Data Suggest That Gentrifying Neighborhoods Powered Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Victory

A close analysis of voting patterns flips on its head the post-hoc rationalization that pundits have been using to explain a result they never saw coming.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, second from left, the winner of the Democratic primary in New York's 14th Congressional District, speaks with supporters, Wednesday, June 27, 2018, in New York.  The 28-year-old political newcomer upset U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley, says she brings an "urgency" to the fight for working families.  (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, second from left, the winner of the Democratic primary in New York's 14th Congressional District, speaks with supporters, Wednesday, June 27, 2018, in New York. Photo: Bebeto Matthews/AP

When canvassers for the campaign of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reconvened in the Bronx last Tuesday evening, they swapped stories about what they’d seen. With no exit polling, anecdotes were all they had — but they were adding up to something that warranted optimism.

The volunteers had fanned out across the district, focusing particularly on areas in Queens and the Bronx where an influx of young people was changing the character, complexion, and politics of the neighborhoods. Whether the volunteer had been in Astoria, Sunnyside, or Woodside, all gentrifying neighborhoods in Queens that the campaign targeted heavily, they shared the same story: Turnout seemed higher than usual, and the people turning out were young, they were diverse, and they were pumped for Ocasio-Cortez.

Many of the voters looked, to the canvassers, like stereotypical Bernie Sanders supporters — young people who might have supported Sanders during the 2016 presidential campaign. These types of voters, galvanized by a popular presidential candidate or a certain ideology, might not be expected to turn out for a typical midterm primary. They’re what’s known in political circles as “drop-off voters.” But the Ocasio-Cortez campaign’s pivotal insight was that enough of them lived in the district to help carry her to victory if they were found and motivated to vote.

According to a precinct-by-precinct analysis of last week’s results by Steven Romalewski, director of the Mapping Service at the City University of New York’s Center for Urban Research, Ocasio-Cortez’s success can be attributed, in large part, to exactly that strategy. The drop-off voters didn’t drop off.

This portrait of a diverse electorate lifting Ocasio-Cortez to victory contrasts starkly with the prevalent media narrative, which attributes Ocasio-Cortez’s win to demographic factors alone. To myriad pundits, the explanation for her success is simple: The district is increasingly populated by Latinos and other nonwhite voters, and they chose Ocasio-Cortez because they simply did not want a white man like Joe Crowley representing them.

“My colleagues in the media are shoehorning Crowley’s defeat into the narrative that Bernie Sanders-like insurgents are toppling a Democratic establishment,” the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank explained in a dispatch typical of the genre. “It isn’t so, because the argument that there is a Democratic establishment resisting the progressive tide is a straw man. Crowley lost because of the changing demographics in his district, which had been redrawn considerably after 2010 and is now only 18 percent white.”

In fact, Crowley — Irish-American and from Queens — was presumed to do better there than Ocasio-Cortez — Puerto Rican and from the Bronx — who was expected to carry her home borough. But Romalewski mapped out the votes across the district, and what he found was the exact opposite of the pundits’ conclusion: Crowley, known until last week as the “king of Queens,” was crushed almost everywhere, but he did better in the Bronx.

“You can also see that most of her votes, the strongest vote support, came from areas like Astoria in Queens and Sunnyside in Queens and parts of Jackson Heights that, number one, were not predominantly Hispanic, so they’re a more mixed population, and are areas where — this is kind of a term of art — are in the process of being gentrified, where newer people are moving in,” said Romalewski.

The analysis flips on its head the post-hoc rationalization that pundits have been using to explain a result they never saw coming. Indeed, her ideas — like establishing a single-payer health care system, tuition-free college, a foreign policy that puts human rights first, or abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — along with her dogged campaigning, were the engine which motivated that army and powered the upset. As Briahna Gray wrote for The Intercept, Ocasio-Cortez’s message “is not an incidental part of a larger demographic story.”

Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center/CUNY

Saikat Chakrabarti worked closely with the campaign and is president of Justice Democrats, which got behind Ocasio-Cortez early. The organization activated its sizable list of members, drawn largely from the movement around the 2016 Sanders campaign, for Ocasio-Cortez. Chakrabarti said he hadn’t realized how successful his organization’s efforts were until he arrived in the district.

“I’ll be honest, I actually had no idea myself how many people JD was able to mobilize until I came on the ground here on the campaign and started asking every volunteer where they heard about Alex from,” he said. “As an early Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress candidate, the campaign was able to recruit hundreds of volunteers from the JD list in its early days. This initial base of volunteers was a large, multiracial, progressive coalition made up largely of people who had organized for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.”

