Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
The AOC Effect
The superstar congresswoman had a substantial impact on two major primaries
Do endorsements still matter? Which ones really count? Journalists, political operatives, and the occasional voter will often obsess over this inside game. There is a mix of data and conventional wisdom that will support one conclusion over the other. The outcomes of elections, in theory, tell us which endorsements have impact. But when so many external and internal factors go into a given campaign, isolating what helps and what doesn’t is a tricky proposition.
Here’s what I think: Endorsements matter if they bring you volunteers, money, or a brand that people care about. A vast majority of endorsements fall into the third category. An organization decides to back the candidate and the candidate puts a logo for that organization on a palm card. Some number of voters can be swayed, and candidates hope to accrue endorsements so their literature and websites look busy with support.
Endorsements with money are helpful. The Working Families Party is irked whenever I point this out, but they matter chiefly because they function as a mix of a super PAC and consultant. They offer expertise to a certain number of campaigns, deploying smart operatives to give advice and organize volunteers. They occasionally marshal significant outside expenditures for a select few candidates. In the 2019 Queens DA’s race, their work for Tiffany Cabán fell under this rubric. The WFP brought money and organization, rather than volunteers, to her campaign. They definitely helped her.
Then there are the endorsements that bring volunteers. Nonprofit groups like Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change have a volunteer base. The strongest volunteer-run organization, by far, is currently the Democratic Socialists of America. And certain large labor unions, when invested in a particular campaign, can deploy many volunteers.
Endorsements are brands too. They signify to the voters that a campaign has met some threshold of approval. The WFP does not have many volunteers that can be dispatched to campaigns but it does have a brand that signals progressive to well-wired Democratic primary voters. The DSA brand, of course, means socialism. Members of labor unions could be more likely to vote for you if their union endorses you.
Elected officials occupy their own realm. Some have genuine clubs or organizations behind them; most don’t. Most will claim to move sizable numbers of votes; most can only nudge voters within their districts, and even then, their endorsed candidates might lose. It’s nothing against them. Many voters just don’t blindly follow a single politician. Individual endorsements, as a rule, are overrated. As a collective, with volunteers and money behind them, they matter much more.
In this 2021 election cycle, with two competitive citywide contests, two endorsements in particular stood out. Their impact could be measured, tangibly, in a shift in polling and votes. These endorsers do not guarantee victories, but they clearly improved the odds of the candidates they fell behind.
First, there was the New York Times editorial board. Back in 2020, in the heat of the pandemic, I posited that their endorsement mattered more than ever because an otherwise diminished media environment had elevated the paper far beyond its rivals. In the 20th century, the Daily News and Post had enormous circulations of their own, and editorial boards that punched at their weight or above. Their columnists were celebrities, widely-read across the city and nation. The grim economic realities of the news business have deeply hobbled both newspapers, which failed to adapt to the internet age like the Times. In this new world, the Times dominates, and the highly-educated readers who make up an ever-larger share of the Democratic electorate in New York City—that will be a piece for another day—do take their cues from the newspaper.
The Times, of course, endorsed Kathryn Garcia for mayor when she was a polling afterthought, stuck in a lower tier with Shaun Donovan and Ray McGuire. In a matter of weeks, Garcia had rocketed up in the polls, where she remained. At one time, within the margin of error, she overtook Eric Adams. These polls held consistently through Election Day, when Garcia crushed her opposition where the Times is likely to have its greatest impact: Brownstone Brooklyn and Manhattan. Garcia won Manhattan outright, the only non-Adams candidate to win a borough, and carried the most affluent neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Part of the magic of the Times endorsement was conferring additional media coverage on Garcia; she was immediately rendered a serious contender in the horse-race, and allowed to break through among high-information voters. When the ranked-choice tabulation occurred, Garcia came within a point of victory.
