PARSING THE QUESTION MARKS IN TWO OF NEW YORK’S CONGRESSIONAL PRIMARIES
On March 25th, I wrote an op-ed for Empire Report on the hard math of the multi-candidate congressional primaries here in New York State. As we head down the stretch run toward these June 23rd primaries, I thought it would be worth taking a second look at the two Bronx based primaries: the Bowman challenge to Engel and the race to fill the open Serrano seat. In each of these primary races the question marks abound and there is not an exclamation point in sight upon which to punctuate a confident prediction on the outcome of either race.
In March, I wrote that in the 16th CD, the multi-candidate field favored the incumbent Eliot Engel. Back then Engel faced two serious African American candidates. I wrote that the clearest path to defeat Engel would be if the race functionally became a two-person race between his main challenger Jamaal Bowman and Congressman Engel. I also observed that it would help Bowman if the editorial boards flocked to endorse his candidacy and if the turnout were low. As most things in politics it was not a perfect picture that subsequently painted the canvass for Bowman, but he did get enough factors to break his way to make this a real contest. Before exploring those factors, let’s point to an aside on turnout.
Empirically, progressives like Bowman do best in low turnout primaries, when an energized progressive base is at its highest share of the overall total primary vote. The progressives often postulate as Bernie Sanders often did that their movement expands the turnout pool. But in reality, pure progressives have had trouble swimming at the deeper end of the turnout pool. In large turnout primaries the outcome is driven by the voters within an iron triangle: minority voters at the base, highly educated women voters from the metropolitan clusters on one side and white ethnics (in NYS that means Jewish and white Catholic voters) along the other side. Moreover, this iron triangle tends to be laced with Geritol and the voters inside are not overly proficient with Snapchat. The voters within this iron triangle formed a majority of primary voters who defeated Sanders in 2016 and 2020 nationally and the candidacies of Zephyr Teachout and Cynthia Nixon here in New York.
Where does all this leave the Engel- Bowman contest?
- It is now functionally a two-person race between Bowman and Engel (though tax attorney Chris Fink remains a thoughtful participant in the campaign debate). Instead of Engel facing two active and well -funded African -American candidates, Bowman now faces a one on one contest with Engel. This changed factor redounds sharply to Bowman’s benefit.
- The editorial boards split: the Times gave a full throated endorsement to Bowman, while the Daily News made a strong case for Engel. Instead of me trying to determine which editorial board will prove more influential with and/or has a better feel for the pulse of this district’s primary voters, I will note that this editorial split creates a question mark when it comes to the impact of editorial endorsements on the outcome.
- Given the failure of progressive candidates to rise in other primaries in New York’s congressional primaries, the progressive movement has gone all in on the Bowman candidacy (the Justice Democrats, a vital cog in the progressive movement are reported to have put half a million dollars behind Bowman’s candidacy adding to an already robust Bowman fundraising operation). Engel still has more cash on hand, but if Bowman loses this primary it won’t be due to his campaign’s lack of resources.
- Turnout is likely to be large given the explosion of applications for absentee ballots with an overwhelming percentage of those aimed at Democratic primaries. The only county where the absentee ballot applications and their processing have lagged in relative terms has been Bronx County. Consequently, the Westchester portion of this district will probably cast a larger than normal share of the total vote. That likelihood should favor Engel, but the Times endorsement was aimed straight at the voters or New Rochelle and Scarsdale, where historically the Times has real influence. The Daily News editorials often resonate in communities as disparate as Yonkers and Co-op City. Paradoxically each candidate got editorial support that will resonate in the presumed area most likely to support their opponent. So again, these editorial endorsements add question marks to the race. In terms of turnout, does a large turnout continue to redound to the benefit of Engel as he is the quintessential kind of candidate whose strength with iron triangle voters is often discounted by pundits focused on telegenic charisma?
- Do the kinds of endorsements garnered by Engel hold sway with real voters (Hillary Clinton, Nany Pelosi, Jim Clyburn, Maxine Waters, Carl Heastie, Hakeem Jeffries, Greg Meeks, the Congressional Black Caucus and key labor unions)? Or do the endorsements that Bowman has gathered carry the day (Sanders, Warren, AOC, Scott Stringer, Jumaane Williams, Senator Alessandra Biaggi and the full panoply of progressive advocacy groups)?
Engel has run a mistake prone often lethargic campaign, until the last week, when he seems to have recovered his footing. The bottom line is that anyone who says Bowman has no chance to win, is fooling themselves. Alternatively, anyone counting Engel out, is ignoring the enduring tensile strength of the voters within the iron triangle who still dominate Democratic primaries. This race could come down to who is more nimble and efficient in banking absentee ballot votes.
In the 15th CD, the open Serrano seat, we continue to see conventional wisdom rush forward rejecting the hard math underlying the gravitational forces that have always determined the outcomes of races in this district’s neighborhoods. In my March op-ed I argued that the split in the Hispanic communities in the 15th CD (where five serious and 9 overall Hispanic candidates were dividing the 56-58 percent of the total vote cast by Hispanic voters) left Michael Blake as the candidate with the best chance of winning this primary. Blake’s chances are premised on consolidating the black vote (32-35 percent of the total vote) which together with his labor support (1199, 32BJ, DC37, NYSNA, RWDSU, CSA, UFCW and the TWU) and his better support from Hispanic elected than his opponents (endorsed by Victor Pichardo, Nathalia Fernandez, Karines Reyes, and Gustavo Rivera) left Blake with a clear path to victory.