Perhaps the most relevant variable in Ocasio-Cortez’s electoral success is that the drop-off voters didn’t just vote — they got involved. Starting with the base of voters identified by Justice Democrats, an innovative data operation put that army to work. In a tactic developed with field directors from other Justice Democrats campaigns, Chakrabarti said they used voter files to find local residents on social media, and then targeted them with digital ads. Having made a potential voter aware of the campaign, they would then follow up by sending a canvasser to knock on the voter’s door. The combination of the digital ad and the door knock added up to more than the sum of its parts.

“From day one, these volunteers started knocking doors and reaching into their own networks to expand this volunteer army, allowing us to go into election day with over a thousand volunteers willing to mobilize voters,” Chakrabarti said. “We buttressed door-knocking with a heavy digital, phone calling, and texting strategy that targeted progressive voters in five different languages. Through this, we built a multiracial, progressive coalition of voters who had been hearing our message for a year and were excited to turn out to vote on June 26. The result: a 68 percent increase in turn out from the 2014 September primary elections in New York.”

Imagine a block that is half longtime residents and half young folks who moved in more recently. These groups are not static and separate. Rather, they interact and engage with each other, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. In the case of the Ocasio-Cortez campaign, the new residents, many of them mobilized by Justice Democrats or the Democratic Socialists of America, knocked on their neighbors’ doors to spread word about the insurgent candidate. They didn’t persuade everybody, but the numbers suggest they flipped plenty. In neighborhoods where there were fewer new people to help carry the message, Crowley’s traditional support held strong, even among black and brown residents.

In fact, the data suggest that although Ocasio-Cortez won in almost every neighborhood, she actually did worse in some parts of Queens with large nonwhite populations. For instance, Crowley performed very well in East Elmhurst — which has a substantial Latino population and is majority-minority.  Romalewski also pointed to LeFrak City and surrounding neighborhoods, “which are predominantly black, as well as Asian and Hispanic,” as areas where Crowley did particularly well. Zooming in a bit more, you can see that African-American neighborhoods were a strong base for Crowley.

One canvasser told The Intercept that on Tuesday evening, he ran into a working-class Hispanic woman who had already cast her ballot. He shared some literature anyway, and after scanning it, she told him that if she’d known Ocasio-Cortez were running, she’d have voted for her. Longtime working-class residents living in gentrifying neighborhoods would have been more likely to see Ocasio-Cortez signs or run into volunteers. And once exposed, the same platform that attracted the former Sanders supporters seems to have appealed to them, too.

Although the economic resources possessed by gentrifiers often exacerbate the financial pressures felt by long-term residents, after the global financial crisis and Great Recession, crushing student debt and soaring rent means that many of these downwardly mobile new residents of Queens and the Bronx have political interests that align closely with longtime residents.

The lesson, said Chakrabarti, is clear. “Run unapologetically on a bold vision with solutions as radical as the problems our country faces. And then work like hell to make sure everyone hears about it. If your ideas are just too good and you can make sure voters hear them, no amount of money on the other side can defeat you,” he said.

This was true for a mother and son who voted at a polling station in Morris Park in the Bronx. Margaret, in her 80s, had been living in the neighborhood for some 50 years, though she still sported an accent from her decades in Italy. She had voted for Crowley in the past and was the type of regular voter many assumed would dominate the polls and carry the incumbent to victory. Margaret had been getting recorded calls from Crowley on a daily basis, but she had also heard from Ocasio-Cortez canvassers. On Tuesday, she and her son decided to vote for Ocasio-Cortez. “I said, ‘Ma, let’s go vote, let’s shake things up,’” her son told The Intercept.

Abismael Rivera, who had lived in the same neighborhood for 12 years, said he learned about Ocasio-Cortez on Facebook. Like Margaret and her son, he and his wife voted for her because they wanted something different. “We want to try something new. Out with the old, in with the new,” he said. 

In addition to supporting Ocasio-Cortez for policy reasons, many longtime Hispanic residents no doubt had lived experiences that engendered additional trust and confidence in a local Latina candidate. She supports abolishing ICE, spent the weekend before the election in Texas protesting Trump’s family separation policy, and ran in a district where anti-Latino bigotry is alive and well.

