Analysis: Why the New York mayoral race is unprecedented in modern times

This year, however, the race is barely a blip on the radar. With a little over three months until the Democratic primary that could be tantamount to winning overall in a heavily Democratic city, we really have no idea what’s going to happen.

Basically, there are a slew of variables that make this race harder to predict than most.

Start with the fact that the size of the primary field to replace term-limited Mayor Bill de Blasio is basically unprecedented. There are at least 10 candidates that most would consider to be “major” (e.g. candidates included in the debates and most of the polling).
These include Eric Adams, Shaun Donovan, Kathryn Garcia, Carlos Menchaca, Ray McGuire, Dianne Morales, Scott Stringer, Loree Sutton, Maya Wiley and Andrew Yang.
The two fields in the last 50 years that come closest (1977 and 2013) to the size of this one had six major candidates in them.

Based on the data available, there’s good reason to believe Yang, who ran for president in 2020, is ahead and perhaps considerably so. He’d been the top choice in every poll of the race.

There has not, however, been a single poll taken and released for a group that isn’t partisan or doesn’t do lobbying in the city. This is extremely unusual.

I went back and checked out mayoral primaries since 1985. Every single one of those had at least two nonpartisan primary polls taken by early March. Every single primary since 1993 had at least five nonpartisan polls conducted testing different possible candidates.

One reason the polling may be so limited is that pollsters may not be sure how accurate their polling will be with the city’s new instant runoff voting (or ranked choice voting) system.

Instant runoff voting allows voters to rank the candidates from 1 through 5. If a candidate has a majority, she or he wins. If not, voters whose first choice has the fewest number of votes will have their votes reallocated to their second choice. This process repeats itself to the point at which a candidate receives a majority of the vote.

This type of system could in theory benefit a relatively well known candidate like Yang, who a majority of Democrats nationwide could rate after his 2020 bid for president. Lesser known candidates now need to get their name out there to people who won’t choose them as their first choice. Yang might be ranked second or third on a lot of ballots simply because of name recognition.

Other candidates who could benefit from a similar phenomenon include Adams, Stringer and Wiley. All have either served a considerable number of city residents through elected office (Adams as Brooklyn borough president and Stringer as city comptroller) or are known from television (Wiley as an MSNBC legal analyst).

High name recognition is probably especially helpful given the short campaign schedule. The primary is taking place in June instead of September, as it has historically. The move comes as the state consolidated its local state and federal primaries to one date.

This means the candidates will have a limited amount of time to get their message out.

Of course, maybe a small amount of time is all these candidates need. Mayoral primaries can break late; de Blasio didn’t lead until about a month to go until the 2013 primary.

The shorter campaign season comes as the city is climbing its way out of the coronavirus pandemic. That’s hobbled in-person campaigning, and the pandemic itself has taken up a lot of media attention.

The pandemic has also likely altered the contours of the race. Nearly 30,000 New Yorkers have likely died because of Covid-19, according to the city. The city has seen massive population and job loss, as well.

Where exactly the voters stand on how best to recover from the pandemic is entirely unclear because we don’t really have the data to know.

Additionally, the candidates need to navigate their relationships with de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

De Blasio hasn’t polled particularly well citywide recently, though he often hasn’t polled well and yet easily won a second term as mayor in 2017. De Blasio has historically been well liked within the city’s large Black community.
Cuomo, meanwhile, is dealing with three allegations of inappropriate behavior toward women. So far, his ratings are still strong with Democratic voters, even after the latest allegations. There’s no guarantee that will hold, though. Garcia and Wiley have called for him to resign.

The bottom line is there is a lot we don’t know. With a little over three months to go until the primary, a lot may shift.

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