Hard Math of Handicapping NY’s Multi-candidate Congressional Primaries

For those seeking a temporary respite from tracking the deadly as well as tragic ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have a topic to offer. Namely, a guide to handicapping some of New York State’s multi-candidate June 23rd Democratic primaries for Congress.

Multi-candidate races (defined here as four or more serious candidates running in the same primary) call for a distinct analytical approach from the two or even three person primary matchups. To accurately handicap multi-candidate races, requires studying the hard arithmetic of politics (i.e., where demographics, registration and likely turnout patterns intersect). In a multi-candidate race, the winning candidate needs to solidify their base, while building bridges to snare the relatively few votes that are truly up for grabs.

Alternatively, in a two or three person primary race, the thematic aspects of politics come to the fore, where the winning candidate almost always does a better job of not only nurturing their base, but also of absorbing the voters ignored or repulsed by the opposing candidate. When a district is undergoing a sharp demographic shift that dynamic can quite simply take over a primary race. That thematic factor was as true of Bella Abzug’s surprise victory over Leonard Farbstein in 1970, as it was in Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’ shocking upset of Joe Crowley forged in Western Queens in 2018 (i.e., generational change).

This column will focus only on offering a preliminary handicapping of the looming multi-candidate races in the Democrats’ congressional primaries. In some of these races, it is simply too early to pick a favorite, but in all of these races it is relatively clear which political ingredients will ultimately produce victory.

The primary race against Carolyn Maloney in the 12th CD, is the easiest of these multi-candidate races to handicap. In the 2018 primary, Maloney beat Suraj Patel by 59-41 percent. Maloney swept the core of her district in the East Side of Manhattan, but Patel drafting off the energy which sustained AOC’s campaign, did surprisingly well in the Queens and the Brooklyn portions of the district (where Patel absorbed support in communities where Maloney had never become the fixture she was on the East Side of Manhattan).

In 2018, Patel ran a well-financed and creative if unorthodox campaign and folks expected him to lose by over 30 percent not 18 percent. While Patel is running again this year, so too is Erica Vladimir (a talented former State Senate staffer, who is best known for accusing former Senator Jeff Klein of sexual harassment), Dawn Smalls (a respected former Obama administrator official who ran an active campaign for Public Advocate), Laura Ashcroft (from Queens, who combines Wall Street pedigree with stand-up comedy experience) and Peter Ashcroft (a housing activist running as a Democratic Socialist).

In a six person race, where Maloney’s five challengers will be flooding the zone in the Queens and Brooklyn portions of the district (where Patel got the lion’s share of his 41 percent of the vote), that leaves the well-funded Maloney, free to not only consolidate her support from the East Side of Manhattan, but also in search of new support among voters in the Brooklyn as well as Queens portion of the district.

If there are at least 4 other candidates on the ballot challenging Maloney, my guess is Maloney’s support will again approach the 60 percent level and her margin will be perceived as a landslide against a splintered field (even if the dynamics of the outcome are actually little changed from 2018).

The second easiest race to handicap is the challenge to Eliot Engel in the 16th CD (the Bronx and Westchester). The theory is that Engel would be vulnerable to an African-American version of AOC, and that is who the Justice Democrats (who buttressed AOC’s challenge against Crowley) are supporting, in Jamaal Bowman from Yonkers (a Bronx middle school principal).

Bowman is charismatic and accomplished as an educator, thus filling the Justice Democrats’ profile of a candidate who could challenge Engel in his old Co-op City base (given that Co-op City has moved from being a heavily Jewish development 40 years ago, with large pockets of blacks voters to a community today dominated by black voters, with pockets of Hispanic and Jewish voters). But the problem is that there is a second African-American educator in the race, Andom Ghebreghiorgis (a special education teacher from Bronx).

Also announcing for the race are Sammy Ravelo (a Gulf War Veteran and retired NYPD lieutenant) and Chris Fink, a tax attorney who advances himself as a municipal power expert.