The Times aided another citywide candidate: Brad Lander, who narrowly triumphed over Corey Johnson in the race for city comptroller. Lander, a term-limited city councilman who is well-regarded in progressive and NGO circles, won the Times backing over Johnson, the City Council speaker. He easily carried his district, which includes the tony Times-reading neighborhoods of Park Slope, Cobble Hill, and Windsor Terrace, and notably bested Johnson in Manhattan, where Johnson is an elected official. Lander ran an effective campaign and was probably going to be very competitive with upper-income liberals in any borough—Johnson won the Bronx, the poorest county—but running as the Times candidate, in a primary that received little media attention otherwise, likely helped.
The second endorser that mattered in both contests was a person: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The congresswoman endorsed Lander, early on, for city comptroller and later backed Maya Wiley for mayor. First elected in 2018, the most famous legislator in America has had a somewhat spotty involvement in local matters. An early opponent of the taxpayer subsidies for the proposed Amazon HQ in Queens, Ocasio-Cortez helped sink it altogether, but she has otherwise steered clear of most thorny local fights. Her predecessor, Joe Crowley, ran the Queens Democratic Party and Ocasio-Cortez has mostly allowed the weakened machine to function in a similar manner under Gregory Meeks, a Crowley ally. A 2020 movement to elect more reform district leaders could not get her support.
Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement approach in the 2021 City Council races wasn’t much better. She doled out individual endorsements, failing to help several leftist candidates in very tough races, and gave out a broader stamp of approval through her Courage to Change PAC, which certified 60 candidates who properly completed a questionnaire. Courage to Change candidates included those who, quite literally, didn’t have the courage to change: Arthur Schwartz, the attorney known for repeated lawsuits against bus and bike lanes, was the PAC’s first choice in a Manhattan race that he did not win anyway.
But it was the citywide endorsements that truly mattered. Ocasio-Cortez, early on, decided Lander would be her choice for comptroller and there was a time when it appeared this would be the only citywide endorsement she was going to make. Johnson and Lander had both been center-left lawmakers in the body, but Johnson aligned himself with the Queens and Bronx Democratic machines to get elected speaker. After Ocasio-Cortez won in 2018, Johnson downplayed her victory, ascribing it to low voter turnout. In the 2021 campaign, Lander ran as the more obvious progressive, criticizing the NYPD and calling for ambitious new housing programs while Johnson, a late entry into the race, relied on the many labor unions who backed him to carry him through.
Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Lander at the end of March. It was early enough that Lander, a strong fundraiser, could cut TV ads with the congresswoman featured prominently, airing them repeatedly as the race finally heated up. Johnson was later to the airwaves and never released any memorable ads. Lander was, in every sense, the AOC candidate and he was able to demolish Johnson in the gentrifying precincts where her endorsement probably goes furthest.
If Ocasio-Cortez herself is a lightning rod, with a certain number of conservatives and older Democrats alienated by her cultural leftism, she is someone who has serious purchase with younger progressives who are a growing share of the Democratic electorate in New York City. AOC won’t move votes in East New York or Marine Park, but she is going to matter a lot in Astoria, Sunnyside, Jackson Heights, Bushwick, Prospect Heights and any number of neighborhoods that have undergone demographic change.
In the 53rd Assembly District, roping in the gentrifying East Williamsburg and Bushwick, Lander more than doubled Johnson’s vote-share. He did the same in Williamsburg and Greenpoint’s 50th Assembly District, even with the Hasidic blocs favoring Johnson. In the 57th Assembly District, taking in Prospect Heights and Fort Greene, Lander more than doubled Johnson again.
Western Queens told a similar story. Astoria’s 36th Assembly District was an absolute rout: Lander was a few hundred votes away from tripling Johnson. Lander carried Jackson Height’s 34th Assembly District and dominated Long Island City and Ridgewood’s 37th Assembly District.
