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Paths to Victory: Which Voters are the Democratic Mayoral Candidates Aiming For?

4 paths victory aim

Voters voting (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

With just one week left till primary day and early voting already underway, the Democratic candidates for mayor are in a mad dash to make their final impressions with voters. The final official TV debate is set for Wednesday, June 16, and will see the top eight candidates take the stage again with just a few days before primary day, June 22. But while that debate is meant for “leading contenders,” it's becoming clear that some of those candidates have virtually no shot at winning the primary while others have solidified support or remain within striking distance. 

The top eight candidates include Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, former counsel to the mayor Maya Wiley, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia, Comptroller Scott Stringer, former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire, former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, and former federal housing secretary Shaun Donovan.

With ranked-choice voting being used for the first time in a citywide election, each of the candidates has to build a coalition that transcends what may be their base, if they have one, in the hopes of grabbing second- and third-choice votes to eventually cross the 50% threshold for victory, assuming no candidate hits a majority of first-choice votes on the initial count.

Adams seems to have the clearest path to victory and has consistently been at or near the top of the fairly limited public polling available. In a new poll released Monday, conducted by Marist between June 3 and 9 among 876 likely primary voters and sponsored by WNBC, Telemundo 47, and POLITICO as part of the city’s debate program, Adams led with 24% of first-choice votes; Garcia came in second with 17%; Wiley in third with 15%; and Yang in fourth with 13%. The poll showed 13% undecided overall (the Bronx had the most undecided voters at 20%). Removing the undecided to perform the ranked-choice instant runoff tally, the poll showed Adams winning the primary with 56% of the vote in the 12th round, with Garcia coming in second with 44%.

The poll also looked at the most popular second-choice for voters. It found that Adams and Donovan voters most commonly picked Yang second. Garcia and Morales voters picked Wiley second, while Wiley voters picked Garcia. For Yang, Stringer, and McGuire voters, Adams was their most popular second choice. 

In an earlier PIX11/NewsNation/Emerson College poll conducted between June 7 and 8 and released June 9, Adams was also in the lead as the first choice for 23% of likely voters. A 22-year member of the NYPD before being elected to the State Senate then borough presidency, Adams has campaigned hard on public safety and tackling rising violent crime, which polls show has become at or near the top of issues for primary voters this year.

His base of support is strongest in Brooklyn, the largest borough by population and the one that tends to provide the most Democratic votes in the primary, and he appears to be dominating the field among voters who identify as moderate and conservative and Black voters -- in the new Marist poll, Adams received 43% of the Black vote, with “undecided” next highest at 14% followed by Wiley, who is Black, at 11%, and Yang at 10%. Among those who identified as moderate, Adams won the largest share at 29%. He fared even better with those who identified as conservative or very conservative, winning 42%.

But he has also buttressed that with appeal across boroughs and demographics. In the third “Pulse of the Primary” poll by Fontas Advisors and Core Decision Analytics, Adams led the rest of the field in the Bronx and Queens as well. He had the most support from both men and women and voters aged 35 and up. He was well ahead among Black voters and nearly tied for Hispanic support with Yang. Adams’ profile and platform could help him win Black voters in Southeast Queens, where McGuire has also made a concerted outreach effort. 

“The Black community has seriously rallied to date behind Eric, but so are one- to two-family homeowners of any race for whom public safety is often a major issue,” said George Fontas, CEO and founder of Fontas Advisors. “So that allows Eric to do well across gender, across race, across age and therefore he has the broadest appeal to the electorate.” 

For years, Adams built up relationships in the Orthodox Jewish communities of Brooklyn, and hoped to rely on them as a prominent voting bloc in this primary. But Yang has eaten away at that support with a focused campaign within the campaign and promise to allow yeshivas to operate without interference from city government, among other statements.  

With a raft of labor endorsements, Adams is also banking on support from union households, which made up more than a third of Democratic primary voters in 2013, the last wide open mayoral race, according to exit polling from The New York Times.