Engel, who is the chair of the House Foreign affairs committee, will fight hard for every vote in his old base in Co-op City, (e.g., sustained by strong labor support as reflected by 32BJ’s endorsement) while having the playing field largely to himself in Riverdale and most of the Westchester portions of the district, driven by older Jewish and White Catholic voters.

Engel is therefore a clear favorite to win this primary, even if he is not a prohibitive favorite to win by a landslide. The clearest path to beat Engel would have been a single candidate who could cut into Engel’s strength in Riverdale and Westchester, while sweeping Co-op City. Right now every vote for Ghebreghiorgas, is in fact a vote taken from Bowman and the effort to forestall that slippage will likely keep Bowman from making inroads in the Riverdale and Westchester portions of the district.

The only way a serious handicapper would project Engel losing, would be a one on one race, where the editorial boards all flocked to Bowman and overall turnout collapsed (the best path for New York’s progressives continues to lie in low turnout contests, (as in AOC’s shocking upset of Crowley). But with all the primaries below him for the Assembly, not to mention Engel’s strong labor support, only political malpractice by Engel’s campaign (not generating a sufficient turnout) could lead to his defeat in this multi-candidate primary.

The multi-candidate race where the conventional wisdom driving punditry is most at odds with how the primary race will likely end up, lies in the 15th CD – the open Serrano seat in the Bronx. Conventional wisdom has enshrined this a Hispanic seat, where the two front runners are two City Council members Ritchie Torres and Ruben Diaz, Sr.
However, I thing the hard arithmetic of the voting patterns in this district, in a race currently with six credible Hispanic candidates (with four additional Hispanics possibly filing petitions) and only one viable black candidate, Assemblyman Michael Blake, leaves Blake as the clear front runner. Blake does not yet have the race in the bag, but right now with even four serious Hispanic candidates much less six in the race, Blake’s campaign would have to seriously fumble away the race, to lose this primary.

The contrast between conventional wisdom and the reality on the ground in this race, merits an extensive look. In truth, two-thirds of the district’s residents are Hispanic, but in Democratic primaries the Hispanic share of those who typically vote is 55-58 percent of the district’s total primary vote (the higher the overall turnout the greater the share of the Hispanic vote). The black vote tends to be about 32-34 percent of the actual vote from the 15th CD (in a high turnout presidential primary that share can drop to 31 percent, whereas in a low turnout primary that black share can rise to the 37-38 percent range). The white share of the primary vote ranges from 5-7 percent in a low turnout primary, to a 10-11 percent share in a low turnout primary.

In addition, the Hispanic portion of the electorate is increasingly diverse. Most pundits see this a “Puerto Rican” seat, but the Dominican portion of the district is rapidly growing (roughly a third of registered Democrats are of Puerto Rican origin and 15 percent are Dominican). Yet, in most Democratic primaries, Dominican Americans like the African American community, vote above their registration percentage, while the Puerto Rican community tends to vote under its registration weight in this district’s primaries.

If this primary were a three or even four person race, you would still favor the strongest Hispanic candidate, especially if that candidate could carry both Puerto Rican and Dominican voters. But this field has six credible Hispanic candidates (i.e., Council members Ritchie Torres, Ruben Diaz Sr., Ydanis Rodriguez, former Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Marlene Cintron and the progressive champion Samelys Lopez) and one serious African American candidate (Assemblyman Michael Blake, whose Assembly district lies wholly within the 15th CD). Three less established Hispanics are also declared candidates (Tomas Ramos, Jonathan Ortiz and Frangell Basora), so the Hispanic vote could be even more splintered if there were seven or eight Hispanics ultimately on the ballot.
Let’s assess the four key factors driving my assessment that this is Blake’s race to lose.

