If you’re one of the approximately 320 million Americans who don’t live in New York City, it might seem like its Democratic mayoral primary has gotten an outsized amount of media coverage. But even I, a Bostonian, can admit that the complex politics of New York City makes Tuesday’s election one of the most intriguing races of the year.
The city is a stark reminder that “heavily Democratic” does not necessarily equal “far left.” The front-runner for mayor is Eric Adams, a Black former Republican who has staked his campaign on his opposition to defunding the police. Kathryn Garcia, Maya Wiley and Andrew Yang are also within striking distance in the polls, but only Wiley unambiguously belongs to the party’s progressive wing.
But it’s too facile to just say it’s progressives vs. moderates in New York City — there are far more divisions at play. The city’s politics may share the same contours that have defined so many Democratic primaries nationwide, but its racial diversity, parochial neighborhoods and sheer number of Democratic voters — each with his or her own cross-cutting identities — expose fissures within fissures.
To illustrate this, we’ve redrawn New York City’s five boroughs into five political regions based on the results of four recent Democratic primaries: for president in 2016 (Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders), and for governor (Andrew Cuomo vs. Cynthia Nixon), lieutenant governor (Kathy Hochul vs. Jumaane Williams) and attorney general (Letitia James vs. Sean Patrick Maloney vs. Zephyr Teachout) in 2018.1
You already know Clinton and Sanders; Nixon, an actor and progressive activist, and Williams, a self-identified socialist then serving on the New York City Council, waged spirited primary challenges to moderate incumbents Cuomo and Hochul but ultimately fell short. James, the New York City public advocate at the time, had previously been a progressive darling but aligned herself with Cuomo in the attorney general’s race; instead, Teachout, a law professor who had unsuccessfully primaried Cuomo from the left in 2014, claimed the mantle of the left in that race. (Maloney, a moderate upstate congressman, was a nonfactor in most parts of New York City — with some important exceptions.) These four races produced four different voting patterns, so together they provide a not-half-bad template for understanding the city’s political geography.
So hop on the virtual subway with us and take a tour of New York City’s five “political boroughs.” These categories will come in handy while following along with and interpreting the results of the mayoral election over the next several weeks (it’s expected to take until mid-July to get final results because New York is slow to count absentee ballots, and because the city is using ranked-choice voting for the first time). But even if that’s not your bag, the mix of ideology and identity that marks these boroughs can help deepen our understanding of the broader divisions within the Democratic Party nationwide.
The Elite Circles
When people say that New York City’s political, economic and social elite live in a bubble, this is the bubble. The Elite Circles borough2 includes most of Manhattan from the Financial District to Central Park as well as adjacent parts of Brooklyn and Queens. It’s defined by its high levels of education (63 percent of residents age 25 or older have at least a bachelor’s degree) and its whiteness — a majority of its residents (56 percent) are non-Hispanic white. However, the political borough also includes some gentrified but historically ethnic enclaves with significant Hispanic, Asian American and Black populations.
Elite Circles demographics
|Bachelor’s degree or higher (among 25+ population)||63|
The Elite Circles is the most progressive slice of the city. It was Williams’s best political borough in the 2018 lieutenant governor race and was the only one to support Nixon for governor and Teachout for attorney general. Sanders also turned in an above-average performance here in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.
Recent Elite Circles election results
|2018 Lt. Gov.||Hochul||38|
|2018 Att. Gen.||James||31|
But different parts of this political borough are different degrees of progressive. Some, especially hip neighborhoods with lots of young professionals, are dyed-in-the-wool leftist, even socialist — for example, all four progressive candidates carried the state Assembly districts that cover Ditmars Steinway and Astoria in Queens and Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn by at least 8 percentage points. And in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, Sanders got more than 30 percent of the vote in these areas even though he had already dropped out of the race by the time New York voted.
Other neighborhoods in this borough — especially traditionally tony neighborhoods in Manhattan — are more progressive-curious. For instance, districts containing Chelsea and the Upper West Side split their 2018 tickets between Cuomo for governor and Williams for lieutenant governor. And districts that include Midtown East and the Upper East Side voted strongly for Teachout in 2018 but even more strongly for Clinton in 2016.
In this year’s mayoral race, expect that division to manifest itself again. The Elite Circles seems like it will be fertile ground for both Wiley and Garcia, who are especially strong with college-educated respondents in polls. But the more technocratic Garcia, who has the endorsement of The New York Times, seems like a better fit for Manhattan, while the more ideologically leftist Wiley, who was endorsed by the Working Families Party and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, will likely do better in Brooklyn. (A recent Marist College poll for WNBC, Telemundo 47 and POLITICO provides evidence for this.)
