The Final, Not-So-Fantastic Four

The NYC mayoral race boils down to four top contenders - and 2022 looks to be quite volatile

As of today, there are four candidates who can win the Democratic primary and coast to City Hall next year. They are Eric Adams, Andrew Yang, Maya Wiley, and Kathryn Garcia. Their chances of victory do not necessarily line up in that order. It’s important to remember, at this stage, how much uncertainty there is in this primary compared to 2013. A week before the September Democratic primary that year, Bill de Blasio was polling well above 30 percent, and had even broke 40 percent in some surveys. The “Dante” ad had aired, Carlos Danger was introduced to the world, and John Liu lost his matching funds. The final question, in a pre-RCV world, was whether de Blasio would win 40 percent of the vote, enough to avoid a runoff with his closest rival, Bill Thompson.

De Blasio would do that, over-performing the bullish polling forecasts. Though fellow Democrats and reporters would go on to mock and slag de Blasio for the next eight years, it’s important to remember how overwhelming and dominant that 2013 victory was. De Blasio won all five boroughs, commanding multiple demographics, and finished first in almost every single Assembly District in the city. Few, if any, mayoral candidates have ever won in such a way. Now that the primary is almost over, I can say, unequivocally, there is no candidate in this race who has campaigned as effectively as de Blasio did in 2013.

It is difficult, in turn, to imagine the eventual winner of this primary pulling off such a dominant win on Tuesday. The current front-runner, Adams, never polls above 30 percent, and there are various surveys that show other candidates within the margin-of-error. With his base of working class Blacks and moderate whites, Adams has a strong coalition, but he is not in the same position de Blasio was at this time in the race eight years ago. There are more undecided voters looming. And RCV, which allows voters to pick five candidates, is the new wrinkle no one quite knows how to process.

Yet Adams may win because the stream of scrutiny potentially came too late. For months, the media mostly ignored Adams as reporters and progressive activists honed in on Yang. Yang was the polling leader, so this made sense, but it wasn’t as if Adams was doomed to irrelevance. He consistently polled in second place and continued to accrue endorsements. Part of the challenge now, for Adams’ opponents, is that his flaws are only coming to light now, not a month or two ago when he could have still been defined, broadly, in the public eye. There are few negative TV or radio ads to hammer the message home. Complaining about Adams on Twitter or fulminating against him on a debate stage might not be enough.

The two candidates who have clearly gained steam over the last month are Kathryn Garcia and Maya Wiley. This is not a secret nor original analysis. The New York Times endorsement boosted Garcia to a remarkable degree, giving her much more media coverage and lending validity to a candidacy built around a perception of toughness and competence, not any sweeping vision. Garcia is wary of progressives and socialists, and has come out in favor of charter schools and against hiking taxes on the rich. She is a neoliberal in orientation, with a skepticism towards strong tenant laws. But she appeals to educated liberals—a very important New York voting demographic—because she has deep experience in government and can speak on thorny policy with great confidence. Her political views are not terribly different than Yang’s—on some issues, she seems to even veer further to the right—but liberals recoil at her far less. There appears to be a real path for Garcia in these closing days, with many voters deciding she deserves to be somewhere on their ballots.

One of the great failures of the Yang campaign has been their total inability to assauge the fears of educated, affluent voters. If Yang manages to win on Tuesday, he will do it largely without them, creating a new kind of coalition. Yang always had an uphill battle with Times readers and young leftists, but the stuff his presidential campaign was made of—an incredibly large array of policy platforms, along with one very popular idea that probably inspired Congress to give people stimulus checks—could have at least convinced these voters to place him on their ballots. When I wrote of Yang’s entrance into the race in January, I saw much potential because he was clearly a talented politician with a large fan base and an ability to inject energy into a race that was lacking in compelling candidates. He led the field for months, and then slowly deflated, if the polls are to be believed.