Adams’ greatest threat had seemed to be Yang, whose unconventional candidacy had dominated the race for months. Running off the celebrity of his previous campaign for president, Yang quickly cobbled together disparate parts of the electorate in the city to form an initial coalition that showed itself in the available polling.

Hispanic voters, though they aren’t a monolith, make up roughly 20% of the Democratic primary electorate and will be crucial for any candidate to claim victory. Yang has displayed strong support from Hispanics, as was evident in the Fontas/CODA poll where he just edged out Adams. 

Yang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, is also inspiring Asian-Americans and is expected to handily win their votes, with a key question whether he can increase the Asian vote-share of the primary electorate, from roughly 6% to more like 9-10%. The Yang campaign has been banking on strong support among moderate to conservative white voters in parts of each borough, including a solid showing on Staten Island, in eastern Queens, and elsewhere. 

His campaign also expects support from young Black and white voters, and a mix of supporters across ideology given how Yang’s platform is not so easily captured on that spectrum, though broadly speaking he is running a more moderate campaign. There has also been the expectation, though it may be fading, that Yang would be a very popular second and third choice for voters who know his name and generally like him, while associating him with popular things like cash relief, the city’s economic reopening, and enthusiasm for the future. 

“We do very, very well with Jewish voters. We do very, very well with Asian voters. And more and more we do well on Staten Island, and I think I would add to that young Black voters and young white voters,” said Chris Coffey, Yang’s co-campaign manager, in a phone interview. “I think when you add all that together, we have the clearest path to success.”

But the polls show Yang slipping. He has said that his victory will depend on expanding the electorate, but it's impossible to predict whether that will come to pass. Even getting more Asian voters to the polls may not be enough to sway the results. The Orthodox Jewish vote could easily split.

“Yang's path to victory is through less likely voters, frankly, and the problem with less likely voters is that they’re less likely to show up,” said Fontas.

Meanwhile, Wiley, Garcia, Stringer, and Donovan are all targeting some similar blocs – voter-rich Brownstone Brooklyn and white progressives in Manhattan, for instance.

Wiley, in particular, is making a huge bet on support from Black women, who are the Democratic Party’s most reliable voters. Women are expected to make up more than 60% of the Democratic primary electorate, and Black women could account for 13% or more of the total vote. 

But she is putting together a multiracial coalition, attempting to recreate de Blasio’s 2013 victory where he won a large share of Black voters and white progressives. The PIX-11/Emerson College poll found that Wiley had jumped to second place in the race, with 17% of first-choice votes, shortly after being endorsed by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. While that poll did not capture the full initial impact of that and other endorsements as many on the left have coalesced behind Wiley in recent weeks, a poll out Monday from progressive think tank Data for Progress (which has a solid rating as a pollster despite its ideological bent) showed Wiley in second at 20%, to Adams’ 26%.

In a press briefing on her path to victory on Tuesday morning, Wiley advisor Jon Paul Lupo said the positive polls showed that “Maya is actually the candidate who can build the biggest coalition and the coalition that wins Democratic primary elections in New York City. It's a cross-racial coalition. It spans ages, it spans ideologies, and there's not another candidate in the field who has as high a ceiling.” 

He later cited “progressive consolidation,” which is true for many endorsers but unclear for voters, and said, “and obviously demographically, there's a lot of overlap with Eric Adams,” though it remains unclear how far Wiley can take that. 

“When you look at an electorate that's going to be, you know, 60%-plus women, Maya has a natural base there,” Lupo said. “Obviously she’s lived in Brooklyn for a long time and has a natural base there in Central Brooklyn. African American and Caribbean American both because of her identity and because of some of the people who are supporting us. There are progressives and liberals in the city who appeal to her message. Latinos who you know are concerned about some of the issues that she's talking about, particularly saving the next generation of kids in our city. So it's a wide demographic.”

