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What We’re Watching In The New York City Mayoral Race

While New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s personal and professional scandals have been dominating the headlines, another news story is developing in the Empire State. A bevy of candidates — more than two dozen so far — are running for New York City mayor. And even though we’re still months away from the June 22 primary, the candidates have already been dutifully showing up for Zoom forums, trading jabs over issues like police funding and getting ranked on TikTok by their bagel preferences.

We don’t make a habit of covering mayoral races at FiveThirtyEight, but this one is going to be big for New York City as it’s only the fourth time in roughly half a century that the ballots won’t include an incumbent mayor running for reelection (the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, is barred from running again due to term limits). There’s already a ton to watch, too: Early polls show the race already has a front-runner, a Wall Street favorite is busy raising gobs of money and the city has a new ranked-choice voting system, which may add another wrinkle to an already-crowded primary.

Here are the four threads we’re keeping an eye on over the next several months. 

Can Andrew Yang maintain his front-runner status?

Once an unknown political candidate, businessman Andrew Yang rose to national stardom after his unsuccessful run for the Democratic presidential primary last year. Despite dropping out of the race in February 2020, he has stayed relevant in part due to his diehard fan base, his warnings that automation poses a threat to many jobs in the U.S., and his signature presidential campaign proposal of giving Americans a “universal basic income” of $12,000 a year.

His time on the national stage seems to be paying off in New York City, too. It’s still early in the race and very few polls have been conducted thus far, but of the three surveys we do have, all three show Yang leading. In a January Core Decision Analytics survey, the only poll of the three to measure both who is leading and who voters are most familiar with, Yang tops the Democratic field in both popularity and name recognition (28 percent picked him as their first choice, and he is known by a whopping 84 percent of respondents). He’s trailed by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams (17 percent picked him as their first choice; 60 percent said they’ve heard of him) and City Comptroller Scott Stringer (13 percent picked him as their first choice; 66 percent have heard of him). The remaining candidates, meanwhile, are struggling to break from the pack and are stuck in the single digits.

But getting to the top is one thing. Staying there is a different story. 

Yang came out of the gate with a series of gaffes, too. For example, he fumbled when asked why he fled the city for his second home upstate at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when travel was discouraged, and he proposed opening a casino on Governors Island, now the site of a large park and national monument. It’s also been reported that he hasn’t voted in the past four New York City mayoral elections. Additionally, in a criticism he faced when running for president, Yang has been called out for his lack of governing experience, which could be a real issue in the mayoral race as “responding to the coronavirus” and “improving wages and creating more jobs” were voters’ top two issues in choosing a candidate, according to a December Public Policy Polling survey.

It’s also likely that other candidates’ name recognition will increase as we get closer to June, which means Yang might lose his edge. But his second run for political office does test a somewhat novel proposition: Can someone with limited institutional knowledge and no real governing experience become the next mayor of New York City? “He’s certainly done nothing that I’ve seen that demonstrates a command for city issues or the kind of really difficult decision-making that’s involved in managing 325,000 people and $90 billion,” Eric Phillips, a former de Blasio spokesperson, said of Yang in The New York Times. “He hasn’t been involved in the civic fabric of the city.”

How might ranked-choice voting affect the election? 

New York City is also using ranked-choice voting in the mayoral primaries for the first time, so understanding support for a candidate might be harder to gauge. Ranked-choice voting has already been used by the state of Maine as well as more than a dozen municipalities, and the way it works is simple: The ballot will ask voters to rank candidates from their first to their last choice. If no candidate wins a majority of the vote — which is likely given the size of the field — the last-place candidate is eliminated and that candidate’s votes are parceled out to the voters’ second choice, a process that continues until one candidate has a majority and is declared the winner.

The process itself may seem different from what New Yorkers are used to, and previous research has even linked this voting method to lower voter turnout, but there are other snags, too — specifically, how this can complicate a politician’s ability to rely on just his or her hometown base, which can matter quite a bit in a crowded primary. For example, under a normal voting system, Adams may have been able to win outright with a strong swell of support in central Brooklyn, where he’s gotten significant backing from Black and Orthodox Jewish voters in his previous bids for elective office. (Before Adams was elected borough president in 2013, he served four terms as state senator.) But under a ranked-choice voting system, it’s unlikely that someone could win by doing really well in just one of the city’s five boroughs. That candidate will eventually have to be the second and third choices of voters in other boroughs, too. 

Some think ranked-choice voting could hurt Yang if he ends up taking the bulk of incoming opposition and is not the second or third choice of his opponents’ supporters, while others think he may benefit from the new system simply based on name recognition. At this point, though, in the one poll that asked about voters’ second and third choices, Yang wasn’t voters’ top second choice; Adams was at 11 percent. However, Yang was still voters’ top choice overall (with 32 percent backing him); and in terms of voters’ second choice, Yang wasn’t that far behind Adams at 9 percent. Many voters haven’t made up their minds yet either. Twenty-nine percent said they would not rank any of the candidates as their second choice.