I still believe that assessment is accurate, but events have complicated the picture by crafting a very different conventional wisdom among pundits and editorial boards. I can’t just reject that this new conventional wisdom has taken hold cracking the hard-electoral math underlying my assessment from back in March. Let’s parse the new conventional wisdom:
- The sharp split that I foresaw within the Hispanic vote driven by the large number of serious Hispanic candidates: Diaz Sr., Torres, Melissa Mark Viverito (MMV), Ydanis Rodriguez and Samelys Lopez, did not materialize earlier this Spring. Diaz Sr., was able due to his name recognition to in effect add to his impregnable Pentecostal base, support from the broader mass of Hispanic voters, mostly Puerto Rican, who admire his son, the Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.
- I still think that the Dominican-Puerto Rican rivalry in the Bronx (and NYC) politics is a fundamental factor in this race. Correspondingly, I still think that Ydanis Rodriguez, as a leading Dominican American elected official of standing, is being underestimated by the pundits (he carried the 15th CD in the special election for Public Advocate last year, that both Blake and MMV were in, although when you added the votes of Blake and the other black candidates Jumaane Williams and Dawn Smalls, a single black candidate would beat a divided Hispanic field in this district).
- I also think that it is a mistake to dismiss the candidacy of MMV, given how strongly LatinaX candidates have been running in recent NYC elections for the State Legislature and the City Council. Moreover, Samelys Lopez proved to be a strong debater in the televised NY1 debate a week ago. I would not just discount MMV’s and Lopez’ ability to draw more than expected support in the final stretch of this contest.
- Into this mix, Data for Progress dropped a poll that landed like a bomb into this race on June 3rd. Led by their Executive Director, Sean McElwee, a greatly respected advocate for progressive causes, this poll projected the primary in the 15th CD as a two-person race with Diaz at 22 percent and Torres at 20 percent, with Blake, MMV and Ydanis Rodriguez each at 6 percent, Samelys Lopez at 2 percent and 34 percent undecided. Rarely has a single poll had such an impact on a race. Gerson Borrero tweeted out that all the other candidates except Torres should drop out to defeat Diaz. The New York Times’ editorial cited this an ‘independent” poll and fashioned its results as a fundamental rationale for their endorsement of Torres. The impact of this poll on the media coverage begs a question: is this poll accurate? Only time will tell, but there are serious questions to be asked about its methodology.
A. This was a poll of 323 likely voters who formed a text-to-web and web-panel. How do you accurately poll a district as diverse as the 15th CD, along ethnicity (between Puerto Ricans and Dominicans) and race (in low turnouts the black share rises to 35 percent of the total vote in this district and the white share rises to cross 10 percent of the total primary vote), based upon a web based methodology when the poverty in the district (the poorest House district in the entire nation) makes the percentage of voters on the web low relative to wealthier districts? The answer is you can’t with scientific soundness accurately measure this district with that methodology. In a web-based poll with only 323 respondents is this poll accurately weighted for ethnicity or race? Is this poll with margins of error of plus or minus double digit, for crucial subsets, the basis for a scientifically sound projection? The answer is a resounding no.
B. Nevertheless, given the superb marketing of this poll, you have to tip your cap to McElwee’s genius and the ingenuity of the Torres campaign, given the unquestioning reaction among the pundits, this poll had an outcome that was at once outsized and enduring. In recent days Sean McElwee endorsed Ritchie Torres. Did that endorsement come out the polling data, due to McElwee’s understandable desire to defeat Diaz Sr., or did the poll and its methodology emerge from McElwee’s desire to endorse Torres? We may never know for sure the answer to that question.
Here is my take on the current state of this race. The Data for Progress poll may prove accurate as a self- fulfilling prophecy. I am not disputing that Torres could win. But I do think that Diaz came into June not in the low 20’s percentage wise as that poll projected, instead I think Diaz came into June in the low 30’s with Blake and Torres dueling for second, with Blake having the higher upside among undecided voters. Torres, however, now has wind in his sails from this poll and the endorsements of both the Daily News and the New York Times. In addition, Torres as the lead fundraiser in this race, has the resources to pound home his message via Tv ads and direct mail not to mention digital outreach. The question is does that momentum merely take Diaz back down to his base (shearing him of those who gladly vote for his son but not for the father’s record) or does it vault Torres into first place?
So, in my mind, Blake can still win, even as conventional wisdom has turned against his chances based upon this poll and the media coverage in its wake. The labor unions supporting Blake’s candidacy have household membership bases that mix Hispanic and black voters, which can supplement Blake’s outreach to the solid third of the primary electorate that is black, bolstered by a solid list of endorsements form Hispanic elected who have rebuffed Torres. Meanwhile, my fear is that those who did not want Ruben Diaz Sr., to get elected to Congress, will wake up when the votes are counted to find Diaz in first with Blake in second and Torres in third, wondering what might have been if they had followed the hard math rather than the Data for Progress poll? The optimist in me hopes that when the votes are counted Torres, MMV and Rodriguez pulled Diaz Sr., down to his core supporters and that Blake used that hard math girding this district’s primary electorate to defeat Diaz. I still believe that Blake not Torres has the last best chance to defeat Diaz Sr.
Let me end as I began, in these two Bronx based districts, I see only question marks. I will leave it to the voters in these two primary contests to put the exclamation points on the outcome.
Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Albany.