The Decline of the Working-Class Voter

NYC's mayoral primary shows where the city is headed

The mayoral general election these days is a muted affair, the first time this has been true at the start of fall in many decades. In the 1970s, the primary date was shifted from June to September, creating a drawn-out, summer-long campaign for the nomination and a condensed general election battle in a city that once boasted many more Republicans. Eight years ago, the media still had to humor the possibility that Rudy Giuliani’s old deputy mayor, Joe Lhota, had a shot at beating Bill de Blasio. Pollsters constantly opined on the match-up and newspapers breathlessly covered whatever it was the men would say to each other.

This year’s June primary, which ended up producing one of the highest raw vote totals ever, created something entirely new for a younger generation of New Yorkers: a summer and fall campaign season that doesn’t matter at all. (By 2020, state and federal primaries were returned back to June.) Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, eked out a victory and was declared the winner in July. He went on vacation and wasn’t heard from for a while. Curtis Sliwa, the Republican candidate with very little money and support, was left to beg for TV cameras. Adams has been the mayor-in-waiting for more than two months already and has more than three months to go before taking office in January. It’s effectively the longest transition period any future mayor has enjoyed since at least Abe Beame, though Beame had credible Republican and Conservative Party opposition.

The initial takeaway of the Adams primary victory was that working-class people of color—specifically Black and Latino voters—can collectively determine the future of New York City. In the vast outer reaches of the city, Adams dominated. He was the candidate who swept largely Black neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens like Canarsie, East New York, and South Jamaica. He had no close competitor in the heavily Latino neighborhoods of the Bronx. Asian-Americans broke against him, but that was only because Andrew Yang was competing to be the city’s first Asian mayor.

Adams will enter office with this sizable coalition: the nonwhite renters and homeowners who, together, form a large minority of the people who live here. Wall Street billionaires and real estate developers heavily invested in Adams too, though the people who live in their upscale Brooklyn and Manhattan neighborhoods preferred other candidates.

And it was these candidates—Kathryn Garcia and Maya Wiley—who together racked up far more first-place votes than Adams in the ranked-choice voting primary, the first of its kind in a citywide contest. If they were a single candidate, Wiley and Garcia would have taken 41 percent of the first-place vote, compared to Adams’s roughly 31 percent. The ranked-choice tabulation, in subsequent rounds, would have only favored this hypothetical candidate more. When absentee votes were counted, Garcia came one percentage point away from defeating Adams outright. She did this without the support of most major labor unions, elected officials, and political clubs, defying many of the traditional institutions that uplift municipal Democrats.

For the many New Yorkers who still fancy their city a working-class hub, a place where bus drivers and custodians and home health aides can survive and even thrive, the results of the Democratic primary might be quietly unsettling. Garcia and Wiley, together, demonstrated that another city has taken shape, one with the power to rival or even eclipse working-class New York. Garcia nearly became mayor, even as Adams trounced her in low-income communities of color. Wiley, who is Black, also outpaced Garcia there, but never enough to be seriously competitive with Adams.

Affluent, college-educated voters—renters and homeowners, white and nonwhite alike—are now a force in local Democratic primaries. The gentrifying neighborhoods of western Queens and northern Brooklyn, long derided as outposts for hipster transients, have become legitimate voting blocs, with the power to tilt future citywide elections. And the higher-income neighborhoods, like the Upper West Side and Park Slope, that have always produced robust turnout continue to punch at their weight or even above it.

When Bill de Blasio won the 2013 primary, the Assembly District roping in the working-class Black neighborhood of Jamaica easily outvoted the district covering Astoria, where young professionals were beginning to settle. In Astoria’s 36th Assembly District, 8,026 voted in the 2013 primary, compared to 12,606 in Jamaica’s 32nd.

In 2021, Astoria surpassed Jamaica. In the 36th Assembly District, 15,185 voted in total, beating out the 14,218 votes in the 32nd District. Turnout grew in the nearby 29th Assembly District, home to the vote-rich Black middle-class neighborhoods of Laurelton and St. Albans, but by a far less dramatic number. It was in Astoria where turnout more than doubled.

Long Island City and Ridgewood, western Queens neighborhoods that are now popular neighborhoods with professionals in their twenties and thirties, were electoral afterthoughts in 2013, producing just 7,789 votes in the 37th Assembly District. In 2021, turnout almost doubled, breaking 14,000. Laurelton and St. Albans produced just under 16,000 votes, barely more than Astoria.