One, Ydanis Rodriguez, a Dominican American, is being severely underestimated by the pundits. The established Puerto Rican political leaders this from the Bronx may see this seta as a “Puerto Rican seat”. Meanwhile, the emerging Dominican community, backing Rodriguez does not see it that way. The Public Advocate’s race last February, provides a foreshadowing of the Dominican vote’s impact on this race. Three candidates from that Public Advocate’s race are also in this race: Rodriguez, Mark Viverito and Blake. In the Public Advocate’s race, Rodriguez carried the 15th CD with 5,744 votes, Blake finished second with 5,191 votes and Mark Viverito was third with 4,322 votes. But if you add the 3,425 votes Jumaane Williams received in finishing fourth and Dawn Smalls 820 votes (the two other African American candidates) to Blake’s total, that pool of voters in this district stood at 9,436 a healthy margin over Rodriguez’ 5,744 in the Public Advocate’s race.

Now that Public Advocate’s race is not a perfect template for their upcoming Congressional primary, but its message is unmistakable, for unless a single Hispanic candidate can cross the emerging rivalry bordering on a divide between the Puerto Rican and Dominican communities, the odds shift to a single black candidate, especially if that candidate can gain any Hispanic support. With Ydanis Rodriguez in this race that bridge to the Dominican vote appears to be uncrossable, for the Hispanic candidates of Puerto Rican origins.

Which brings us to the second factor worth noting. The key to carrying the 15th CD has always been the ability for the winning candidate to build an alliance between the Hispanic majority and the more dependably steady turnout of black voters. That capability defined the political strength of the long time incumbent Jose Serrano. Serrano was always revered by the district’s older Puerto Rican voters, but his long and distinguished career was also respected by the district’s black voters.

For over a decade, the younger Puerto Rican leaders wanted to knock the incumbent out, but Serrano’s hold among older Puerto Ricans and the black community (e.g., anchored in Concourse Village) forced the younger Hispanic challengers to back down, until illness forced Serrano’s retirement.

In effect, Blake’s candidacy is a mirror image to Serrano’s enduring strength, because Blake has strong black support, while the union’s endorsing him, all with large cross over Hispanic African American memberships in the district (1199, 32BJ and DC37), provide Blake with the potential to snare Hispanic voters in a fractured field.
Conventional wisdom crashes on the myth that this is a two person race between the two Councilmembers – Ritchie Torres and Ruben Diaz, Sr. How can any serious handicapping of this race just write off the strength Rodriguez and Mark Viverito showed just last year in this district among Dominican and Puerto Rican voters? Ritchie Torres is the clear leader of the pack on fundraising, but Torres’ attempt to consolidate the progressive lane is now blocked not only by Melissa Mark Viverito, but by the endorsement of Samelys Lopez’ candidacy sustained by the forces backing and led by AOC.

Torres can still run a strong race, but he resembles a strong horse on a crowded race track, who is boxed in on either side from breaking free to an open path to victory. I would not discount Torres’ charisma and resource advantages, but nor can I call label him the favorite, given the melding of political demographics with the actual candidates on this field.

Many pundits pivoted to the view that Ruben Diaz, Sr., has the inside track on winning this primary. This argument usually comes down to the Reverend’s church based support among Pentecostal seniors (estimates range from 3500-5000 voters on that core of support), and the projection that amidst all these progressive candidates, is that Diaz as the clear and unmistakable conservative can sneak through and win. This analysis fails to account for several bits of political arithmetic.

First, turnout in the June 23rd primary, unless the Coronavirus is still raging on June 23rd, given all of these serious candidates, will probably cross 35,000 and could perhaps reach 50,000 votes. In a turnout of even 37,000 voters 4,000 seniors would barely cross 10 percent. Moreover, those 4,000 votes are but a small fraction of the size of the black base underlying Blake’s candidacy.

Second, Diaz Sr., has always conveyed that he was the Sun in his family’s supposed political dynasty and that his son the Borough President, Ruben Diaz Jr., was the Moon reflecting the father’s political strength to the result from this primary. I think this race will reveal once and for all, that it was just the opposite all along. Now that the Borough President has left the field of political combat, Councilman Diaz, is likely to be revealed as a spent political force standing largely alone (i.e., foreshadowed by his anemic victory margin his 2017 race for the City Council, which conventional wisdom has conveniently forgotten).

