This is not to say that Adams is the herald of a resurgent moderate wing in the party. Indeed, it is not even clear he is a moderate. He’s a self-described progressive who supports a temporary surtax on the rich to help those who suffered most during the pandemic, significantly expanded green infrastructure and allowing noncitizen immigrants to vote in municipal elections. And of course, when the counting of ranked-choice ballots was done, he had edged out his nearest rival, the technocratic former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia, by a mere percentage point. Nonetheless, Adams reminded us that less educated voters who make up most of the party have different priorities than the progressive left — notably on crime, a major issue in the race.
A pre-election poll of likely New York Democratic primary voters showed that fear of crime weighed much more heavily on the minds of less-educated voters. When respondents were asked whether they agree with the statement “I feel safe from crime walking around NYC,” 72 percent of college-educated respondents agreed, compared with 53 percent of non-college-educated New Yorkers. The gap grew when respondents were asked about feeling safe from crime in the subways. Sixty-two percent of college grads felt safe, compared with only 39 percent of non-college grads. Non-college voters were also considerably more likely to favor adding more uniformed police officers in the subways.
The same poll found that non-college voters disproportionately supported Adams, who had made central to his campaign an aggressive response to surging violence in the city (even as he condemned police misconduct). Often, calls for “law and order” are dog whistles for racist attitudes. But Adams’s identity as a Black former reformist police officer enabled him to appeal to non-college-educated voters genuinely concerned about rising violent crime.
Candidates favored by highly educated and well-off voters often have advantages in primaries because their voters can spend more time on politics. Adams beat that advantage with a combination of identity politics — his support among African Americans was high — backing from key unions and a concentration on top-tier concerns of working and middle-class voters (public safety, jobs, health care).
In some ways, his combination of supporters brought to mind past winning coalitions of outer-borough voters — often White ethnics, including Irish, Italians and Poles — who helped defeat more liberal candidates in the party through their focus on pragmatic policy rather than inspirational ideas. Ed Koch, for example, elected with the help of such a coalition in 1977, called himself a “liberal with sanity,” deliberately poking in the eye the faction of Manhattan progressives (his former allies) who had supported the White, liberal Republican John Lindsay in the 1960s. (These days, White-ethnic voters have drifted toward Republicans.)
Adams’s victory aside, neither pragmatists nor progressives have had a clear advantage in New York over the years. For example, in the first mayoral election after 9/11, White, progressive, Manhattan-born Mark Green narrowly defeated Puerto Rican, Bronx-born Fernando Ferrer. (Republican Mike Bloomberg would defeat Green in the general election.) More recently, in 2013, White Bill de Blasio defeated Black and Brooklyn-born Bill Thompson.
In this election, the city used ranked-choice voting for the first time. But this is unlikely to have helped Adams. In fact, it may have hurt him, because research indicates less educated or less wealthy voters may be less likely to fill out the ranked-choice ballot in full. For this reason, the Adams campaign feared it would not benefit as much from voters who had Adams as their second or third choice. (He may have profited indirectly, however, because city election officials massively advertised the new voting system, which may have mobilized a broader swath of residents, including Adams supporters.)
One reason so much attention has been paid to Adams is that his victory resonates with a battle being played out within the national Democratic Party. We saw a similar dynamic in the presidential primary when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), lodestar for many progressives, was outperformed by Biden among Black voters.
Nationally, the chief messengers within the party may be trending left, but party leaders should not take their bread-and-butter voters for granted. These voters — including lower-income voters of color and voters without college degrees — range from liberal to moderate, but more importantly they are focused on the practicalities of daily life. If Democratic leaders want these voices at the table, they should consider reforming primaries to boost turnout among these voters, who tend to be less engaged in political debates and activism.
At the national level, reforms might include elevating the voices of leaders who represent these voters. (One controversial idea is to expand the influence of superdelegates to the party’s national convention who can weigh in on behalf of non-college voters, be they Black, Hispanic or White. College-educated progressives have been trying to do exactly the opposite — namely, restrict the influence of superdelegates.)
There are limits to the lessons that Adam’s win offers for the Democratic Party. But his victory does offer a reminder that the party is much bigger and broader than the voices and voters we typically hear about in the mainstream media and on social media.