Seven Takeaways from New York State’s June 23rd Democratic Primaries

By Bruce N. Gyory | July 30, 2020

New York State’s June 23rd Democratic primaries, leave in their results 7 significant takeaways. The results which appear stale, given the abysmally long wait for the final tabulation of absentee and provisional paper ballots, are actually too fresh to draw final conclusions on their long term impact. Nevertheless, we can parse the trends and questions underlying those takeaways for valuable leading indicators of future primary outcomes.

  1. Progressives are ascending, but not ascendant in New York State’s Democratic primaries.

The reflexes of pundits usually overreact to any one year’s election results. Punditry tends to try to paint voting returns in bold primary colors, when paler pastel shades often prove more revealing portraits of future electoral behavior. To deny that progressive candidates are ascending in New York’s Democratic primaries would defy the results, but to declare that the progressives have become ascendant in Democratic primaries, is simply not accurate. The pockets which   progressive candidates carry are growing: from Peekskill to Plattsburgh upstate and in NYC districts where minority candidates carry the progressive banner in communities increasingly dominated by gentrification.  But progressive candidates have not prospered on Long Island, in the bedrock Black and outer borough Jewish and White Catholic neighborhoods of NYC or upstate west of Albany. In the northern suburbs of Westchester and Rockland progressives need just the right mix of multi- candidate fields and/or facing off against older incumbents, to win.

In New York’s 2020 congressional and legislative primaries, the pure progressive candidates made clear strides. An article on June 30th in the Times by Jeff Mays and Luis Ferre-Sadurni accurately projected the essence of these progressive victories, even before the absentee votes were counted.  The progressives won two congressional races by large margins: Jamaal Bowman taking out long term incumbent Eliot Engel in a Bronx/Westchester district by 16 percent and Mondaire Jones taking the open Lowey seat in Westchester/Rockland with 42 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate field where the closest competitor was snaring only 16 percent of the vote. In a third race, long term incumbent Carolyn Maloney carried her Manhattan/Queens/Brooklyn district by only 3,700 votes in a dogged multi-candidate rematch of her two way 2018 race against Suraj Patel.  In the Bronx race for the open Serrano seat, candidates marching in rhythm to the progressive pulse finished first (Ritchie Torres), second (Michael Blake) and fourth (Samelys Lopez), while Ruben Diaz sr., who proclaimed himself the anti-AOC candidate finished a weak third. In this race Lopez was the pure progressive and greatly exceeded expectations.  But progressive challengers lost in landslides to incumbent congressmen: Suozzi, Meeks, Nadler, Espaillat and Morelle (i.e., from LI through to WNY).

In the Assembly primaries, 6 incumbents were defeated by progressive challengers: 3 in Brooklyn (Gallagher over Lentol, Mitanyes beat Ortiz, and Forrest won over Mosley) and 3 in Queens (Gonzalez-Rojas over Den Dekker, Rajkumar beat Miller and Mamdani beat Simotas by just under 400 votes). These were significant gains, but most incumbent Democrats won comfortably (e.g., Nolan, Weprin and Aubry in Queens and McDonald as well as Bronson upstate). There were fewer State Senate primaries, but in Brooklyn the progressive stalwart Jabari Brisport beat Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright, the Chair of the Black, Hispanic and Asian Caucus here in the state Legislature, for the open seat long held by Velmanette Montgomery. Moreover, the primary challengers against incumbent progressive leaders failed abysmally: AOC and Senator Mike Gianaris won by 3-1 margins and Yuh-Line Niou by just under 2-1 against a well -funded opponent.

It is worth noting that in this year’s primary for Queens Borough President, Councilman Donovan Richards comfortably won a boroughwide primary by sweeping the heavily black Assembly districts of Southeast Queens against a field that included Costa Constantinides, from Western Queens playing to his progressive record, Anthony Miranda, a Hispanic former NYPD Sergeant, Dao Yin an Asian businessman and civic leader as well as former Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley. So even in a split field, the progressive candidate could not win in a borough wide race even as the progressives carried 3 out of Queens’ 18 Assembly districts.