Now major events could still influence this race (e.g., if only four candidates make the ballot after petitions are reviewed). But the clear arithmetic of politics is that in a field of at least five experienced and credible Hispanic candidates, Michael Blake has become the clear favorite to win this primary. Don’t just take my word for it, ask yourselves why so many of the labor unions who seriously handicap races like this one, have endorsed Blake (1199, 32BJ, DC37, CSA, the Carpenters and Local 1407 of AFSCME).

The most difficult of these multi-candidate races to handicap remains the open Nita Lowey seat – the 17th CD (Westchester and Rockland). With at least nine candidates currently in the race, given bi-county rivalry at the core of this district, it is impossible to now project a winner. The best that can be done is to spotlight the path to victory and the multiple primrose paths to defeat.

This district has far more Democratic voters from Westchester than Rockland. Therefore, in a four person or even a five person race where there were at least two candidates each from each county, the strongest candidate from Westchester would be favored to win. But this race has at least nine candidates, currently on the field, at least six of which have political resources and/or policy chops and least two will be from Rockland (Senator David Carlucci and Mondaire Jones a former Obama staffer).

Meanwhile, just because you reside in a county, does not mean you will get support from the voters in that county. The early favorites are Assemblyman David Buchwald of Westchester and Senator David Carlucci of Rockland both having won races in the past. Buchwald’s path to victory would be paved by strength lodged in his district, supplemented by endorsements from prominent elected officials throughout Westchester, with the potential for strong labor support to sustain a robust turnout operation. Alternatively, Carlucci’s path to victory would open up if he was able to consolidate strong support from Rockland’s voters, while at least five candidates from Westchester divided their county’s vote.

Complicating the picture is the presence of three candidates who can either self-finance (Allison Fine, a pro-choice activist and Adam Schleifer a prosecutor scion of a billionaire’s family) or have the potential to raise a large war chest (Evelyn Farkas, who is a noted national security analyst who served in a senior position in the Obama administration).

In Westchester, given the high cost of going up on broadcast TV with a robust advertising buy, if one or more candidates went that route, it could change the race. Especially, if one of those candidates could secure the editorial endorsement of the New York Times (which could become a deeply resonating factor, especially among Westchester County’s highly educated often affluent primary voters).

In a field as divided as this one appears to be, the endorsement of the revered and respected Nita Lowey, were she willing to endorse, could become the coda for the winning campaign, given that this is a race where most voters did not know who to support and will have trouble making heads or tails of a field this large.

The winning candidate will probably be the one whose campaign establishes the largest geographic base (in terms of Towns carried), while also being able to finish a strong second or credible third outside that base. Thus, in a field this large, the candidate who can finish second or third in the most places outside their base (and that would certainly be true of Farkas, Schleifer or Fine who would lack a geographic base, unlike Buchwald or Carlucci), is the candidate likely to finish first overall. Whereas those candidates finishing fifth or worse in multiple areas outside their base, will almost certainly lose.

In the final analysis, these four multi-candidate primary races for Congress in New York, represent an interesting handicapping challenge. My analysis leads me to conclude that the progressive groups who are is trying to recreate the magic of AOC and the near magic of Caban for DA in Queens, have bungled any chance of providing a serious challenge to either Carolyn Maloney or Eliot Engel (the incumbents), by not having a single pure progressive challenger in each race.

Alternatively, the winner in the huge field for the open Lowey seat can simply not be accurately predicted at this point. Finally, conventional wisdom is highly likely to take a hard fall in the open Serrano seat, as Michael Blake, rather than either Councilmember Ritchie Torres or Ruben Diaz, is best prepared to master the hard math which serves as a veritable force of gravity in terms of producing victory in the 15th CD.

The peculiarities of these multi-candidate primaries will be worth tracking as they hurtle towards primary day on June 23rd. The impact of turnout (high, medium or low); consolidating geographic, ethnic, racial and ideological bases (who establishes strong toeholds and which candidacies are mere paper tigers), and the tapered skill of the campaigns (to the dynamics driven by the mix of candidacies which are actually and actively in each race) will become the key determiners of victory and defeat.

Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an Adjunct Professor of political science at the University of Albany.