A different Yang campaign could have kept some share of the Left vote in his camp. In an alternate universe, Yang does not hire the controversial and reactionary Bradley Tusk—a good rule of thumb is not bringing on consultants who produce an endless stream of negative headlines—and runs as a stronger, almost Elizabeth Warren-style candidate, marrying populism and wonkery. Part of Yang’s problem was he seemed to be unprepared for interviews and spoke in frustrating generalities. Warren’s “I’ve got a plan for that!” brand flopped on the national stage because she could not win support from non-college educated voters and people of color, but Warren, a former law professor, would have done fine enough in New York City, where the professional managerial class is a significant share of the Democratic primary. Yang could have studied aggressively for his mayoral  campaign, like Michael Bloomberg did in 2001, devouring policy briefings and surrounding himself with experts so gaffes like these never actually occured.

Part of seeming good at policy is impressing journalists, who do set a narrative in the newspapers, on television, and on social media. A lot of reporters had disdain for Yang and that never really went away. You can either do your best to prove to them you sound like you know what you’re talking about or you will struggle. Anthony Weiner was a glib, shallow legislator, but his mayoral campaigns created the appearance of technical know-how—his “Keys to the City” were popular—and won him plenty of friendly coverage before another sexting scandal ruined him.

Had Yang proven his policy bona fides, he would have been able to compete for votes among the Park Slope and Upper West Side set, never winning but at least remaining a likeable, well-meaning option further down the ballot. And unlike Warren, Yang was more famous than the people he was running against, allowing him to appeal to the working-class voters who don’t follow politics intensely. Yang could have been a populist without trying to outflank Adams in the law-and-order lane, where he was always bound to lose to an ex-cop. His adapted views on Israel and yeshivas, in a bid to appeal to conservative Orthodox Jewish, have clearly alienated large segments of the pro-Palestinian left. In these final days, he is left to campaign alongside people like the NIMBY demagogue Bob Holden, in hopes that the descendants of Mario Procaccino throw him votes. They’ll probably prefer the ex-cop.

Wiley, like de Blasio in 2013, has benefited from fortunate circumstances. De Blasio’s surge came after Weiner’s implosion. Liu, his rival for progressive votes, was denied matching funds over fundraising improprieties, a decision that effectively ended his campaign. De Blasio, of course, had positioned himself to soar, and did just that when the lane had been cleared. Wiley is rising, but no poll has ever shown her in first place. Her campaign, for long stretches, has been muddled, and she has offered conflicting views on public safety policies like defunding the police. Dianne Morales, before her own implosion, was clearly eating into Wiley’s support, and Scott Stringer was the preferred candidate of the institutional left before he was accused of sexual assault. Wiley’s messaging has sharpened in recent weeks and she is now the de facto standard bearer for left of center voters in New York City—an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsement will do that—as she attacks Adams over his history of conservatism, including past support for Rudy Giuliani-style policing.

Much is at play here. Wiley wants to speak for the Black and Latino working class, but available polling data shows that Adams might be doing that instead. Her path to victory, perhaps more than any candidate, relies on rebuilding the de Blasio coalition, yoking together progressive whites with upscale and working-class Blacks. Can it be done? Maybe. We will find out soon if Wiley peaked too late or peaked perfectly. Unlike de Blasio in 2013, many progressive voters aren’t overly enthused about her, since her recent political history is an uninspiring, checkered tour as de Blasio’s counsel and chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board. With Stringer on the decline, more and more are willing to rank her first.

Still, all these months later, I am struck both by the lack of imagination of the major candidates and their unwillingness, when they do happen upon something far-reaching, to center it in their campaigns. Universal pre-K became de Blasio’s calling card; he promised to create the program in 2013 and then did it. Several of the candidates have admirable social safety net expansion ideas that come up once or twice and then fade away. Garcia wants to do a jobs guarantee for New Yorkers between the ages of 16 and 24, but only announced it recently, never including it in her campaign materials or talking about it during her months on the campaign trail. Wiley finally pitched a housing subsidy for those making under $60,000 a year, yet this has never defined her campaign either. It was clear, as de Blasio ran all those years ago, he was deadly serious about getting pre-K done if he won. At times, all the major candidates seem to be pitching concepts that matter to them one day and not so much the next. The feckless de Blasio, so maligned for so long, may be due for a nostalgia turn.