Frantzy Luzincourt, a 19-year-old African-American student at CUNY, experienced some of that bigotry first hand as he manned a polling station at Philip J. Abinanti Elementary School in the Bronx. A woman with powder-white hair and sunglasses, who Luzincourt guessed was in her 70s or 80s, was blunt with him. “I wouldn’t vote for that fuckin’ spic if you paid me,” she told Luzincourt about an hour before he was interviewed by The Intercept. He also relayed details of the encounter to fellow volunteers, who confirmed he had shared the story in real time.

Luzincourt, who is studying political science, said the comment landed hard. “I was thinking, if I ever run, are people going to say things like that to me? It hurt,” he said. “I’m glad I didn’t say anything. It wouldn’t have gone well.”

Graphic: Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center/CUNY

Romalewski cautioned that the Board of Elections will release more detailed demographic information about the election in the coming months, so any conclusions drawn from the data should be measured. But the initial data strongly suggests that Ocasio-Cortez received no significant advantage from neighborhoods with large Latino populations versus those with small Latino populations. Not surprisingly, given her margin of victory, she generally did do well in working-class Latino neighborhoods, but she did even better elsewhere.

You can see this clearly in a map that Romalewski’s team put together: Ocasio-Cortez benefited from heavy turnout in parts of Queens with relatively smaller Latino populations.

Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center/CUNY

Who Ocasio-Cortez is is inextricable from her message. Her viral campaign ad, which she scripted herself, begins with a sophisticated expression of the intersection of race and class. Delivering her economic message effectively relied on her ability to connect her story to the community she came from. “I wasn’t born to a wealthy or powerful family — mother from Puerto Rico, dad from the South Bronx,” she intones. “I was born in a place where your zip code determines your destiny.” Young voters are often more attracted to progressive candidates if they are also working-class and come from a marginalized community, both for reasons of political pragmatism as well as a genuine interest in diverse representation as a positive good.

But Ocasio-Cortez took pains to resist being flattened into an “identity” candidate. Rather, she demonstrated a particularly sophisticated understanding of intersectionality. “At the end of the day, I’m a candidate that doesn’t take corporate money, that champions ‘Medicare for All,’ a federal jobs guarantee, the abolishment of ICE, and a green New Deal. But I approach those issues with the lenses of the community that I live in. And that is not as easy to say as ‘identity politics,'” she explained in an interview with Glenn Greenwald.

If demographics were all that mattered, and she had run a generic Democratic campaign, her identity alone would not have yielded the voting distribution these maps reflect. The story is incomplete without acknowledging the surging turnout among lefty millennials of all races who were moved by her Sanders-style platform of democratic socialism.The suggestion that the race was all about demographics is an attempt to shear it of its ideological meaning.

Graphic: Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center/CUNY

Romalewski’s team also analyzed the elections in New York’s 9th and 12th Districts, where upstart candidates provided strong challenges to longtime incumbents. In those districts, he found that the challengers, Adem Bunkeddeko and Suraj Patel, performed much stronger in areas that are gentrifying.

“I think the patterns in 9 and 12 show clearly that the challenger in each district did best in the gentrified/gentrifying areas, and the incumbents did best in more traditional Democratic strongholds regardless of the racial/ethnic demographics,” he wrote to The Intercept.

Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center/CUNY
Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center/CUNY

The numbers spell out a dire warning for Democratic incumbents who may see Crowley’s loss and think that their racial background protects them from similar insurgencies, despite a reliance on corporate money and a voting record that isn’t as strong as it could be in the district.

In the wake of Ocasio-Cortez’s win, for instance, Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Democrat from New Orleans, complained the party was moving too far left. “Bernie is fighting for his principles on what direction the party should go,” he said,”but we don’t really have anybody doing it on behalf of moderates and other Democrats.”

Believing that Ocasio-Cortez’s victory was only about demographics might be comforting in the short term to incumbents who are out of step ideologically but fit the racial demographic of their district. In response to Richmond, Waleed Shahid, a former spokesperson for Justice Democrats, who was Ocasio-Cortez’s only staffer for a long stretch of 2017, is now working for the Cynthia Nixon campaign. He noted on Twitter that Richmond’s district is both heavily Democratic and majority-minority, making him a prime target for a future primary challenge from a candidate who can replicate the Ocasio-Cortez model.

But the New Orleans Democratic machine is too strong for that.


Update: July 2, 2018
Two of the maps in this story have been updated to include a disclaimer noting that census data on voting age population by race and citizenship are based on population estimates.


Top photo: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the winner of the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th Congressional District, speaks with supporters, on June 27, 2018, in New York.

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