Politics

Early front-runners like Andrew Yang usually win NYC mayoral primaries

While Yang’s lead is surmountable, a look back over history suggests that front-runners at this point usually go on to win the primary.

When voters were asked who their first choices are, Yang averaged 22% of the vote in my aggregate of recent polling. Behind him are Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams at 14%, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer at 9% and attorney and former MSNBC legal analyst Maya Wiley at 8%. The other four major candidates come in at 5% or less.

Of course, these standings do not take into account ranked choice voting. In this system, voters are asked to rank their candidate preferences from 1 to 5. Voters who choose the candidate with the fewest votes in a given round will have their ballots reallocated to their next highest preferences, until a candidate receives a majority of the vote.

Under this system, Yang still comes out on top by double digits in the polling.

While his lead may not end up holding, we shouldn’t dismiss it.

In primaries without a Democratic incumbent running since 1985, the polling leader at this point won the Democratic primary in 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2009. The polling leader also won in 1985, 1989, 1993 and 2017. The lone exception where the person ahead in the polls didn’t win was 2013.

This means the candidate who’s ahead in the primary polls two months out from voting has won eight of nine primaries and four of five primaries without a Democratic incumbent running.

For those challenging Yang, the 2013 primary does hold at least one similarity to this one: the leader’s percentage of the vote in the polls. The candidates who were ahead and won their primaries in past years were all earning a higher percentage in the polls than Yang is now.

The only time the leader was at about Yang’s level was in 2013. Back then, Christine Quinn and Anthony Weiner were floating at between 20% and 25% of the vote. The ultimate winner, current Mayor Bill de Blasio, was hovering in the lows 10s.

This should give the Yang challengers some hope. Yang is by far the best-known candidate in the field, according to the polls, and he’s stuck in the mid-20s.

Still, Yang’s advantage may be stronger than his mid-20s polling suggests at first glance. Unlike Quinn (whose poll numbers were once in the 30s and had dropped) or Weiner (who had risen from the midteens), Yang’s poll numbers have been very steady.

Yang has been ahead since the first polls of the race were taken last year. He’s been consistently between 20% and 30% of the vote in the initial preferences. More than that, no other candidate has come close to him in either the initial preferences or when the ranked choice voting is put into effect.

Keep in mind, too, that this field is larger than any in modern mayoral history. Hitting 24% in an eight-candidate field is more impressive than hitting that percentage in a five-candidate field, for example.

Yang’s consistent advantage has bothered some on the left, who view him as too moderate. Some of them have been hoping that someone more progressive than Yang could coalesce the very liberal vote to defeat the front-runner. It’s definitely possible that a candidate viewed as more progressive than Yang may end up winning.

The issue here is that the very progressive candidates don’t actually have a clear path, even if just one of them ran.

Take a look at the candidates who the progressive Working Families Party have ranked first (Stringer), second (nonprofit executive Dianne Morales) and third (Wiley). If you add all of them up, you still get to just 20% of the vote on average. That’s less than Yang’s 24%. This doesn’t even take into account that the second-place candidate at this point (Adams), who is pulling in 14%, is generally seen as more moderate, like Yang.

Indeed, if Yang ultimately wins this election, it will be in part because the New York City primary electorate may not be as progressive as some think it is.

According to the 2020 Cooperative Elections Study, 23% of the city’s registered Democrats called themselves very liberal. An additional 33% said they were liberal, and 36% were moderate or conservative.

Nationally, in the same survey, 25% of self-identified Democratic voters considered themselves very liberal, 36% were liberal and 36% were moderate.

There is, in other words, no sign that Democrats in New York City are especially liberal compared with Democrats nationally.

Remember, Democrats nationally nominated Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton as their last two nominees over more progressive competition. (Both also won the primaries in New York City.)

Dominating the very liberal lane will likely not be enough for the non-Yang candidates. They’ll have to make inroads with more moderates and mainstream liberals.

If none of the very progressive candidates do that, then they’ll have a tough time catching Yang.

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