Unboxing the New York Democratic presidential primary

Unboxing the New York Democratic presidential primary

This year New York’s Democratic presidential primary will have more impact than usual. Since it comes at a time when Bernie Sanders has won 7 out of the last 8 contests, he brings a good deal of momentum to the New York race.  

Problematic polling for New York’s primary

Before actually looking at the data and making a forecast, it is useful to talk about the methods themselves. Famous game theorist, Anatol Rapoport once said that statistical models were best used in situations where people “don’t stop to think”.

When there were far more party loyalists and far fewer independents it was much easier to forecast elections. This primary season is quite different since there are large numbers of voters who do not usually participate coming out for atypical candidates like Trump and Sanders. Polls that draw from a pool of “likely voters” may have limited validity if unlikely voters show up in droves.

There are other problems with polls. Major survey firms have reported that their work is now harder because of the move from landlines to cell phones and because people now value their privacy more than they used to in responding to surveys.

This combination of factors explains an increasing number poor forecasts like the one in Michigan this election season. Of course, since polls are drawn from attitudes they can also be very volatile and tied to events taking place around the time of their interviews.

A close examination of the Clinton-Sanders race should include intangibles like Bernie’s Brooklyn accent and status as a NY native. It should also include Hillary’s New York roots since she has lived in Westchester since the Clintons left the White House, and represented the state for eight years in the U.S. Senate.

There are also the usual demographics like who is supported by younger voters, older voters, minorities, women and white males. There are geographic questions like urban-rural or suburban voters and how these environments will affect voter behavior.

Based upon these and other polls the widely respected Five Thirty Eight gave Clinton a 98% chance of winning the New York primary. The only problem is that Five Thirty Eight also gave Clinton a 99% chance of winning in Michigan because polls taken in the last month before the election had Hillary ahead by 5%-20%. In fact, Sanders squeaked by with a 50%-48% victory.

Beyond polls

Clinton enjoys an institutional advantage in the New York Democratic Party. Since she played an active role during her husband’s presidency and represented New York in the Senate, Clinton has developed a number of high end associations that serve her well. For instance, she was endorsed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo was HUD Secretary under Bill Clinton. She has also been endorsed by Mayor Bill De Blasio. He served as a regional director of HUD during the Clinton presidency and was campaign manager for Hillary’s U.S. Senate race.

While Cuomo has emerged as a Democratic moderate and is comfortably a Clinton “New Democrat”, De Blasio worked for an NGO that supported the Sandinistas and has been an advocate for the minority communities of New York.

He is closer to Sanders ideologically but is instead supporting Clinton. There are a wide range of elected officials in New York who worked closely with Hillary when she represented the state. They are actively supporting her as are labor unions she worked with.

According to recent polls Clinton is running roughly two to one against Sanders among women and Blacks. Clinton’s support among women is especially strong among those over 40. Some of this support reflects New York’s early and central role in support of feminism. Planned Parenthood had its roots in Brooklyn and much of the activism and demonstrations of the 1970s occurred in New York.

Many of these long term feminists see Hillary’s election for president as a key step forward for women. Hillary is also expected to do well in the suburbs and upstate as she did in her 2008 primary victory against Barack Obama.

Bernie Sanders is leading a movement that includes many of the disaffected. Where Hillary’s approach to progress been as an elite lawyer, Bernie’s has been as a community and political activist.

While both candidates have been making tours of New York City and upstate neighborhoods people have been respectful and even supportive of Hillary but they appear roused by Bernie. He had eighteen thousand people show up for a rally in the South Bronx. He had crowds accumulate when he ate a Nathan’s hot dog and spoke on the Coney Island Boardwalk.

Where Hillary is measured and sometimes vague, Bernie is honest, well focused, and sometimes too direct. Direct and honest while even sometimes talking over people is a hallmark of New York communication style. He fits his audience. He’s leading by 11% among all voters under 40 who may favor commitment over nuance.

Who is going to win?

While opinions could shift as a result of whatever is said during the April 14th debate it’s unlikely that this will be the case. Much of the recent dialogue between the two has not really broken new ground.

Sanders seems to be making inroads into Hillary’s support among Black voters. This is because Ben Jealous, Spike Lee, Harry Belafonte and Erica Garner have been very vocal and visible in their support.

Most recently Keith Ellison, a Muslim congressman from a mixed Black-Jewish district in Minnesota committed himself to Sanders. If Blacks and Hispanics turn out and shift moderately towards Sanders things will go well for him.

This is true if young people turn out as well. As Ken Sherrill, a former West Side Democratic District Leader and long time political science professor, recently said about this race “ anything can happen”.

I would anticipate a marginal victory for Clinton. A major reason is that New York has very stringent voter registration laws that require new registrations or party changes some three months ahead of the election. It’s also a closed primary.

Many of Sanders’ young supporters may not have registered or forgot to to change their registrations from “independent” to Democrat. One would expect that older voters, suburbanites, and professionals would be more likely to get this right and they most often support Clinton.

More importantly, there is no formal party home for grassroots candidates like Sanders. In the 1940s-80s, New York had a strong reform movement that set up alternate Democratic clubs to counter old time party bosses.

Something like this needs to be resurrected to provide a home for grassroots independent candidates. If young people or minorities can not vote and are not assisted in doing so by any organization it is likely that Hillary will carry the day.

Categories: North America, Politics

About Author

Lawrence Katzenstein

Lawrence Katzenstein has taught at the University of New Orleans and the University of Minnesota. Through an affiliation with the Humphrey Institute he was one of the trainers for the initial Chinese WTO delegation. He has been an exchange professor at the Consolidated Universities of Shandong Province and an embedded social scientist with the U.S. Army in Iraq. He earned a B.A. in political science from CCNY and an M.A. and Ph.D in political science from Rutgers University. While at the University of Minnesota he also completed a teaching post doc in International Business.