What are we to make of these results. In effect, the gentrifying neighborhoods of Western Queens and Brooklyn’s Brownstone Belt, seem to be replicating what happened in Manhattan, the North Bronx and narrow pockets of Brooklyn from the 1960’s and early 1970’s, when that generation’s reformers defeated long time incumbents in district’s undergoing sharp demographic changes. Today’s progressives can point to these results in legislative districts with great pride, but they have not yet shown the ability to win statewide primaries. Zephyr Teachout (in the 2014 gubernatorial primary and the 2018 primary for Attorney General) and Cynthia Nixon for governor in 2018 were not able to crack a third of the statewide primary vote. However, the rough third of the vote these progressive candidacies amassed was appreciably larger than the 17 percent of the vote Jonathan Tasini received against Hillary Clinton in his 2006 primary challenge to Hillary Clinton for her re-election to the United States Senate. The bottom line is that on the numbers the progressive share of the Democrats’ primary electorate is clearly ascending, but in countywide, citywide and statewide primaries, progressive candidates remain far short of being ascendant.

  1. Did ideology drive the progressive successes or was the underlying current powering these victories demographic changes?

Everyone seems primed to view these progressive upsets solely through the prism of ideology. There is a clear ideological thrust motivating these victorious progressive candidates and their campaigns, where incumbents have been defeated. Meanwhile, New York’s political history provides a cautionary admonition to only seeing these victories through the lens of ideology. Just as with the Socialists elected to the New York State Legislature in the 1920’s, the early reformers in the 1960’s and the anti-war activists of the 1970’s, it may turn out that the motivation of voters, as opposed to the candidates themselves, were actually fired by demographic changes as much if not more than ideology. Trends where the emerging aspirations along race, ethnicity, gender and generational change are the actual tide sweeping out incumbents and winning open seats. In the 3 progressive wins in Queens Assembly races, two of the challengers’ ancestry was South Asian and the other was a Latina. It is a New York state of mind and progress to see the empowerment of newly elected officials with immigrant roots.

Progressives are ascending fastest where the demographics in a given district have changed sharply and where vibrant minority challenge candidates step to the fore. It is also worth noting in measuring the developments within New York’s diverse Hispanic communities, that after decades of being represented by Hispanic men, Hispanic voters in recent years are voting in more and more LatinaX candidates. Just look at what recent cycles have produced from voters, including races where the voters reject male Hispanic incumbents (e.g., Councilwoman Carlina Rivera, Senators Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar, Assembly members Catalina Cruz, Carmen De La Rosa, Nathalia Fernandez, Karines Reyes and now Marcela Mitanyes and Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas).

Whether the Democratic Socialists prosper long term, or the candidates allied with them fold into the larger   Democratic coalition over time, as those allied with earlier Socialist leaders like Sidney Hillman, David Dubinsky and Alex Rose or finally whether they fade from view like Congressmen Vito Marcantonio and Leo Isacson who did not adapt to the post war concerns of the voters who originally brought them to Congress, will depend upon events.    Consequently, by the end of the decade, we may come to see these 2020 primary election returns, as another well paved ramp to a wide boulevard in Gotham’s political history, namely where more than ideology, the driving factor becomes the aspirations of voters from emerging minority groups, demanding leaders from their communities, with a seat at the table in the rooms where decisions are made.

  1. The progressive campaigns flipped the script of the Katz-Caban race for DA in Queens.

In the 2019 primary for Queens DA, the progressive Tiffany Caban was ahead when the machine ballots were counted election night. But when the absentee ballots were counted, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz won by a whisker. That led to a presumption this year that with the explosion of absentee ballots cast, due to the Covid 19 pandemic and the state loosening up on the requirements for voting by absentee ballot, that the incumbents would have the edge on harvesting those absentee ballots. But when the absentee ballots were counted, the progressive candidates more than held their own and they overcame machine ballot losses to win in the end (e.g., Gallagher, Mitanyes, and Forrest) and did well enough to hold a declining margin once the absentees were counted (e.g., Mamdani over Simotas and Bowman over Engel).

The progressive candidates flipped the script and   proved they could be creative and efficient in securing support from those casting absentee ballots as those absentees exploded from their usual 4-7 percent of the total vote to often casting a majority of the vote in these contests. In so doing, the progressives removed what was presumed to be a major tactical advantage for the incumbent candidates.

