Five things to watch in the New York City mayoral race

Photo illustration of New York
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New York City is hurtling toward its high-stakes mayoral race as a large number of Democrats and some Republicans jockey ahead of the June 22 primaries.

The ultimate winner of the mayoral race will take over a city in crisis that is grappling with high levels of coronavirus infections, the pandemic’s economic fallout, mushrooming crime and other issues.

The race has already garnered an array of candidates with a range of experiences looking to replace Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), whose oversight of the pandemic has been widely panned. He is barred from running for a third consecutive term.

Among the Democratic candidates running to secure a spot in the Nov. 2 general election are former presidential contender Andrew Yang, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, former counsel to de Blasio Maya Wiley and Shaun Donovan, former official under President Obama and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Here are five things to watch for as the race unfolds.


How is the coronavirus impacting the race?

The mayoral race looks unlike any other New York City has had in recent history. Retail politics have long been the staple of campaigning in the city’s five boroughs, with candidates often seen gladhanding with voters outside shops, on street corners and at local events to gin up name recognition and support.

However, that has been sharply curtailed during the coronavirus pandemic, a change that was underscored when Yang announced earlier this month that he tested positive for the virus and would cancel his in-person activities.

“They can’t do what they’ve always done,” said longtime Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf.

“New York is a place where people campaign, go into subways, standing outside bus lines, restaurants. It’s a very outdoors kind of environment where people are much more engaged in a very personal way with candidates. And part of the decisionmaking that goes into deciding who’s the mayor is by viewing who has the most physical pain by getting up the earliest in the morning, getting in at the latest at night and being seen at more stops.”

The coronavirus could also impact voter turnout, given how seriously the pandemic has hit the area.

Local elections in the city have historically been plagued by low voter participation, with turnout at times not even scraping 20 percent.

But observers suggest the severity of the pandemic, on top of an expanded early voting period, could rejigger that political calculus.

“The hardest thing to do is get somebody that normally doesn’t participate in local primary elections to start caring or thinking their vote matters, and so I think that’s the biggest factor. Will COVID be serious enough to get a much broader group of New Yorkers to the polls?” asked Kathryn Wylde, who leads the Partnership for New York City.


How big of a change are people looking for from de Blasio?

De Blasio’s management of the city has been broadly panned in recent years, and that criticism has only ramped up during the coronavirus pandemic.

His approval rating is under 50 percent, according to an October poll. One Democrat running in 2020 even used de Blasio as a foil, going so far as to call him the “worst mayor in the history of New York City.”

“The public opinion data says that Bill de Blasio would be hard pressed to win even a significant portion of the city’s electorate were he allowed to run again,” said Sheinkopf.

Wylde said voters are chiefly looking for a candidate who can propose the kind of clear plan to tackle the pandemic that de Blasio has struggled to articulate.

“Political pronouncements just don’t solve problems, and I think people have seen that play out in this very serious situation when we have a different solution every day depending on the political winds of the moment,” she said.


Can Yang maintain his early front-runner status?

Yang, who shot to national prominence during his surprisingly strong presidential campaign, is an early front-runner in the Democratic primary, with a poll earlier this month showing him with a big lead over his competitors.

He is by far the most well-known candidate in the race, with 84 percent of respondents saying they’ve heard of him. Stringer is the second most well-known candidate, with 66 percent name recognition.

Now comes the hard part for Yang: keeping that front-runner status.

While the entrepreneur maintains an expansive social media presence and fiercely loyal following, he’s come out of the gate with early gaffes. Among other things, he fumbled answers as to why he lived in his suburban home during the pandemic and why he did not vote in the 2000 and 2012 presidential elections or in every mayoral election in New York City between 2001 and 2017.

Beyond those missteps, Yang also lacks governing experience at a time when voters may look to a steady hand to lead them out of the pandemic.

“I think it’s going to be very difficult for those who do not have a record in public service and intimate knowledge of the city to convince voters that they’re the manager the city needs. So I think there’s a built in advantage for those who have been in government, who people know pre-pandemic and know in their community setting, not just from a zoom appearance,” Wylde said.

It’s also likely that voters’ familiarity with other candidates will increase as more campaign ads hit the air.

“Andrew Yang’s name recognition advantage disappears overnight when the air war starts,” said Eric Phillips, a former de Blasio spokesperson. “Can he stay leading a race when voters get to know the other candidates? I’m skeptical.”


What role will ranked-choice voting play in the primary?

New York City is using ranked-choice voting in the mayoral primaries for the first time this year. That means that should no candidate get 50 percent or more of the vote on the first round, subsequent picks are taken into account until one contender emerges with a majority of the vote.

That could result in fewer negative attacks out of fear of alienating another candidate’s supporters and even lead to unusual alliances.

“People will be making deals to figure out how they throw support to each other to get into first and second place,” said Sheinkopf.

Candidates who are more well-established in city politics may stand to benefit under the new system.

“I think ranked choice voting suggests that those candidates who are most familiar from their background in New York City grass-roots politics will benefit from a situation where people may say, ‘Well, this candidate, I saw their ad and they really appealed to me so I’m going to put them first, but I think it’s a safe bet to vote for another candidate who has a long-term record in public service and who I know has never done anything outrageous, is a decent human being, whatever,’” Wylde said.


Does a Republican have a chance in the general election?

The short answer is: Barely, if at all.

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a nearly 7 to 1 margin in the city, and its blue hue grew deeper during the Trump administration. Outside of Staten Island, Republican victories in the city have been increasingly scarce.

Wylde said a Republican would not have a have a chance “unless there’s a world-shattering event.” When asked to clarify, she said only an event with the same magnitude as the 9/11 terrorist attacks could shake up the race enough to give a Republican a real shot.

Sheinkopf put it more bluntly: “A Republican who runs should save his money and buy a house.”

Tags Andrew Yang Bill de Blasio mayoral race mayor new york city nyc democrats coronavirus andrew yang Michael Bloomberg Shaun Donovan
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