The Ocasio-Cortez effect is a winner for Democrats

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I remember thinking: the impossible just happened. An upstart challenger, and member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, unseated one of the most powerful Democrats in the country: U.S. Representative Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.). I watched from the sidelines as a volunteer for Adem Bunkeddeko in Brooklyn, a campaign in a different New York congressional district, and believe all Democrats should take a cue from Ocasio-Cortez’s tactics.

Some have downplayed Ocasio-Cortez’s victory. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) referred to it as a mere “choice in one district.” Nevertheless, this triumph is particularly unique considering incumbent rates for reelection to the U.S. House hover near 90 percent since 1964, and in 2016 it was 97 percent. So Ocasio-Cortez beat the odds, but why?  

Despite Ocasio-Cortez’s socialist label, the issues played a relatively minimal role. Both candidates seemed to agree on nearly everything except abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement and impeaching President Donald Trump (something Pelosi herself opposes).

{mosads}Crowley had a track record and certainly wasn’t a moderate Democrat. He co-sponsored the Medicare for All Act and legislation to make the federal minimum wage $15 an hour. At the local level, he supported closing the Rikers Island prison and brought substantial federal funding to the Queens and Bronx areas (Ocasio-Cortez admitted as much after her victory).


Crowley did have money and power. He raised approximately $3.3 million from mostly large donors and PACs. Crowley also had the New York Democratic political machine backing him. Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign spent approximately $200,000 on the primary election, and won with about $100,000 cash-on-hand for the primary.

The demographics of the Bronx and Queens played an important, though not pivotal, role. “Hispanic or Latino” made up sizable blocks in both the Bronx and Queens, 55.4 percent and 28 percent, respectively. However, Ocasio-Cortez won across the board even in predominantly white areas such as Astoria and Woodside.

Not everything was in Crowley’s favor. His district had been reshaped a number of times, incorporating more of the diverse Bronx area. The press was especially hard on him and failed to cover Ocasio-Cortez because it didn’t consider her a viable candidate. The New York Post reported a few years ago that Crowley doesn’t live in his district (he responded that he lives in Woodside in Queens, a neighborhood which he lost). The Ocasio-Cortez campaign capitalized on Crowley’s lack of connection to his constituents through regular emails, social media, and her campaign video.

Crowley made a number of serious and avoidable mistakes. He should have dedicated more money to New York’s primary election. The general election opponent, Anthony Pappas, has little money and is focused on putting restraints on state judges (hardly a winning issue). Some of Crowley’s biggest donations from corporate interests and turned to a GOP-linked lobbying firm for funding in the run up to the primary election. The New York Times even criticized Mr. Crowley for sending a surrogate to debate Ocasio-Cortez.

Hubris also played a role in Crowley’s defeat. While Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign arguably went negative highlighting his gaffs, Crowley’s campaign never attacked because his campaign never felt she was a threat. The Crowley congressional campaign’s last poll was conducted three weeks before election day and it found him 36 points ahead.

Voter turnout was depressed, which was to Ocasio-Cortez’s advantage. According to political scientist Matthew J. Streb, low voter turnout favors the anti-establishment because they are typically highly engaged and know the issues; only 13 percent of registered voters turned out in the primary. In a low-turnout election, only a couple thousand people can change the trajectory of a race, and Ocasio-Cortez successfully targeted first-time voters and registered voters without a record of voting. Coupled by the basics of campaigning, these elements were critical to mobilizing support at the polls.

However, Ocasio-Cortez’s major advantage was her motivating life story which her campaign brilliantly promoted. Ocasio-Cortez told a touching, unique story about her humble background in her campaign video by saying “women like me aren’t supposed to run for office.” This Cinderella story clearly struck a chord with her campaign video going viral.

In politics, money and power are important, but they cannot always secure success. Pelosi is correct it is just “one district,” but Ocasio-Cortez inspired voters, volunteers, and even other candidates creating conditions ripe for change. This approach is something Democrats should replicate to compete in the marketplace of emotion against Republicans this November and in 2020 by telling their own unique story. Only then will Republicans feel the full brunt of the Ocasio-Cortez effect.

Matthew J. Fecteau is a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is a former Democratic congressional candidate in Rhode Island and an Iraq War veteran. Follow Fecteau on Twitter @matthewfecteau.

Tags Donald Trump Joe Crowley Nancy Pelosi

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