I have lived in New York my entire life, except for college. And on Tuesday, I’ll enjoy the first New York presidential primary in my adult lifetime that truly matters. The collision of my personal world and professional interests is an opportunity too good to pass up: What follows is a tour of New York’s political geography for the Republican primary, with a mix of personal observations and election forecasting.
First, let’s set the stage: Donald Trump is a very good bet to win New York’s Republican primary, according to our primary forecasts. Polls show Ted Cruz and John Kasich far behind and splitting about half the vote. But in addition to winning outright, Trump needs to extract as many delegates as possible from the state. New York awards 14 delegates proportionally based on the statewide results, with a 50 percent winner-take-all trigger, and Trump has a decent chance to win that entire pot. Another 81 delegates will be given out by congressional district — three per district. Win a district with a plurality, and you get two of those delegates, but win with a majority and you get all three. And there’s the rub: Whether New York gets Trump closer to the 1,237 delegates he needs to clinch the GOP nomination, or whether he falls further off pace, will likely come down to how many congressional districts he wins with at least 50 percent of the vote.
Let’s break the state down into six regions to see where Trump is likely to soar and where he may fall short.1 (My apologies in advance if this is a little Harry-centric.)
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Nassau and Suffolk counties
I know folks out on Long Island probably don’t like being grouped together, but it’s basically all the same to us city folk. You’re out there, and many of us dread spending hours on the Long Island Expressway to get to you.
In all seriousness, Nassau and Suffolk counties are quite different. Nassau is considerably smaller, and its largest town, Hempstead, has a population of more than 770,000 people. I think the last time I went to Nassau County was for a wake. The last time I went to Suffolk was for a high school graduation party in the Hamptons.
Politically speaking, both counties used to be very Republican in national elections. That has changed as New York has generally become more sympathetic to Democrats. Nassau is now reliably (light) blue and Suffolk is far more swingy. Suffolk (the 1st and 2nd districts) has two Republican congressmen, while Nassau (3rd and 4th) has two Democratic representatives. In this Republican primary, however, there will likely be little difference in the results from these four districts: Trump will win and win big.
Trump has tended to do very well in areas with a history of racial strife and with white populations not from northwestern Europe (i.e., non-WASP voters), such as those of Italian, Irish and Spanish ancestry. Long Island has a history of segregation, and its population, like that of many suburbs, grew in part as a result of “white flight” from New York City. One study at the beginning of the last decade called Long Island the nation’s “most segregated suburb.”
As of the most recent five-year American Community Survey, conducted by the Census Bureau, the median income for non-Hispanic whites in all four congressional districts was much higher ($90,000 to $105,000) than that of blacks ($55,000 to $78,000). According to data from the American Community Survey, all four congressional districts on the island are at least 19 percent Italian-American; Irish-Americans make up another 15 percent in all four. And in a Republican primary, Italian- and Irish-Americans are likely to account for an even bigger slice of the electorate. A recent Optimus poll (which provided district-by-district data) had Trump over 50 percent in all four districts.
Trump will also want to run up the margin in Nassau and Suffolk to ensure he gets over 50 percent statewide.
Queens and Staten Island
Folks familiar with New York City may be wondering why the heck I’m grouping these two boroughs together. Queens, like Manhattan and the Bronx, is represented exclusively by Democrats in Congress, while Staten Island’s lone congressman is a Republican. (That congressman, Dan Donovan, also represents a small sliver of southern Brooklyn.) Queens is majority non-white; Staten Island is majority white. (I associate Staten Island mostly with trying to secede from New York City in the late 1980s and early ’90s.)
But New York is a closed primary — only registered Republicans can vote on the GOP side — and the few Republican voters there are in Queens are likely to vote with their brethren in Staten Island. The Optimus poll that I mentioned above has Trump easily winning more than 50 percent in New York’s 5th, 6th and 14th districts, which are all at least partially in Queens. Of those, the 5th and 14th make the most sense to me.
Only 14 percent of the voting eligible population in the 5th district is non-Hispanic white, but of the white population over-three fifths calls themselves American, Italian or Irish — identifications that have correlated with support for Trump. (“American” is not a terribly useful ethnic identifier, but that’s how nearly 7 percent of the nation identifies itself.) The 14th district (where I spent far too many childhood days with my father trying to convince Mets managers to give me a ball by telling them that it was my birthday) has a voting eligible population that is 34 percent non-Hispanic white, but over 40 percent of that 34 percent belong to those American, Italian and Irish groups. The high Jewish population (17 percent) in the 6th district could prove trouble for Trump, though many of them will probably vote in the Democratic primary.
Staten Island, the 11th district, is 26 percent Italian-American and has a history of racial strife. Currently, many census tracts at the northern tip of the island are less than 50 percent white non-Hispanic while most on the southern end are over 80 percent white. At the same time, Staten Island’s median home value hasn’t risen as quickly as the rest of New York City. Some residents of Staten Island haven’t always liked their neighbors (see secession vote); perhaps not surprisingly, Trump could easily top 60 percent here.
Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan
Again, this mishmash doesn’t seem to make much sense on the surface. Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan don’t look much alike. I’m from the Bronx, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I used to love going to visit my father at work — he was a Criminal Court judge — and to watch him bang the gavel at the courthouse on 161st Street. The Bronx itself has undergone a major transformation over the past 35 years, with Hispanics climbing from 34 percent of all residents in 1980 to 55 percent today. The black population, meanwhile, has risen by 7 percentage points in the past four years alone.
The only congressional district entirely within the Bronx is the 15th district. It has the lowest median income of any congressional district in the nation, and only 3 percent of its voting-eligible population is non-Hispanic white — it’s 61 percent Hispanic. That’s why only 285 people cast a vote in the old version of this district (then called the 16th) in the 2012 Republican primary. This will be one of the few places in the entire country where the majority of the Republican primary vote will be non-white.
Brooklyn is an entirely different story. I squirm a bit when I get off the L train among the hipsters in Williamsburg (7th district). That’s maybe why I didn’t go to Brooklyn from ages 5 to 22, and why I still try to avoid it. To be fair, Brooklyn is a lot more than a hipster haven. The 8th district and 9th district are both heavily African-American, but also have seen major gentrification in places like Crown Heights and Park Slope. Perhaps most important for this primary: Over 45 percent of the white population in the 7th, 8th and 9th districts has a college education, and Trump has struggled with well-educated voters. Additionally, both the 8th and 9th districts are over 19 percent Jewish. The 8th district, in particular, has a high population of Russian Jews, who are more likely to be registered Republicans than other Jews.
Manhattan, of course, is Manhattan. A ridiculously high 67 percent or more of white voters have at least a college education on the West Side (10th district), East Side (12th district) and the northern part of the borough (13th district). A friend told me that his mom, who lives on the East Side, was hoping to be able to vote for Mike Bloomberg in the Republican primary.
That lone Bloomberg fan gets at why I put these boroughs together: They could be among Trump’s weakest in the state. The latest Optimus poll had Trump well under 50 percent in all but the 8th. Kasich is probably best positioned to do well in the Manhattan districts, while the strong Jewish vote in the 8th gives Cruz a shot to at least come in second there. Cruz may be able to pull off a surprise win or close second in the 15th district, which has repeatedly elected a socially conservative state senator. Still, only a small percentage of voters in any of these districts will vote in the Republican primary. Most have about 30,000 registered Republicans or fewer.
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The mid- and lower Hudson Valley
These regions consist of the northern suburbs and exurbs of New York City, for the most part, and are still part of the New York media market. My mom is from Sullivan County (home of the Borscht Belt), which is considerably more rural than Westchester. This is a varied region I’m lumping together, but there just aren’t that many people living in these areas compared to New York City and Long Island. White non-Hispanic residents in Hillary Clinton’s home district (17th) have a median household income of $100,000, while white non-Hispanics in the congressional district that has Sullivan in it (19th) have a median household income of a little less than $60,000.
The 16th district, which includes a slice of the north Bronx and my childhood home, consists mostly of suburban southern Westchester. Twenty years ago, this would have been prime Trump country, given its big Italian-American population (see “Show Me A Hero”). Now, I’m less sure. Only 12 percent of the 16th district identifies as Italian, and over 50 percent of its white population has a college education. Those are both bad signs for Trump, and the poorer voters in the district, in places like Yonkers, are overwhelmingly Democrats. Still, the Optimus poll found Trump just under 50 percent in the 16th, with a lot of people still undecided, so he could still clear a majority.
The 17th district is just to the north of the 16th and goes from northern Westchester over to Rockland. As a child, I once accidentally tugged a woman’s shirt at the food court at The Westchester mall in White Plains thinking she was my mom. She wasn’t. While the 17th has roughly the same share of college-educated voters as the 16th, the former is more Italian-American (17 percent) and Irish-American (14 percent). Maybe that’s why the Optimus poll has Trump just over 50 percent in the 17th. That said, it’s more like the 16th district than not.
The 18th district is, among other things, the northern extent of the range for the National Weather Service’s New York City office’s forecasts. I used to laugh on the drive up to Monticello as a kid because Orange County contained Florida (a town) and not the other way around. (OK, I don’t have the most sophisticated sense of humor.) The 18th district’s white population has roughly the same college education level as the 1st district, as well as the largest Italian-American population in New York state north of New York City — both pro-Trump indicators. On the other hand, this district has a relatively high German-American population, 12 percent, compared to most of downstate New York (that’s bad for Trump; see Wisconsin). But the pro-Trump signs in the 18th probably outweigh its anti-Trump characteristics.
I’m cheating a little by putting the 19th district in this group; the 19th includes parts of what I would call upstate New York (e.g. the Albany suburbs). I would go up to the Concord Resort Hotel outside Monticello as a child and play mini-golf, but the Concord — like much of the high-end resort industry there — collapsed. Anyway, I’m not really sure what to expect in the 19th. Only 27 percent of the white population in the district has a college education and nearly 40 percent are Irish- or Italian-American. On the other hand, Cruz has run strongest in less densely populated areas, and the 19th is the second-least dense district in the state. Also, more than 50 percent of the white population is WASP — higher than anywhere in downstate New York. Optimus has Trump stuck in the mid-40s, but we’ll see what happens.
