: Instead of becoming mayor and then running an unsuccessful bid for president, Yang has already gotten his losing presidential bid out of the way. Yang ran as something of a gadfly in the 2020 Democratic presidential contest, and while he only barely made it to the primary season — he dropped out after New Hampshire — Yang impressed many with his wonky yet endearing persona in debates and on the campaign trail. Yang started the Democratic mayoral primary as the top-polling candidate, almost assuredly because of the name ID he engendered from his presidential run. Yang’s polling lead made him a target, as critics pointed to his lack of governmental experience, and he himself made a string of gaffes throughout the campaign.
Yang generally led polls until roughly mid-April, but he has since been passed by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. Adams has led almost all recent polling, although he does not always finish on top in simulations in polls of the ranked-choice voting allocation. A Black former police officer who joined the force after being beaten by police as a teenager, Adams might at first blush seem like an unusual fit for at least some segments of the Democratic Party — specifically, those for whom “defund the police” is intended as more than just a slogan. As Snapchat’s Peter Hamby put it, “If Eric Adams wins as a former cop running to fix crime — with a coalition of black and white outer borough voters who are Extremely Not Online — the NYC mayoral will be the most Twitter Isn’t Real Life election of all time.” Along those same lines, political scientist Richard Skinner observed that Adams’ “strength with black voters, older voters, and moderate/conservative Dems helps explain why supporters of his are so hard to find on Twitter.” CNN’s Harry Enten called this a “Biden-like primary coalition.” Adams has faced questions most recently about where he actually lives.
Neither Yang nor Adams excite progressives. At one time, city Comptroller Scott Stringer did, but his campaign has been damaged by allegations of making unwanted advances toward women. Stringer won his current job in 2013 and defeated disgraced former Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) in a close Democratic primary. It now appears that the left’s champion in the race is Maya Wiley, a civil rights lawyer who once served as a lawyer for de Blasio. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D, NY-14) endorsed her a couple of weeks ago, along with several other leaders and organizations on the left. Wiley’s rise has come as another progressive, Dianne Morales, has fallen off amidst campaign staff departures and dysfunction.
Meanwhile, former city Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia got a boost when she received endorsements from the New York Times and New York Daily News a month ago. The two other major candidates, former federal Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan and former Citigroup Executive Ray McGuire, appear to be lagging many of the others.
It may be that the results break on racial and class lines, so let’s take a look at the city’s demographics.
How NYC votes — and where the votes come from
If New York City was a state, its population of more than 8.3 million would rank 13th among the states (between Virginia and Washington). However, it would rank lower in terms of actual votes cast. In the 2020 election, the Five Boroughs cast a little over 3 million votes for president; Washington cast a bit over 4 million, and Virginia cast a little shy of 4.5 million. By measure of votes cast, New York City is more similar to a state like Tennessee, the 19th-largest state in terms of votes cast in 2020.
The city’s Five Boroughs are represented in election results as five counties: Queens is Queens County and the Bronx is Bronx County (that’s easy enough). Manhattan is New York County, Brooklyn is Kings County, and Staten Island is Richmond County. Table 1 shows the share of the vote cast by each of the Five Boroughs in a selection of recent local, state, and federal elections. We didn’t include the 2017 Republican mayoral primary because there was no primary as Nicole Malliotakis (R) had no opposition for the nomination (she would lose to de Blasio in a November 2017 landslide, but she bounced back and won the Staten Island-based 11th Congressional District last year).
Table 1: Composition of recent New York City elections by county
Source: Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections; Board of Elections in the City of New York
While the composition of the vote varies from election to election, Brooklyn (Kings) has cast the most votes — typically a little less than a third of the total — while Manhattan (New York) and Queens have cast around a quarter of the vote, with the Bronx and Staten Island (Richmond) casting the fewest votes. In the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden won more than 80% of the vote in Manhattan and the Bronx, around 75% in each of Brooklyn and Queens, and just a little more than 40% in Staten Island, which is much more Republican than the rest of the city (Staten Island has tried to secede from New York City, without success). Biden’s margins in the four, very Democratic boroughs were smaller than Hillary Clinton’s in 2016, mirroring a drop-off for Biden in other big cities across the country. Biden actually did a little better than Clinton on Staten Island.
Still, Staten Island’s Republican leanings become clearer when looking at the 2013 Republican mayoral primary: It cast a little more than 20% of the votes in that race, while not breaking double digits in any other race.
Notice that Brooklyn made up its biggest share of the vote in the 2013 and 2017 Democratic mayoral primaries: 33% in 2013 and 35% in the less competitive 2017 race. Remember that Adams, the polling leader, is the Brooklyn borough president, meaning that he has been on recent borough-wide ballots. One wonders if he could get a boost from Brooklyn, although several other candidates are also from there.