It was these large margins of victory that helped Lander survive in the ranked-choice tabulation over Johnson, 52 to 48 percent. Lander’s victory was notable, in part, because he beat a candidate endorsed by every large labor union. Johnson had the support of 1199 SEIU, 32BJ SEIU, the United Federation of Teachers, and the Hotel Trades Council, among others. In her own 2018 upset, Ocasio-Cortez overcame the combined might of organized labor, but this was on the local level in an election where less than 30,000 people voted.
Lander’s feat was more impressive. Eight years ago, in another contentious comptroller’s race, the opposite had happened: Scott Stringer beat Eliot Spitzer with the help of every labor union in town. Lander’s win, of course, is a testament to his strengths as a candidate, but also what Ocasio-Cortez was able to do for him. In the neighborhoods most receptive to the AOC brand, Lander was dominant.
The mayoral race was a different animal. For long stretches of the primary, there was no obvious choice for Ocasio-Cortez. The aforementioned Stringer was beginning to consolidate progressives, but he was accused of sexual assault in May, taking him out of the running. Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive, was from the outset running the most AOC-like campaign and seemed to briefly have a chance of breaking into the first tier. Her campaign, however, would implode, with accusations of union-busting and her left credentials called into question. The Working Families Party, at one time, had backed Stringer first for mayor and Morales second. The organization would retreat from them both.
Maya Wiley was the last candidate standing. Ocasio-Cortez, naturally, was not willing to take a risk on Stringer or Morales and Wiley, the least damaged, was there waiting for an endorsement. It came in June, a few weeks from the June 22 primary, and it was not enough for her to win. But a zero-sum analysis obscures the impact the endorsement had. Ocasio-Cortez was able, almost overnight, consolidate the young left vote for Wiley in gentrifying neighborhoods. Northern Brooklyn and western Queens fell in line behind her, with Morales and Stringer picking up scant votes. Other endorsers mattered too; local elected officials like Julia Salazar and Emily Gallagher became Wiley backers shortly before AOC made her announcement, and the WFP’s embrace of Wiley was a relevant signal.
Polling bore out how much Wiley rose. In April, the left-leaning Data for Progress found that Wiley, along with other candidates, was far behind Andrew Yang. Other pollsters showed Wiley bunched up in a second tier with a variety of other Democrats. By June, after Ocasio-Cortez had unified progressive organizations behind Wiley, she had made significant gains in the polls, running second in Adams. On election night, she finished second to Adams among first-place votes, outpacing Garcia. Astoria, Sunnyside, Long Island City, Ridgewood, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Prospect Heights, and Clinton Hill all fell behind Wiley.
Few politicians anywhere are capable of uniting various organizations and elected officials around a single candidate and marshaling tens of thousands of people behind them. The relative paucity of Stringer and Morales votes among progressives was proof, in part, Ocasio-Cortez could deliver a bloc of votes, arguably many more than a Hasidic rebbe or a labor leader.
The 31-year-old congresswoman impacted the mayoral race in one other crucial way: she helped sink Andrew Yang’s campaign. In May, she called out Yang on Twitter for trying to visit a mosque after he sent out his own tweet defending Israel’s slaughter of Palestinian civilians. With more than 12 million followers, Ocasio-Cortez can make national news at-will, and suddenly Yang was reviled by progressives who may not have been paying too much attention to the race. Yang was heckled at public events as the tweet, unlike most other controversies, permeated the popular consciousness.
Yang, of course, was already beginning to struggle with progressives and well-educated voters and many factors contributed to his descent into fourth place, including his hiring of Bradley Tusk and his failure to talk on municipal issues with any real command. Ocasio-Cortez was there to hammer in, for voters predisposed to disliking Yang, that there were other candidates they should consider.
Will Ocasio-Cortez choose to take on big fights next year? Leftists will launch new primaries in the state legislature and Andrew Cuomo, scandal-ridden, will attempt to win a fourth term. Though she called for Cuomo to resign, Ocasio-Cortez has otherwise tiptoed around the powerful executive. If she falls behind a candidate early enough—or helps push one into the primary—the risk might be worth the reward.