Is Andrew Yang Really at the Front of the Pack?

Many people in the politics and media spheres can't believe Yang can actually win the mayoral race.

In retrospect, the outcome of the 2020 presidential election may have been the least surprising in modern history. Both the primary and general elections followed a trajectory that, to future historians, will seem quite predictable. A fairly popular former vice president, Joe Biden, rather easily secured the Democratic nomination and defeated a deeply polarizing incumbent in Donald Trump who had failed to contain the spread of the worst pandemic in a century. How else could this all go? Especially when Biden wasn’t just anyone’s vice president—he was Barack Obama’s. Obama, the first Black president, remains incredibly popular with voters in the Democratic Party and his implicit support of both Biden and Hillary Clinton helped propel them to the nominations in consecutive election cycles. Assuming Biden is the nominee in 2024, this will mark a period of almost two decades when Obama was the dominating factor in national liberal politics.

But anyone who lived through the whirl of 2019 and 2020 will not quite remember the Democratic primary this way. When Biden announced, few were certain he would win the nomination. At the time, most elite political coverage centered around the lateness and slowness of his campaign, since it kicked off months after rivals’ like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Here are three random New York Times headlines I pulled up from a cursory Google search: “Joe Biden’s Old-Fashioned Campaign”; “Why Joe Biden’s Age Worries Some Democratic Allies and Voters”; “Biden Faced His Biggest Challenge, and Struggled to Form a Response.” This was the tenor of a lot of media coverage, not just in the Times. Democratic elites were so worried about Biden that they recruited Mike Bloomberg(!) to run for president. “His consideration of a 2020 bid reflects the fluidity of the race and the angst among many leading Democrats about whether Mr. Biden is strong enough to win the nomination as a centrist standard-bearer,” the Times reported as Bloomberg was preparing to run.

Writing on politics in that period, I believed either Sanders or Biden could be the Democratic nominee for president. I thought highly of Sanders running again—he was such a fundraising juggernaut, and compelling messaging was always a strength—but in the back of my mind, I wondered how he was going to answer a simple question: what’s your plan for Joe Biden?

Biden never struck me as a particularly strong candidate. He had failed miserably in two previous presidential runs. He was a glib, often unfocused campaigner. His verbal gaffes, despite the attempts of some in the media to explain them away, were quite striking, and would’ve sounded alarms if they came from a much younger man, like Obama. Yet Biden almost always led in the polls. His losses in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada seemed to leave him for dead, but once the campaign reached larger, more diverse states—and the field quickly coalesced behind him—he coasted to the nomination, just as early polling suggested. As Obama’s right-hand man, he retained popularity with older whites and African-Americans, who far outvote their younger cohort and Latinos, who largely preferred Sanders. Trump’s presence likely deterred voters from flocking to Sanders, since he was viewed as more of a gamble against a president Democrats despised like no other.

All of this wind-up brings me to Andrew Yang, who competed in that same presidential race. Yang didn’t win many actual votes, but by any political standard, his campaign was remarkably successful. A virtual unknown before 2019, he was able to raise tens of millions of dollars, cultivate a large following from scratch, and outpoll far more famous politicians, including Kamala Harris in California. He qualified for national televised debates while other senators and governors could not. He popularized the idea of univeral basic income. Ultimately, in a year with more credentialed candidates and Trump looming over them all, few Democratic voters were willing to take a risk on a smaller entrepreneur in his very first run for office. That was inevitable. What was far less likely, though, was Yang registering in the national consciousness at all.

Now Yang is running for mayor of New York City. I’m not going to spend time here analyzing his policy or his approach, which I’ve done several times before and promise to do so much more before the June 22nd primary. Instead, I’m going to focus on what kind of chance Yang has. The first caveat is there’s been a profound dearth of public polling on this race. I have mixed feelings about public polls and the way they drive news coverage, but it’s striking how many fewer polls there have been compared to the last open Democratic primary, in 2013. For that race, prominent pollsters like Quinnipiac started conducting public polls a year before, in 2012, for a primary that wouldn’t be decided until September 2013. The polls continued at a consistent drumbeat throughout the chaotic primary. And it was not just Quinnipiac: Marist and Siena College also surveyed the field, offering a wide array of public polling in real-time.

Four months from the 2021 Democratic primary, there has been just one public poll on the race for mayor. That arrived earlier this week, and it didn’t come from any of the major polling institutions. Instead, it was a lengthy and useful poll conducted by Core Decision Analytics and Fontas Advisors, a firm unaffliated with any of the candidates. The poll showed that 24 percent of respondents would “definitely” vote for Yang, compared to 17 percent for Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, 15 for City Comptroller Scott Stringer, and 14 percent for Shaun Donovan and Maya Wiley, with the rest of the field getting less support. Yang also led the field in the number of people who would “definitely, probably, and might” and “definitely, probably” vote for him. The lead confirms the private, Yang-tied polling that was already released to the public.

Drilling down further, there was other good news for Yang. Though he’s the most famous candidate in the race, he is viewed negatively by very few people, a rarity for politicians who achieve a high degree of name recognition. Only four percent of poll respondents said they would “definitely not” vote for Yang, compared to 5 percent for Wiley, 4 percent for Adams, and 3 percent for Stringer. Being on parity with politicians who aren’t as well known is a good thing in this instance—fame has not soured Yang for most New Yorkers.