Overall, it has been nearly a century since a Republican carried the very Democratic city for president (the last one to do it was Calvin Coolidge in 1924). In presidential elections over the last few decades, Democrats have seen success in states where they can rely on a sole metro area to dominate: Chicago’s grip on Illinois shows this, and more recently, Biden’s historic win in Georgia was due to his strength in metro Atlanta. New York was one of the earlier illustrations of this model. In 1988, Gov. Mike Dukakis (D-MA) carried New York by a 52%-48% vote overall — his 675,000-vote margin in NYC was enough to erase then-Vice President George H. W. Bush’s 410,000-vote lead in the rest of the state. More recently, Clinton won the rest of the state by just about 67,000 votes out of a shade under 5 million non-NYC votes cast in 2016, while Biden did better outside of NYC than Clinton even as he lagged Clinton within it.
New York City has elected four Republican mayors in the last century, but several come with caveats in regards to their partisanship. The legendary Fiorello La Guardia (R) was a major backer of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. John Lindsay (R) was a liberal Republican who won a second term in 1969 even after losing the Republican primary. By 1972, he was running — quite unsuccessfully — for the Democratic presidential nomination. Rudy Giuliani, now best-known as Donald Trump’s lawyer, was probably the most conventionally Republican of the four from our modern vantage point, but his reputation for social liberalism on certain issues helped undermine his 2008 presidential candidacy. Giuliani’s win over then-Mayor David Dinkins (D) in 1993 foreshadowed then-Gov. Mario Cuomo’s (D-NY) loss to George Pataki, a reformist Republican, the next year. While Giuliani and Pataki were not especially close, the 1996 Almanac of American Politics points out that both victories were driven by the voters’ “deep revulsion” against big government and high taxes. Michael Bloomberg switched from Democratic to Republican in advance of his successful bid to succeed Giuliani; he won a third term as an independent in 2009 and, like Lindsay, later sought the Democratic presidential nomination.
Map 1: Racial composition of New York City
As of 2019, whites are the largest racial group in NYC, making up roughly one-third of the city’s population. Among white voters, differences in income and education levels have translated into starkly different political preferences. Many of the city’s upper-class and college-educated whites can be found in Manhattan, though gentrification has given this bloc more influence in other boroughs. Still, four-year college attainment is a little over 60% in Manhattan, significantly higher than the citywide total of 38% (and 32% for the nation as a whole). In recent elections, these voters have sometimes favored progressive candidates. In her 2020 primary, veteran Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D, NY-12), a party-line Democrat, won with a 43% plurality in a field that included a few more stridently liberal candidates — Maloney took close to 50% in Manhattan, but struggled in the Kings and Queens section of her district, which includes some gentrifying neighborhoods.
Maloney holds a version of what was once referred to as the “Silk Stocking District,” an extremely wealthy area covering Manhattan’s East Side. Maloney first won the seat in 1992 by defeating Republican Rep. Bill Green, who personified New York City’s old liberal Republican tradition. Lindsay also held a version of this seat before winning his first term as mayor in 1965; his Democratic opponent in the 1969 mayoral election, the more conservative Mario Procaccino, coined the derisive term “limousine liberal” to describe Lindsay’s politics.
This isn’t to say all white voters in New York City are Manhattan liberals — like blue collar voters elsewhere in the country, the city’s working-class whites have increasingly favored Republicans in general elections, though those in New York seem to have some parochial loyalties. Staten Island is emblematic of the working-class white bloc in NYC. This borough is home to a sizeable white ethnic population, as Italian Americans make up about 35% of its population, while Irish Americans make up close to 15%. As noted above, Staten Island is the only Republican-leaning borough: even as Malliotakis took less than 28% citywide in 2017 against de Blasio, she cleared 70% on Staten Island (though it was also her home borough).
One interesting historical note on Staten Island has been its loyalty to the Cuomo family, perhaps due to its Italian population. Before the late Mario Cuomo became governor, he ran for mayor in 1977, losing twice to then-Rep. Ed Koch, a fellow Democrat with a base in Manhattan (he too held the Silk Stocking District — Bill Green reclaimed it for Republicans after Koch became mayor, defeating another notable NYC politico, Democrat Bella Abzug). Cuomo lost a Democratic primary runoff to Koch 55%-45%, but took two-thirds of the Staten Island vote. Undeterred, Cuomo ran in the general election on the Liberal Party line; Koch won 50%-41%, though he lost Staten Island badly. Cuomo got his revenge against Koch in the 1982 Democratic gubernatorial primary. After running statewide four times as the Democratic nominee — once for attorney general and three times for governor — Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY), the son of the late governor, has never lost the “forgotten borough,” though he did come close in 2018. The political future of Andrew Cuomo, under fire for demonstrating poor behavior toward women, remains an open question in Empire State politics.
