data for politics #24: The IDC Challengers and Cynthia Nixon

By Kevin Morris (@ktnmorris)

Over here at Data for Progress, we’re still celebrating the imminent demise of the Independent Democratic Caucus. On September 13, voters in New York City roundly defeated five of the six members of the IDC facing reelection bids. There’s already talk about the progressive legislation that might finally start making its way through Albany with the arrival of a true Democratic majority in the state senate - improved access to the ballot, stricter campaign finance laws, stronger rent regulation, and more.

In our piece the day after the election, we made a lot of noise about one fact in particular: where turnout was higher, voters supported challengers to IDC candidates more:


Of course, when we start talking about correlations among precincts, ascribing causation is difficult to do. Without controlling for other factors, we don’t know if higher turnout led to higher support for progressive challengers, or if districts where people are more likely to turnout generally support progressive candidates. This is an especially important consideration given that turnout is not evenly distributed among the city - areas with higher incomes were substantially more likely to turnout in the September 13 primary:


To get around this issue, we can compare the turnout rate in each precinct to its own history. By comparing every precinct to itself at a recent moment, we can get rid of all the other noise in the data. To control for all the other noise among precincts, we took a look at how turnout changed between the 2016 presidential primary and this year’s state primary. Although was lower in nearly every precinct this year than when Bernie and Hillary faced off, we find that where turnout dropped off less, support for IDC challengers was higher:

There’s only a very weak relationship between a precinct’s median income and the change in its turnout rate; lower-income neighborhoods weren’t more likely to see their turnout drop off from one race to the next. Regardless of a precinct’s income, higher (relative) turnout was associated with higher support for the progressive candidate. This is a big deal: when more people are brought into the political conversation, regardless of their neighborhood’s characteristics, the neighborhood pulls the conversation left.

The relationship between the IDC races and the success of Cynthia Nixon is less clearcut. Before digging into the numbers, I expected that she would do better in areas where the IDC challengers ran strong ground operations. And, to an extent, that was true. Where in precincts where IDC candidates did well, Cynthia Nixon tended to do better as well:

But take a look at those axes: The IDC challengers won more than 75 percent of the vote in 145 precincts, but Cynthia Nixon topped that share in just six. Despite the fact that there’s a strong positive correlation between the IDC challengers and a precinct’s support for Nixon, strong performances by these progressive candidates for the state senate. Furthermore, much of this relationship can be explained by a precinct’s median income. After controlling for income, Cynthia Nixon’s share of a precinct’s votes was generally half the support won by the IDC challenger.

This was broadly true across precincts in all different sorts of neighborhoods. In majority-black precincts, for instance, IDC challengers picked up 42 percent of the vote. Although black precincts tended not to support IDC challengers, this 42 percent far outweighed the 27 percent of the votes Nixon won in these areas. Plurality-white precincts cast 63 percent of their ballots for IDC challengers and just 42 percent for Nixon. And, more generally, Nixon underperformed relative to the IDC challengers across the board:


There’s also not much evidence to support the notion that the buzz generated by a local election led to more progressive outcomes. After controlling for a precinct’s racial makeup, its median income, and its borough, precincts with an IDC member being primaried gave just 1.3 percent more of their votes to Cynthia Nixon. Voter turnout in areas with IDC challengers was also just 1.2 percent higher than the rest of the city. Despite the view from online, local races alone weren’t able to increase turnout enormously.

The results are a little confusing - five of six progressive challengers won, and yet in these same senate districts the progressive challenger for governor failed to get 50 percent of the vote anywhere. It raises some uncomfortable questions. If voters were affirmatively choosing the progressive senate candidates based on their policies, why did they so frequently vote against the gubernatorial candidate most closely aligned with those policies? And if voters were rejecting the false Democratic affiliation of the IDC candidates, why did they not also reject the fake progressivism of Andrew Cuomo? The answer likely lies in the fact that the state has seen a few major progressive wins over the past decade. Many voters gave Cuomo unearned credit for these successes, and he himself was quick to claim them as his own. Cynthia Nixon’s resounding defeat in NYC complicates the narrative we tell about progressive politics in NYS, but the successes of the anti-IDC coalition should cheer us all.

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