Having been an MSNBC contributor, Wiley already has cachet among its mostly white progressive audience, but her potential among those voters appeared to take a hit when the New York Times editorial board backed Garcia. Wiley has to some degree been consolidating progressives in the wake of crises for the Stringer and Morales campaigns. 

What remains to be seen is whether the progressive vote will split and to what degree progressive voters rank the same pool of candidates. Indications are that Wiley and Garcia share support among many voters while Stringer and Adams have some crossover, as do Adams and Yang.

In the Marist poll that had Wiley third at 15%, she was by far the leader among those who self-identified as “very liberal,” with Garcia second. Wiley’s challenge appears to be cutting into Garcia’s support among white Manhattanites and Adams’ support among Black voters.

Stringer has spent decades pressing the flesh as an elected official and has built alliances and constituencies that he was hoping will propel him to the top. He has a solid base on the Upper West Side, an area he represented on the state Assembly and which is a dependable source for votes in the primary. He has support among white progressives and he won early support from young, progressive legislators of color, many of them women, as he launched his campaign. 

But much of that has come crashing down since he was first accused of sexual assault and harassment by a volunteer from his 2001 campaign for public advocate. That led a series of endorsers to abandon him, many of them heading to Wiley, and was eventually followed by allegations of similar sexual misconduct outlined by the New York Times, dating back to 1992 when Stringer owned and operated a bar and restaurant on the Upper West Side. 

Even prior to the allegations, Stringer had mostly hovered at the center of the pack in public polls. In the Emerson poll, Stringer came in at just 9%; in the Marist poll released Monday he was at 7%.

Garcia is hoping to win support in Brownstone Brooklyn, where she lives, and is picking up significant support among liberal white voters, particularly in Manhattan. “Those are the same voters that Maya Wiley is seeking, and those are the same voters that Scott Stringer is seeking, as well,” Fontas said. 

Her campaign picked up remarkable momentum after she was endorsed by the New York Times and the New York Daily News, along with several elected officials, and she has begun rising in the polls. “Her no-nonsense sort of tone and her extraordinary history in government bureaucracy...position her well I think with people who are interested in having a mayor get back to the nuts and bolts,” Fontas added.  

Fontas said Garcia’s path to victory is to merge those liberal white voters and a combination of blue-collar workers, particularly those working in municipal government like sanitation workers, fire-fighters, and police officers. While Garcia is backed by the sanitation unions she used to manage, the firefighter and police unions that have endorsed in the race have gone with Adams or Yang.

But like other candidates, Garcia has no path to victory without significant support from voters of color, and polling has shown some support among Hispanic voters (Garcia is white, but her surname is from her ex-husband, who is Puerto-Rican) yet little among Black voters.

“It's still very, very much a citywide focus,” said a senior official with Garcia’s campaign. “We have been everywhere in the last couple of weeks and we're gonna keep being everywhere.” 

Morales, Donovan, and McGuire seem to have no real path to victory, all polling of late in the low single digits. Both Donovan and McGuire have spent millions of dollars on television and digital ads, raising their name recognition over the last few months, but have both been in the bottom two places among the eight in almost every poll of the race.

Morales’ campaign seemed to be gaining momentum, with a robust social media operation that was particularly effective in reaching youth voters and a series of left-wing endorsements or second-rank backing. But the allegations against her and her staff around poor treatment of workers and volunteers and a lack of strong leadership have derailed her campaign. She has bled campaign workers, with several leaving in protest and one senior advisor even jumping ship to join the Wiley campaign. She also terminated several other aides, prompting further criticism and accusations of union busting against the incipient organizing efforts of campaign workers. Her poll numbers, somewhat on the rise, have in recent weeks faded. Nevertheless, she has made a late entry to the airwaves, launchng an ad buy that could wind up lifting her final standing, especially among Latino voters.

[READ: What Will The Electorate Look Like For The 2021 Democratic Mayoral Primary?]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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