New York City has the largest Jewish population of any city in the world — like white voters overall, the Jewish vote is not homogenous, and it often breaks down along denominational lines. Though they often vote similarly, many New York Jews, who are weary of rising anti-Semitism, have been more supportive of law enforcement than their white liberal counterparts. Orthodox Jews dominate in parts of Brooklyn — most notably the Borough Park neighborhood — and are open to supporting candidates of either party, though Republicans made major gains with them in 2020. Many Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn are in Rep. Jerrold Nadler’s (D, NY-10) district. Though Nadler’s strong showing in the Manhattan part of his district meant that he won easily overall, he lost the Brooklyn part of NY-10 by four percentage points in 2020.
After whites, Hispanics are the next most populous ethnic bloc in NYC, accounting for about 30% of the city’s population. Hispanic voters dominate the Bronx — Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans are some of the larger groups — as well as parts of Upper Manhattan and Queens. As with Orthodox Jews, Donald Trump made serious inroads in Hispanic-majority pockets of NYC. New York’s 15th District makes up the heart of the Bronx and is two-thirds Hispanic — though it is still an overwhelmingly blue seat, after being the most Democratic district in the nation in 2012 and 2016, it was replaced by the Black-majority PA-3 in 2020.
In the context of NYC, Black residents do not make up the majority of any one borough but are instead somewhat evenly spread throughout and claim a quarter of the overall population. Two of the city’s most heavily Black regions bookend its geographic extremes: in the north, they are influential in the Bronx, while in the south, they make up majorities of neighborhoods in the southeast, bordering Jamaica Bay. As with Hispanics, there is great diversity within the NYC Black community — many are immigrants from parts of the Caribbean or West Africa. Housing is a chief issue within the Black community — Brooklyn has among the least affordable housing in the nation — while they must also balance a need for law and order with policing that has, often times, been racially charged.
A fourth major racial group in NYC are Asian-Americans, a fast-growing bloc that makes up 15% of the city’s population. In Queens, Asians make up 27% of the population, putting their numbers only slightly behind Hispanics, but ahead both whites and Blacks. As with the city’s other racial groups, the Asian population is hardly monolithic: Queens is home to a vibrant Chinse community, while Arabic and Indic languages are commonly spoken in other pockets of the city. At the congressional level, Democratic Rep. Grace Meng’s NY-6 is located entirely within Queens and has the largest Asian share, 40%, of any district on the Eastern Seaboard. In the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary, though then-city Comptroller John Liu polled in the single-digits overall, he carried a few heavily-Asian district in Queens (around the Murray Hill and Fresh Meadows neighborhoods, his home turf) and in Kings — perhaps Yang will also run well in those areas.
According to a 2013 exit poll of the Democratic primary by Edison Research, de Blasio performed about equally well among white, Black, and Hispanic voters, as well as with voters who did and did not have a four-year college degree. His chief rival, former city comptroller and 2009 Democratic mayoral nominee Bill Thompson (who is Black), matched de Blasio among Black voters but didn’t do as well with whites and Hispanics, and he ran better with voters who didn’t have a four-year degree. A recent WNBC/Telemundo 47/Politico/Marist poll showed Adams at about a quarter of the first-round vote and Garcia, Wiley, and Yang each drawing around 15%. Adams performed better with voters of color in the poll than with whites, and his support skewed older and more working-class. He also led in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. Garcia, meanwhile, led in Manhattan and with whites, and she also did better with voters who have a four-year college degree. With several prominent candidates, support among these different groups in the first round of votes was of course splintered. But we hope you can use the information above as a guide when surveying the first-round results to help determine the kinds of voters backing the various top candidates.
While New York City has been open to electing Republicans under the right circumstances in past years despite its presidential partisanship, that doesn’t seem likely this time — after all, Bloomberg, for his final mayoral run, ended up eschewing his affiliation with the GOP to run as an independent, and de Blasio won his two terms in general election landslides. Still, there are two Republicans vying for their party’s nomination: Curtis Sliwa, who founded the crime prevention group Guardian Angels, and businessman Fernando Mateo. Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal ran an informative feature on the two men, both of whom have achieved some notoriety in the city over the years. The GOP nominee will assuredly run against the Democratic nominee on a tough-on-crime message, the effectiveness of which may hinge on who emerges from the Democratic primary along with several other factors. The Republican nominee will start as a significant underdog in the general election, and we’ll have to see if that race heats up later this summer and fall.
Meanwhile, the Democratic race is difficult to handicap, both because of the presence of eight major candidates but also because of the aforementioned ranked-choice voting system being used in the race. On Election Night next Tuesday, we should have a decent sense of the first-round results, but for various reasons it likely will take a few weeks to find out who actually won the primary. New York also has a reputation for rickety election administration, so there could be additional hiccups, even taking the long vote-counting calendar into account.
It may be that the eventual winner will struggle when and if he or she seeks another office, based on history. Regardless, the mayor of New York City often becomes a prominent national figure, so non-New Yorkers who pay attention to politics will end up getting to know the next mayor.
— Crystal Ball intern Parakram Karnik helped research this article.