The True-Blue Bronx
On the other side of the ledger, the True-Blue Bronx3 is the least college-educated (just 18 percent) and most consistently pro-establishment region of New York City. Clinton defeated Sanders 70 percent to 30 percent here; Hochul beat Williams 59 percent to 41 percent. Teachout got only 8 percent in this political borough, well outpaced by both James and Maloney. Most dramatically, Cuomo defeated Nixon 84 percent to 16 percent here.
Recent True-Blue Bronx election results
|2018 Lt. Gov.||Hochul||59|
|2018 Att. Gen.||James||69|
As the name implies, the True-Blue Bronx overlaps closely with the real-life borough of the Bronx, except without its northwestern neighborhoods like Riverdale, which are noticeably more progressive than the rest of the borough. (It also takes in North Corona and East Elmhurst’s Assembly district in Queens, just across the East River.) That the Bronx is a safe haven for moderate, even conservative, Democrats won’t come as a surprise to observers of city politics: One of the borough’s best-known politicians is Democrat Rubén Díaz Sr., an anti-abortion city council member who has spoken favorably of former President Donald Trump.
True-Blue Bronx demographics
|Bachelor’s degree or higher (among 25+ population)||18|
The True-Blue Bronx is predominantly (57 percent) Hispanic, with particularly strong Dominican and Puerto Rican communities. However, there is also a notable non-Hispanic Black population (29 percent), and the East Bronx is pretty racially heterogeneous. Although every district that constitutes the True-Blue Bronx voted more establishment than the city as a whole in all four primaries, progressives tended to do especially badly in more homogenous districts.
With multiple moderates in the mayor’s race, it’s hard to predict how this borough will vote on Tuesday. As the overall front-runner, Adams could do well here, but one recent poll suggested Yang is the preferred candidate of Hispanic voters. Which candidate carries this political borough may well decide who wins the mayoralty.
The Black Bloc
The Black Bloc4 also tends to vote strongly for establishment-aligned candidates. In fact, it gave a higher share of the vote to Clinton (73 percent), James (a whopping 81 percent) and Cuomo (an even more whopping 86 percent) than any other political borough.
Recent Black Bloc election results
|2018 Lt. Gov.||Hochul||48|
|2018 Att. Gen.||James||81|
But what sets it apart from the True-Blue Bronx is that it also voted for the progressive Williams for lieutenant governor, 52 percent to 48 percent. The likely explanation: Williams, a Black man, enjoyed strong support with New York City’s Black community even as his running mate Nixon and other progressives fizzled with them. And the Black Bloc is heavily (63 percent) non-Hispanic Black.
Black Bloc demographics
|Bachelor’s degree or higher (among 25+ population)||23|
While virtually every corner of the Black Bloc voted the same way for president, governor and attorney general, Williams ran especially strongly in the western half of this bisected borough: heavily Black, low-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn like East Flatbush and Brownsville. But Hochul (narrowly) carried the eastern half, which comprises middle-class Queens neighborhoods like St. Albans and Queens Village that are more racially diverse. The difference may be because Williams has closer ties to the Brooklyn side of the borough (he grew up in East New York and represented East Flatbush and Canarsie on the City Council).
So the Black Bloc is probably best thought of as a stronghold for establishment Democrats, but one that will vote for members of its community first and foremost. In the mayor’s race, this probably bodes well for Adams, the moderate, Black borough president of Brooklyn. But there may also be an undercurrent of support here for Wiley, who is also Black and lives in Brooklyn.
The Lands of Contradiction
At first glance, the Lands of Contradiction borough5 is an enigma. It voted for Cuomo 71 percent to 28 percent, and it was Hochul’s and Maloney’s strongest political borough. But it was also Sanders’s strongest, voting for Clinton just 55 percent to 45 percent.
Recent Lands of Contradiction election result
|2018 Lt. Gov.||Hochul||61|
|2018 Att. Gen.||James||47|
But this incongruity makes more sense when you think of those votes for Sanders as votes against Clinton. In general, Democrats in the Lands of Contradiction tend to be conservative,6 but they likely voted for Sanders anyway as a form of protest against the national Democratic Party (it’s hard to remember now, but in early 2016, conservatives were a lot more anti-Clinton than they were anti-socialist). This hypothesis is supported by the fact that the Lands of Contradiction was by far Trump’s strongest political borough in the 2020 general election; President Biden carried it just 51 percent to 47 percent, whereas he won at least 80 percent of the vote in the other four political boroughs.