But some campaigns have already raised alarms about the change to ranked-choice voting. Adams, for instance, has backed a lawsuit seeking to halt the introduction of ranked-choice voting, arguing that the system could effectively disenfranchise non-English speakers and voters of color, who might lack the time and resources to properly research each candidate and how the new voting system works. (According to our analysis of 2019 U.S. Census data, 62 percent of New York City citizens of voting age are nonwhite.) Though not everyone has bought this argument, including some nonwhite supporters of ranked-choice voting. “It was just insulting to me,” Bertha Lewis, the founder and president of the Black Institute, a Brooklyn-based think tank, told The Atlantic. “You want to say that voters are stupid.”

And at this point it’s unclear whether ranked-choice voting will have an adverse effect on New York City’s voters of color, specifically: One voting-reform group, FairVote, found that before ranked-choice voting was implemented in parts of the Bay Area in California, plurality-white districts elected a nonwhite representative 35 percent of the time. Under ranked-choice voting, though, those same districts elected a nonwhite representative 60 percent of the time.

The move to ranked-choice voting could also lead to fewer negative attack ads out of fear of alienating another candidate’s supporters. But it could also benefit candidates who are more well-established in city politics. 

Who will progressives coalesce around?

The progressive movement has increasingly divided New York politicos, and we imagine this chasm will play out in the mayoral race, too. “The socialist left is on the rise, particularly in neighborhoods where Black and Latino residents are being gentrified out of existence,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries told The New York Times. “To the extent the success of the socialist left is in part tied to gentrifying neighborhoods, it remains to be seen how that will impact a citywide race.”

Outgoing progressive de Blasio is currently underwater with voters, but as he moves to vacate the throne, a handful of candidates are trying to replicate his successes, including a former legal counselor for his administration: Maya Wiley. And so far, Wiley has been endorsed by a powerful union representing health care workers, Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union. Beyond that, she has positioned herself as an expert on police reform and released an ambitious plan to shift $300 million in resources from the police and correction departments to help 100,000 high-need families pay for child and elder care. By reducing the incoming cadet classes for the NYPD and Correction Department for two years, bringing the headcount down by 2,250 police officers and 750 correctional officers, these families would receive $5,000 a year to pay for child and elder care. (An additional $200 million would come from federal and state grants.) Wiley has been careful to refrain from describing her proposal as a plan to “defund the police,” though, as that exact slogan remains unpopular among Americans.

At this point, Stringer may be Wiley’s main competition. And so far, the city comptroller has won an endorsement from the influential Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which in addition to other major unions in the 2013 mayoral election, endorsed then-City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who has declined to run this year. Stringer has also won the endorsement of state senator and Democratic Socialists of America stalwart Julia Salazar, along with other high-profile progressives

But Wiley and Stringer will likely have to expand their bases, as progressive candidates have had some issues getting elected in New York City. The leftward push fell short in the 2018 Democratic primary for governor, when Cuomo handily defeated Cynthia Nixon not only statewide but in New York City, where Cuomo won 66 percent of the vote to Nixon’s 33 percent. And although Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez famously won her 2018 primary by running to the left of 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley, other progressives lost congressional primaries in both 2018 and 2020

Can a Wall Street-type candidate come out on top?

In a field of progressive candidates, at least one moderate is standing out from the pack: Ray McGuire, the former global head of corporate and investment banking at Citigroup. With his background as a high-level Wall Street executive, his path to success seems, so far, to be reliant on making inroads with political power brokers and garnering the support of deep-pocketed donors

In the months since announcing his candidacy, he’s raised well over $5 million, propelling him to the race’s upper tier even though he’s a first-time campaigner. McGuire has also hired a who’s who in Democratic circles to run his behind-the-scenes operations: Basil Smikle, a former executive director of the State Democratic Party, is his campaign manager, and Amanda Bailey, who worked on the presidential campaigns of then-Sen. Kamala Harris and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, is McGuire’s finance director.

Also working in his favor? A dedicated super PAC charged with upping his name recognition and amplifying his campaign efforts. Beyond that, and in perhaps a blow to the progressives in the race, McGuire has also gained the support of Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man whose death in 2014 at the hands of a police officer galvanized national support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

In addition, McGuire and Adams, both of whom are Black, are trying to make inroads with working-class Black New Yorkers — banking that the race will draw a diverse range of voters who do not necessarily share the overtly progressive messages being promoted by the other candidates. 

Casting ahead a little, a Democrat wouldn’t be guaranteed victory in the general election just for winning the June primary, but he or she would almost certainly be the favorite as New York is a very blue state. And we mean very blue: In New York City, Joe Biden won 76 percent of the vote compared with Donald Trump’s 23 percent. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won 79 percent to Trump’s 18 percent.

Alex Samuels was a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.