Upstate New York
I’ve never been to Lake Placid or most of the places in this region. I once went to my friend’s farm near Saratoga Springs (on the border of the 20th and 21st districts) and watched his horses run. One of those horses made it to the Kentucky Derby and lost — and in the process lost me some money. Anyway, this district is really centered on Albany, Binghamton and Syracuse. The region’s white voters (most likely to be Republican) have taken an economic hit in recent years, though there has been some recovery. Still, the region is home to two (21st and 22nd district) of the four lowest median incomes for white voters in the state.
The 20th district around Albany is where Mario Cuomo starred in Hamlet on the Hudson and where state legislators commit corruption far too often. We’ve seen Cruz, Kasich and Trump all visit this area, perhaps because polls show Trump is weak here: The Optimus poll has him stuck in the mid-40s, for instance. Why isn’t Trump stronger in upstate New York? The Trump brand likely doesn’t mean as much upstate, and the district’s white population is slightly more likely than the nation as a whole to have a college degree. If Trump crosses 50 percent here, it’ll likely be because he cleaned up with the 40 percent of the population that identify as Italian- or Irish-American.
When I think old-time Yankee Republicanism, I think of the 21st district. Franklin Roosevelt got crushed here in 1936, even though he won nationally by 24 percentage points. The district is more of French origin (13 percent) than Italian (10 percent). That makes it look more like Vermont or Maine. It’s also the least densely populated district in the state. If Trump can eke out a majority in the 21st (and Optimus has him stuck in the mid-40s), it’ll be because only 22 percent of the district’s whites have a college education.
I’ve never been to the 22nd district, but a lot of my friends have, as it’s home to several fine colleges: SUNY Binghamton, Colgate and Hamilton, among others. Its Republican congressman, Rep. Richard Hanna, endorsed Jon Huntsman in 2012 and is a member of the “Never Trump” brigade. It might not surprise you to learn, then, that Trump is only in the mid-40s here, according to Optimus. Like the 21st district, a strong Trump performance will be because less than 25 percent of the district’s white voters have a college degree.
Do you like sunshine? Yes? Then maybe the 24th district isn’t for you. All I ever heard about this region from my mom growing up was the lack of sun in Syracuse (where she went to medical school). She wasn’t exaggerating; Syracuse gets as much sun as Seattle. Optimus polling says this is Trump’s worst district in upstate New York. But I’m not exactly sure why, which is perhaps a sign that the polling could be off. About 30 percent of the district’s whites have a college degree, which is higher than the 22nd, but not too much higher. The 24th district’s Irish and Italian make-up isn’t especially low (38 percent). That said, Rep. John Katko is another Republican who doesn’t like Trump, so maybe he’s seeing something on the ground to suggest there’s not a lot of pro-Trump sentiment in the 24th.
Western New York
I have two words for you: Buffalo Bills. Everyone knows they are greatest football team ever, minus all those Super Bowl losses. This region is also home to the Niagara Falls, the University of Rochester and Cornell University. (Just do us a favor and use footage of the American side of Niagara Falls if you’re going to use it in an political ad.) Buffalo, a former titan of the rust belt, has seen its population drop in half over the past 65 years. Rochester too has suffered with the the decline of the once-almighty Kodak and other manufacturing powerhouses.
The real question in western New York is whether demographics will be trumped (see what I did there?) by support from GOP “elites.” Yes, this is the rare area of the country where Trump has the “establishment” behind him. He has the endorsements of Republican Rep. Chris Collins of the 27th district and Rep. Tom Reed of the 23rd district, as well as former Republican gubernatorial candidate and Buffalo resident Carl Paladino. Paladino, for the unfamiliar, was Trump before Trump (i.e. a loud, brash businessman who ran for political office).
But the demographics and polling suggest that Trump could fall below 50 percent in the 23rd and 25th districts — he is under 47 percent in the Optimus poll in both. The 23rd district (which covers the southern part of western New York, including my friend Dan Donner, the assistant director of technology services at St. Bonaventure University, who made me a Bills fan) has second-highest WASP population among whites of any congressional district in the state, with voters of English ancestry making up 14 percent of the population. The 25th district (which surrounds Rochester) has the highest share of whites with a college degree (40 percent) in New York north of the lower and mid-Hudson Valley and the third-highest percentage of WASPs as a share of the white population (55 percent).
The Optimus poll has Trump over 50 percent in both the 26th and 27th. The 26th district (covering Buffalo and Niagara Falls) has the lowest WASP share of whites in the region (47 percent) and is probably most open to Paladino’s influence. He won a ridiculous 93 percent of the vote in Erie County (Buffalo) and 94 percent in Niagara County in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary. The 27th district is a different story. It covers most of the suburbs of Rochester and Buffalo, and over 30 percent of its voters are of German origin, which is by far the highest in the state. Normally, that would mean Trump would have problem, as it did in Wisconsin, but Optimus has this as Trump’s best district north of the lower and mid-Hudson Valley. That could be the result of the combination of Collins and Paladino getting behind Trump (or it could be wrong).