To most Americans, the results of New York City’s local elections don’t matter much and often shouldn’t. Yes, there are City Hall occupants who manage to command a national stage, notably incumbent Mike Bloomberg, but in the 2013 race there have been no candidates even approaching his stature (or his wealth). The candidate who received the most votes in Tuesday’s primary, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, is unknown outside New York City and until recently not well known inside it.
Yet there is an aspect of the 2013 campaign that might resonate well beyond New York’s five boroughs: voter behavior suggests that the era of identity politics may have ended or at least peaked.
Throughout the modern era, politicians in New York City (and many other places) have seen elections as a competition among voting blocs determined by ethnic and racial identities: African-American, Latino (which until the 1990s in New York City was primarily Puerto Rican), Jewish, white (which can be further broken down into the larger nationalities represented in New York, such as Italian, Irish, etc). Strategic alliances, endorsements, and policy choices could be used to deliver, somewhat reliably, these groups of voters to chosen candidates. As nonwhites became a majority some time in the mid-1980s, and the pool of viable candidates more diverse, most nonwhite voters saw a path of empowerment through supporting one of their own: that is, given a choice, African-American voters would usually vote disproportionately for the African-American candidate, Latino voters for the Latino candidate, and so on. In recent decades, women and LGBT-identified voters also became important self-aware constituencies, although the LGBT vote is difficult to measure and its effects have been seen more on neighborhood races than citywide ones.
As anyone who watched the 2013 Democratic primary debates can attest, the actual policy differences between the Democratic candidates were fairly small, which would seem to provide even more reason for voters to make their choices based on identity politics.
That, however, is decidedly not what happened in Tuesday’s primary. The one female candidate running for mayor, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, garnered only 16 percent of women’s votes. Bill Thompson, the one African-American candidate, received 42 percent of that group’s vote — well below the 76 percent of the African-American vote he received running in the general election against Michael Bloomberg in 2009, and less than half of the 90-plus percent of the black vote received by David Dinkins, the lone African-American candidate in the 1989 primary, who later that year became the city’s first black mayor. Exit-poll sampling may not precisely measure the votes of smaller minorities, but it seems highly likely that the Asian candidate in the race, comptroller John Liu, received only a small portion of the Asian vote and the openly lesbian Quinn lost LGBT voters by 34 percent to de Blasio’s 47 percent.