Skip to main content
Menu
How Bill De Blasio Could Win The 2020 Democratic Primary

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is going to have a difficult presidential campaign. Even the people who know him best — New Yorkers — don’t particularly like him.

From ABC News:

The two-term mayor, who is scheduled to announce his candidacy on Thursday on “Good Morning America,” entered office promising big, progressive programs. But things haven’t always gone as planned. Just in the last few years, he has …

It’s easy to compile a list of de Blasio’s shortcomings because New York’s journalists love to catalog them — being in charge of a city with several major papers (two of them tabloids) has made de Blasio’s life difficult.

But our task is to figure out how he could win the nomination. FiveThirtyEight has a longstanding, five-month-old tradition: Whenever a major candidate declares he or she is running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, we try to find a path they could use to win. De Blasio’s is gnarled, but let’s see if we can make a case.

He was progressive before it was cool

De Blasio was running — and winning — on progressive promises well before some of the Bernie-come-latelies in the Democratic field. When he first ran for mayor in 2013, his campaign rhetoric was about “a tale of two cities” — one New York for the rich, and one for everyone else. And he chose to bridge that gap with big, sweeping interventions: universal pre-K, policing reform, traffic interventions — all of which he made happen, to some degree. When he won in 2013, he celebrated by saying, “Make no mistake: The people of this city have chosen a progressive path, and tonight we set forth on it together.”

But it’s still unclear just how many Democratic primary voters want a progressive candidate. In a January survey from Pew Research Center, fewer Democratic voters said they wanted the party to become more liberal (40 percent) than said they wanted the party to become more moderate (53 percent). That said, a recent CNN poll found that a clear majority — 65 percent — of Democrats said that a candidate holding “progressive positions on the issues” was very or extremely important to them in choosing who to support in the primaries, and only 3 percent said it was not at all important. But it’s not clear how they’ll weigh a candidate’s ideological bona fides against other traits: Substantially more respondents rated a candidate’s ability to beat President Trump as extremely or very important.

He knows how to win a crowded primary

De Blasio has proven he can come from behind to win a contentious primary with nine candidates. When he first entered the 2013 Democratic primary for mayor, he was far behind the frontrunner, NYC City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Also in the race: Bill Thompson, who had narrowly lost the previous mayoral race to the incumbent, Michael Bloomberg, and former Rep. Anthony Weiner, whose scandal-plagued political career was, remarkably, not over yet.

But despite starting with just over 10 percent support, de Blasio managed to use his progressive messaging to rise to the top. Granted, there are way more candidates in the Democratic presidential primary than there were in that mayoral race, but according to our research, he appears to have already qualified for the first two debates via his standing in the polls. So maybe he can make some noise when the debates begin this summer.

He can make a good case as a chief executive

One of the reasons de Blasio is so easy to discount is that he’s been in the muck for the past six years, trying to enact his policies while running America’s largest city. This is the problem with actually holding office (and with doing it in plain sight of so much of the nation’s press corps).

But all that work does mean he can make a case for his executive experience. No major-party candidate has ever gone straight from being mayor to being the presidential nominee, but New York City has more people in it than the places presided over by several other presidential hopefuls, including Colorado and Washington state, and even South Bend, Indiana. De Blasio should be able to make a compelling case that he knows as much, if not more, about what it’s like to be in charge of the daily life of millions of people than governors like John Hickenlooper and Jay Inslee, or fellow mayor Pete Buttigieg.

On the other hand, making the argument that he’s more prepared than the current front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, may be … more difficult. And it probably doesn’t help that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has already endorsed Biden.


So where does this leave de Blasio? As an unknown candidate with little support in the polls — and there are already several white men who fit that description in the field. In a March Monmouth University poll, 58 percent of registered Democrats surveyed said they either hadn’t heard of de Blasio or had no opinion of him, so that’s a lot of voters who he still has a chance to win over. (Eighteen percent said they had a favorable opinion.) And that same poll found only 1 percent of voters already favor de Blasio in the primary.

But then again, he has some debates coming up, and he isn’t a stranger to a crowded primary field, so don’t rule him out just yet. New York, it’s where dreams are made of; there’s nothing a term-limited mayor can’t do.

CORRECTION (May 17, 2019, 1:02 p.m.): An earlier version of this article stated that Republicans and Democrats had never nominated a presidential candidate who hadn’t held an office higher than mayor. All nominees who had previously held elected office held a higher-ranking office than mayor, but several people have been nominated without previously having held elected office.

Chadwick Matlin is a deputy editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Comments