By Kevin Morris (@ktnmorris)
In June, the NY-14 became perhaps the most famous congressional district in the country. On June 26th, 28 year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez bested Joe Crowley in the district’s federal primary. Ocasio-Cortez ran on an unabashedly progressive platform, calling for Medicare for all, the abolishment of ICE, and a federal jobs guarantee. She has been heralded as the face of the insurgent left, demonstrating the potency of progressive policy among the Democratic base.
So what the hell happened on September 13?
New York State held its state primary on September 13th, featuring incumbent Andrew Cuomo facing off against progressive education activist Cynthia Nixon. Successes such as Ocasio-Cortez’s and Ayanna Pressley in the MA-07 stirred the hopes of many New York progressives that Nixon could bring a serious challenge to the Cuomo regime. In the end, she fell flat, outperforming Zephyr Teachout’s run against Cuomo in 2014 by just two percent.
Somewhat surprisingly, Nixon seriously underperformed in parts of New York City that had shown an appetite in June for progressive candidates. In the NY-14, for instance, Nixon won just 32 percent, compared to Ocasio-Cortez’s 57 percent. In the NY-09, where challenger Adem Bunkeddeko won 48 percent of the vote in the federal primary in June, Nixon won just 36 percent of the vote.
Some hot-takes have implied that it was just a matter of turnout. Dave Weigel, for instance, argued that Crowley lost by not turning out Cuomo-machine-motivated voters.
That story, however, doesn’t carry much water. Although there was a relationship between increased turnout and lower support for Cynthia Nixon, the correlation doesn’t explain the downward shift in support for the progressive candidate; even precincts where turnout barely increased supported Cynthia Nixon far less than they supported Ocasio-Cortez:
Some of this is likely due to the racial demographics of the district. Although black voters seemed willing to take a chance on a Latina from the area, it appears they were far less likely to take a chance on Cynthia Nixon. In Queens, support for Ocasio-Cortez and support for Nixon were highly correlated, but that relationship broke down in the Bronx:
This corroborates what we saw across the city, where Cynthia Nixon underperformed worst relative to Jumaane Williams in predominantly black communities:
Comparing these two elections is a little bit tricky because of that turnout issue. Not only did the share of registered voters who turned out change, but the composition also likely changed. Even in a district where turnout remained the same, it’s unlikely that exactly the same voters participated. We won’t be able to tease that out till next month.
But when we focus only on races that happened last week, it becomes even clearer that the hopes of progressive candidates didn’t rise and fall with the Cuomo machine. Last week, Zellnor Myrie and Alessandra Biaggi defeated members of the conservative Independent Democratic Caucus. Alessandra (whose senate district overlaps with Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional district) and Myrie ran progressive campaigns and were effective at getting folks to turnout. Surprisingly, even where neighborhoods supported these progressive candidates for the state senate, they didn’t support Cynthia Nixon:
This is all a bit puzzling - why were neighborhoods that were so happy to support progressive challengers in the federal primary and for state senate unwilling to cast their ballots for Cynthia Nixon? Certainly some of it can be attributed to the Cuomo machine turning out voters, but that’s far from the whole story there was a split even in races where turnout couldn’t have been a factor. It points to the complexity of running city and statewide campaigns versus races covering a smaller geography. It points to the potency of the identity politics of the candidate, and the sway that Cuomo has over voters. We should, however, resist the easy narratives. Clearly, Cynthia Nixon was not simply interchangeable with other progressive candidates for NYC voters. Her defeat, happily, doesn’t point to the impotence of progressive policies in the neighborhoods that didn’t vote for her.