  1. Editorial endorsements still carry a big stick in New York’s Democratic primaries and the New York Times endorsement is particularly potent among highly educated voters in the suburbs and the gentrified communities of New York City.

This year’s primary results give the lie to those who like to assert that the major newspaper editorial board endorsements don’t count that much anymore. It is true that newspaper readership and hence the penetration of editorial endorsements is less than in the era of the 1950’s-1980’s. Nevertheless, to devalue the political potency of these endorsements is unwise. The Daily News and the Times both endorsing Ritchie Torres, turbo charged Torres ’messaging that he was the only alternative to Ruben Daiz Sr. in the race to win Jose Serrano’s seat in Congress. The Times endorsements were absolutely key in Bowman and Jones streaking to large leads in their congressional races. Meanwhile, the Times endorsement had little impact for Adam Bunkeddeko’s rematch against Yvette Clarke in Brooklyn. Bunkeddeko almost beat Clarke two years ago, but got blown out this year.

What is the lesson to be learned from these endorsements? The Times endorsement is a powerful factor in a race where the voters don’t really know the candidates and where a key portion of the primary electorate are highly educated suburban or NYC voters in gentrified communities. The Times endorsement of Jumaane Williams for LG, took that race from a likely blowout for Kathy Hochul to a more than respectable 7 percent loss for Williams. That in turn led to the Times endorsement powering Williams to a landslide win for Public Advocate in the next winter’s special election to fill the vacancy created by Tish James’ election as AG. Thus, when the Times gives the imprimatur of its endorsement to a minority candidate it credentials that candidate in the eyes of highly educated white progressive and traditional liberal primary voters. On the other hand, when the Times does not endorse a well regarded and deeply rooted minority candidate, especially a woman of color, that endorsement is of far less value because it has little impact upon minority voters (e.g., the Times endorsing Teachout instead of James for AG in 2018).

In the end, however, in NYS Democratic primaries the endorsement of the Times, the Daily News and Newsday downstate and the Albany Times Union in the Capitol District (where their endorsements this year helped to anchor the victories of incumbents David Soares for DA and John McDonald for the Assembly in the 108th district) still pack a strong and effective punch.

  1. There already appears to be a battle brewing between the DSA and the WFP for who deserves more credit for orchestrating these progressive victories.

The Working Families Party (WFP) and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and perhaps the Justice Democrats, may already be squabbling over who deserves more credit for the progressive victories in this year’s legislative contests. The progressive blogs and twitter accounts are already in turmoil over who should get the credit. The DSA and certainly the Justice Democrats, when it comes to bundling huge funding pools for their priority campaigns (the Bowman campaign), seem to have the better argument this year for potency of efforts and for picking the right seats to target, but that is not the point. The left in American politics has long struggled with behind the scenes internecine battles, which over time have diminished the endurance and strength of their movement.

Old men like me will remember those battles diminishing the early success of the reformers “Beat the Bosses” campaigns form the early 1960’s and the anti-war politics of the Vietnam era. Serious historians would remind us that these internecine battles have weakened the American left politically going back to the Abolitionist era. In his renowned biography of Frederick Douglass, David Blight astutely observed in describing a dust up on a speaking tour among abolitionists in 1843that,” The seemingly ludicrous dustup was typical of others to follow…. these earnest radicals, like those in virtually all such movements before and since, turned on each other playing out jealousies, fatigue, ego wars, personality conflicts and ideological differences.”

The lesson to be learned going forward is will the DSA, the WFP and the Justice Democrats work together in search of converts to building a majority coalition, or waste their energy upon self-defeating searches for what they view as political heresy, splintering the third of the vote they currently have in statewide primaries here in NYS?

  1. To accurately cover future campaigns, the media needs to distinguish advocacy polling from objective polling and to report the differences in those polls accordingly.

This year Data for Progress, a progressive group led by their Executive Director, Sean McElwee, burst upon the scene as a source of polling data heavily covered by the media. McElwee is a talented, creative and aggressive progressive leader, with a real flair for effective public relations. McElwee gets stuff done as we say here in New York. But the media incorrectly covered the Data for Progress polling, as if it was scientifically sound independent polling, when in actuality it was advocacy polling.