This pattern repeated elsewhere. Wealthier neighborhoods saw turnout balloon from 2013, while working-class precincts increased more modestly. In the 57th Assembly District, encompassing Fort Greene and Clinton Hill—once working-class, now tonier destinations for upwardly mobile white-collar workers—turnout surged about 60 percent. Meanwhile, turnout rose around 25 percent in the 55th Assembly District, home to Brownsville, one of the city’s very poorest neighborhoods. In nearby East New York, in the 60th Assembly District, turnout barely grew from 2013, increasing about 11 percent.

It’s important to understand that affluent New York is no monolith: Garcia and Wiley’s coalitions are subdivided among different classes and ideological interests. The old-line, wealthier liberals of the Upper West Side, Brooklyn Heights, and Park Slope favored Garcia, who campaigned as a technocrat and did not receive the backing of most progressive interest groups. These Garcia voters are among the very richest in the city, either longtime homeowners or high-end renters. Their average income is well beyond $100,000 per year. Outside of the oligarch class, they are the most privileged, since many of them own property in neighborhoods that are among the most coveted in the United States.

The gentrified bloc, which gave its votes to the AOC-endorsed Wiley, is not always as moneyed, though glittering condominiums now dominate the Williamsburg and Long Island City waterfronts. These voters are younger and more left-wing, and many of them are renters, priced out of home ownership. They make up the backbone of the DSA and NGO vote, college-educated but struggling, at times, with the precarity that comes with living in an expensive city. After years of flitting out of and into political activism—for many, the Bernie 2016 campaign was a foundational moment, and taught them to register as Democrats in New York—they are now voting regularly. It is easy to declare they are all white gentrifiers, but the reality is that the college-educated who pack Astoria or Bushwick are just as likely to be people of color. Race, to an extent, is beside the point. They are united in their class position, particularly their college degrees and the likelihood they will work in the private sector, flocking to white collar professions like advertising, tech, law, media, and the nonprofits.

Many of the neighborhoods that supported Garcia and Wiley have undergone radical transformations over the last 30 years, gaining wealth and shedding much of their grit. Their populations have increased as both the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations targeted them for development. They are emblematic of New York’s greater shift, from a city of union halls, factories, and political machines to one that is, in the words of Michael Bloomberg, a luxury product. The electorate, mostly, no longer takes its cues from any one outer borough Democratic boss or union leader. Storefront political clubs are disappearing, as are the patronage-seeking armies that once whipped votes block to block. Activist groups have grown their clout, but they are largely divorced from the old institutions—the church, the clubs—that made up what New York used to be. The city was less diverse then, in the modern understanding of what diversity is, but it was also, generally, poorer. Affluent neighborhoods were fewer in number. Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Williamsburg, the Lower East Side, and Astoria were all, at one time, working-class gathering points for the Irish, Italians, Jews, Puerto Ricans, and other newer arrivals. Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Flatbush were for working-class and poor Blacks (after the Jews left), not for upscale media and tech professionals.

Today, New York’s population has swelled to nearly 9 million. The greatest growth has come from an immigrant Asian community—the poorest in the city—that has yet to reach its voting potential. It is, by far, the most under-represented group in city and state government. The Latino population is still growing, if not at the same rate as the Asian increase. Conversely, the Black population continues to slowly decline. Given these trends, it’s likely that the gentrifying and already upscale neighborhoods that delivered their votes to Wiley and Garcia will out-vote working-class Black New York by an even greater degree in future elections. In Brooklyn, the growth of the white population about matched the Black decline.

Nationally, the college-educated voter cannot determine the course of any Democratic primary. Elizabeth Warren, the standard bearer of that class in the 2020 presidential race, could not carry a single state, finishing far behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. The median voter remains, as the Democratic data guru David Shor likes to remind us, a high school-educated person around 50. Though similar data hasn’t yet been made publicly available about the New York City median voter, those participating in Democratic primaries are, if the mayoral race is any indicator, far more likely to have gone to college. The voter might very well be younger than 50. If Adams is indeed the working-class mayor, his coalition barely represents one-third of the Democratic electorate. Warren herself didn’t do terribly well in New York City—by then, she had dropped out of the race—but it’s not hard to imagine a candidate of such pedigree dominating a future primary in the five boroughs.

None of this means, though, working-class neighborhoods no longer matter. Spanish-speaking areas are gaining clout and many Black voters continue to pick winning mayors. All future candidates will look to the roadmap Adams laid out for them. For the Democrat, though, who can’t or won’t be a blue-collar candidate, new opportunities—and new roadmaps—may be there for the taking.