Another way to think about the Lands of Contradiction is that it votes less on ideology and more on a candidate’s brand (much like the Upper East Side, just inverted): Although they live in the biggest city in the nation, voters here consistently reject candidates who represent the urban, urbane Democratic Party and gravitate toward the party’s plain-spoken, industrial and/or rural image of yore. (This is also consistent with its support for Trump.) Hochul and Maloney both hail from upstate New York and grew up in middle-class Irish Catholic families; Sanders is from rustic Vermont and could never be accused of focus-grouping his appearance and messaging.
Lands of Contradiction demographics
|Bachelor’s degree or higher (among 25+ population)||35|
These preferences make sense, given that the Lands of Contradiction is mostly white (46 percent, a plurality of the population) and non-college-educated. Italian and Irish Americans are the largest ethnic groups, although no area may sum up this borough better than the heavily Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods of Borough Park and Midwood, deeply conservative pockets of liberal Brooklyn. In addition, the Lands of Contradiction has sizable Asian American (26 percent) and Hispanic (19 percent) populations. In fact, six of the seven most heavily Asian American Assembly districts in New York City are in this political borough.
Six of the city’s eight oldest Assembly districts (going by median age) are also in the Lands of Contradiction, jibing with its more old-school vision of the Democratic Party. And geographically, the borough covers most of famously contrarian Staten Island as well as the parts of Brooklyn and Queens at the ends of subway lines — in other words, some of the parts of the city that are farthest from Manhattan (and its Elite Circles that the borough so disdains).
This political borough can be unpredictable in who it supports, but look for Adams and/or Yang to rack up votes here. In the Marist poll, Adams was the overwhelming choice of conservative respondents, while several Asian American groups have endorsed Yang, who would be the city’s first Asian American mayor. (As a political outsider, he may also appeal to this borough’s disaffected voters.)
|Bachelor’s degree or higher (among 25+ population)||33|
Recent Crossroads election results
|2018 Lt. Gov.||Hochul||41|
|2018 Att. Gen.||James||57|
Finally, the neighborhoods that make up the Crossroads7 are the parts of the city that don’t fit neatly into one of the other four regions. Often, this is because they sit at the intersection of two or more of the city’s political camps. For instance, the gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights and Flatbush are on the boundary of the Black Bloc and the Elite Circles. Black and Hispanic New Yorkers together make up the majority of the Harlem and Washington Heights neighborhoods of Manhattan. And Queens’s Jackson Heights and Corona neighborhoods might make sense in the True-Blue Bronx, with their large Hispanic populations, but their significant Asian American communities help them to vote more like the Lands of Contradiction.
Unsurprisingly, the Crossroads looks a lot like New York City demographically and politically. No racial group constitutes a majority, or even reaches 40 percent of the population; instead, there are roughly similar numbers of Hispanic, Black and white residents. And at the ballot box, it leans toward establishment candidates, but it will vote for progressives under the right circumstances — just like the city as a whole.
Of course, that’s just on average; different Crossroads neighborhoods vote differently (in general, they vote in between the two political boroughs they are a combination of). By its very nature, the Crossroads doesn’t have as cohesive an identity as the other four political boroughs. But this heterodoxy also makes it the most “New York” of all of them — and therefore the best bellwether of citywide elections. In the mayor’s race, look for all four major candidates to rack up solid support here, since everyone’s bases are represented.
If these five political boroughs sound familiar, it’s because we’ve seen very similar ideological and identity divides play out in recent Democratic primaries nationwide. Since 2016, an ascendant progressive movement has redefined the left wing of the Democratic Party, and it’s been fueled primarily by white voters. But progressives still make up a minority of the party nationwide. After all, Clinton and Biden won the Democratic presidential nominations thanks largely to their strength with Democrats of color.
That’s the challenge for the aspiring hizzoners who are fighting for New Yorkers’ votes on Tuesday. Because politics has become so nationalized, their support in many ways is predetermined and limited, even as they try to speak to every corner of a city dealing with inequality, segregation, crime, COVID-19 and an unpopular outgoing mayor. In the end, whoever does the best job expanding their coalition beyond their natural base is likely to become New York City’s 110th mayor.