Data for Progress’ polling was advancing a new polling method called text to web sampling panels, often using small sample sizes. The accuracy of their polling was decidedly mixed when the results came in. Data for Progress accurately captured the move towards the Bowman and Jones candidacies for Congress. But their polling in Kentucky missed the mark as they projected Booker beating McGrath by 6 percent when McGrath won by 2.8 percent. Their polling is not garbage, but there is an uncanny correlation between who they have already endorsed or about to endorse and who they project as a winner. That is why I call it advocacy polling. Nor is there anything wrong with trying to find new and more accurate sampling techniques, given the accuracy challenge facing random digit dialing polling.  But when Data for Progress projects their empirically untested methodology as accurate and it seems to only show strength for the candidates they support, it is more than suspect.

But the most egregious use of their polling was in the 15th CD, the open Serrano seat. They released a poll showing Ruben Diaz Sr., at 22 percent, Ritchie Torres at 20 percent, Michael Blake and Ydanis Rodriguez at 6 percent and Samelys Lopez at 2 percent. The media reported this extensively as it was the only public poll and as an independent poll, treating it as if Moses brought it down on a tablet from Mount Sinai. The Times editorial cited this poll as “an independent poll” and crafted their rationale for endorsing Torres around this poll. A short time after the poll was released, McElwee and his organization endorsed Torres. The only problem was when the machine vote was counted (we are still waiting for the final absentee count) it stood Torres at 31 percent, Blake at 19 percent, Diaz Sr., at 15 percent, Lopez at 13 percent and Rodriguez at 11 percent. Thus, the Data for Progress poll had underestimated the strength of Samelys Lopez by a factor of 6, Blake by a factor of 3 and Rodriguez by a factor of just under 2 times. McElwee did his job well, as he used a poll purported to be independent, to create the momentum for a self -fulfilling prophecy mischaracterizing a race as a two-person race where only Torres could beat Diaz Sr.  This was advocacy polling and it was a brilliantly executed play by McElwee.

Going forward the media should treat Data for Progress polling with respect, but as advocacy polling, not as independent polling and certainly not to have its results become the leitmotif framing the races they are covering.

  1. New York needs to get its act together in counting absentee ballots.

Sadly, the threat of infection from Covid 19 will lead many voters this Fall to want, in fact, insist on voting by absentee ballots. As I complete writing this, the final results are just being certified by the Board of Elections here in NYC. It should not be acceptable for the Board of Elections to take over a month to count all the absentee ballots for a primary especially if that portends it taking six weeks to count all absentee ballots for the general election this November. I am not going to just dump on the Board of Elections. They felt trapped by the statutory strictures attending receiving and when to begin counting absentee ballots. So instead of bashing the Board of Elections, my plea is let’s collectively, government and all the political parties, have folks get together and figure out what needs to change so that we have the right rules, the proper number of people and the resources to count all the votes be they absentee or in person. Let’s take advantage of the logistical skills of unemployed veterans and the technological skills of unemployed college grads  or at home college students doing distance learning, to enable the Boards of Elections statewide to count absentee ballots as they come in, to make it easy to get absentee ballots returned early and to have all the polling places open and not to shrink those numbers in poorer communities where in person voting is moist likely to be used. This is not rocket science, but it is akin to planning for D-Day. Let’s start in August to get things done ASAP and properly planned for November 3rd and for a timely count of all the votes.

In summation, I believe that these 7 takeaways will loom as ever larger factors as we head into the local elections of 2021 and the statewide races in 2022 and beyond. The facets and factors underlying these takeaways will not emerge with the clarity of a Rembrandt painting. The best we can hope for is the illuminating texture of impressionist art, perhaps a Van Gogh. Let’s hope we can avoid the absurdity of a Dali like surreal portrait attending the trend line of New York’s next decade politically.

Beware of those pundits who will argue for or against the progressive pulse, as if actual trends will move overwhelmingly in only one direction. Our state’s political history teaches that we are too diverse along regional, racial, religious, ethnic, gender and now generational divides to move in unison, as those rivalries have always engendered contrapuntal pressures within the body politic. While the past is not always prologue, I believe it is more likely than not for these takeaways to create new, unforeseen and contradictory political forces shaping the future fault lines and hence the energy of our state’s politics.

Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps and Phillips, LLP and is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Albany.