Now, there are caveats here. This is one poll. Polls are a snapshot in time; they change. Ideally, you want a large sample of polls to form an aggregate. Statistically speaking, there is little we can infer from a single poll, at least with so little available sampling from other firms.

Front-runners, as Maggie Haberman pointed out to me and others, have a lousy history in recent mayoral races. In the last open primary, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn spent about a full year leading the field, from the summer of 2012 to the summer of 2013. Quinn appeared on the cover of New York Magazine, released a memoir, and enjoyed far more press coverage than her rivals until Anthony Weiner upended the race. Her status as the polling leader made her the target of attacks from the other Democrats, particularly Bill de Blasio, who sought to tie her to Michael Bloomberg, an increasingly unpopular figure with progressive Democrats. Quinn suffered politically from her decision to help Bloomberg override the term limits law in 2008, giving the billionaire mayor and the City Council, including herself, a third term in office. De Blasio, then a city council member—he vied unsuccessfully for the speakership in 2006, and his defeat ended up being a blessing in disguise—voted against the overturning of term limits, setting himself up as a chief antagonist to Bloomberg. In addition to enduring conventional attacks, Quinn suffered when a major independent group with ties to de Blasio, NYCLASS, unleashed early negative TV advertising against her candidacy.

All of this helped crush Quinn, who would finish a distant third behind de Blasio and Bill Thompson, the former city comptroller. Quinn also had her own flaws as a candidate. She never articulated a compelling rationale for her candidacy. Her messaging was muddled, caught between trying to appease Bloombergian moderates and the growing left flank of her party. De Blasio’s campaign was extremely disciplined, running hard on the idea of hiking taxes on the rich to fund a new universal pre-K program. His team cut one of the great local television ads of all-time.

It is easy to forget now, but de Blasio was a fantastic political candidate who stayed on message and understood where the electorate of that year would be. He won every borough and almost every assembly district in a very competitive field. He got lucky that Weiner imploded with a second sexting scandal and John Liu, a well-liked progressive, was embroiled in a fundraising investigation and denied public matching funds. But de Blasio had to put himself in position to win—that’s a lot easier said than done. For a moment, he appeared to occupy the vanguard of the left in New York City. That moment, for many reasons, quickly passed.

Is Yang another Quinn? My gut tells me no. Quinn had more than a decade of municipal baggage for her rivals to scrutinize. Her City Council bottled up progressive bills, including paid sick days legislation that quickly became law when de Blasio took office. She had the Bloomberg millstone. The downside of being an experienced candidate is that you’ve taken votes, made compromises, and staked out positions that do not always age well. A record is created to sift through. Yang is a neophyte, which offers its own downsides—we shouldn’t be putting a casino on parkland—but protects him from the sort of attacks that weakened Quinn over time. Yang hasn’t taken any deeply unpopular votes. He is better liked than Quinn and most other leading New York politicians. As the months tick down, this will only help him.

There is the condensed time frame of this primary. I personally would prefer a September primary to give voters more time to consider the field and go to the polls when summer vacation is over. But a court ruling forced federal primaries to June and the state legislature decided to move all primaries in all years into the same time period. Had the 2013 primary been held in June, there’s a decent chance Christine Quinn is the mayor of New York City. In 2021, candidates have much less time to introduce themselves and campaign aggressively. There’s less time for strange, random events to happen, and for bad news to sink a particular campaign. COVID-19 has severely limited what campaigns can do.

Yang, an energetic campaigner, suffers when he’s confined to his home, but his rivals don’t benefit either. It seems early in the race, but it really isn’t. If you can’t establish traction by the start of spring, you’re probably not going to win. A famous candidate like Yang is perfectly fine with less time for more anonymous rivals to make themselves known to the 700,000 to 900,000 people who might vote in June. He can sit back, send peppy tweets, and fundraise for a large TV barrage in the home stretch.

Many media and political insiders can’t quite believe Yang is for real because he’s unconventional, but they are letting biases against the unknown distract them from the reality right in front of them. It is very, very hard to run for president and build a national following where none existed before. Consider the number of Democrats—Jay Inslee, Steve Bullock, Michael Bennet, Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand, Beto O’Rourke, Deval Patrick—who attempted to do what Yang did and ended up right back where they started, with little to show for months on the trail. If you’ve never run for office, you don’t quite know how difficult it is to raise money and convince anyone to take you seriously. Yang did this on a national scale and is, by default, the most talented politician in the mayoral race. This cannot be overstated. He has done things the rest of the field can probably never do.

In the same way that many journalists and political elites couldn’t fathom Joe Biden winning the Democratic nomination, Yang looms as an obvious choice here, once preconceived notions are stripped away. Why shouldn’t the famous, talented politician with low negatives win the mayoral race? This does not mean he’s an inevitability. If the other candidates choose to gang up on Yang or some unforeseen circumstances arise, he could be defeated. If Stringer and Adams dedicate significant airtime to bashing Yang, that could make a difference. (Is there time for these politicians to spend heavily to introduce themselves to voters and attack Yang? Maybe. Maybe not.) And ranked-choice voting is unpredictable enough that perhaps it doesn’t benefit Yang like I imagine it will, since plenty of people have heard of him to make him a first or second choice. A large percentage of Democrats could decide they really want someone with more experience than a former presidential candidate and entrepreneur. All of it is possible.

There is still time left for change, disruption, and surprise. There just isn’t quite as much remaining as the insiders imagine. As Yogi Berra once said, it’s getting late early out there.