In a previous post, I lamented the fact that much of the media jump straight from a glib interpretation of an actual news event to mindless speculations about the future and what actions are indicated. The main problem with that is wrong analysis leads to wrong actions, just like a wrong medical diagnosis leads to wrong treatment.
We are seeing this happen big time in the wake of the shock Democratic primary victory by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York City. As is often the case, party leaders and media pundits, even though they did not see this result coming and were blindsided, are now breezily asserting that they completely understand why she won and that the result was not surprising because the demographics of the district had changed in her favor and against the long-term incumbent Joe Crowley. This enables them to assert that this was a purely local phenomenon and has no broader implications that might require the party to rethink its electoral strategy, which is comforting for those who in the establishment for whom the status quo is like a security blanket. Change is frightening to them.
But Zaid Jilani and Ryan Grim report on a highly detailed analysis of the voting patterns that suggests that the facile demographic explanation is wrong, and that what happened is that people who do not normally vote in a mid-term primary election, the lowest turnout elections usually, did vote. They discussed some of this in a post-election conversation with the canvassers for Ocasio-Cortez.
Many of the voters looked to the canvassers like stereotypical Bernie supporters — young people who might have supported Senator Sanders during the 2016 presidential campaign. These types of voters, galvanized by a popular presidential candidate or a certain ideology, might not be expected to turn out for a typical midterm primary. They’re what’s known in political circles as “drop-off voters.” But the Ocasio-Cortez campaign’s pivotal insight was that enough of them lived in the district to help carry her to victory if they were found and motivated to vote.
According to a precinct-by-precinct analysis of last week’s results by Steven Romalewski, director of the Mapping Service at the City University of New York’s Center for Urban Research, Ocasio-Cortez’s success can be attributed, in large part, to exactly that strategy. The drop-off voters didn’t drop off.
Perhaps the most relevant variable in Ocasio-Cortez’s electoral success is that the drop-off voters didn’t just vote, they got involved.
That was one finding. The other is that the demographic argument is simply wrong.
In fact, Crowley — Irish-American and from Queens — was presumed to do better there than Ocasio-Cortez, who — Puerto Rican and from the Bronx — was expected to carry her home borough. But Romalewski mapped out the votes across the district, and what he found was the exact opposite of the pundits’ conclusion: Crowley, known until last week as the king of Queens, was crushed almost everywhere, but he did better in the Bronx.
“You can also see that most of her votes, the strongest vote support came from areas like Astoria in Queens and Sunnyside in Queens and parts of Jackson Heights that, number one, were not predominantly Hispanic, so they’re a more mixed population, and are areas where — this is kind of a term of art — are in the process of being gentrified, where newer people are moving in,” said Romalewski.
Romalewski cautioned that the Board of Elections will release more detailed demographic information about the election in the coming months, so any conclusions drawn from the data should be measured. But the initial data strongly suggests that Ocasio-Cortez received no significant advantage from neighborhoods with large Latino populations versus those with small Latino populations. Not surprisingly, given her margin of victory, she generally did do well in working class Latino neighborhoods, but she did even better elsewhere.
What Ocasio-Cortez’s elections should be studied for is what it suggests about strategies for drawing in and engaging the ‘drop off’ voters. As Jilani and Grim conclude:
If demographics were all that mattered, and she had run a generic Democratic campaign, her identity alone would not have yielded the voting distribution these maps reflect. The story is incomplete without acknowledging the surging turnout among lefty millennials of all races who were moved by her Sanders-style platform of democratic socialism. The suggestion that the race was all about demographics is an attempt to sheer it of its ideological meaning.
It is undoubtedly true that local factors are important in any election. But teasing out what is purely local and what is not requires close analysis to avoid drawing the wrong conclusions.