“Zoom is not our friend. I just want to be very clear.”
Andrew Yang was reflecting on the joy of campaigning, even during a pandemic. He was getting to know his city so well. People were thrilled to see him in the streets.
The front-running mayoral candidate, speaking to reporters in Harlem on a frigid March day, seemed also to be growing aware of all he would probably miss: the teeming block parties, the raucous parades, the subway platforms thronged at rush hour.
“Most New Yorkers are sick and tired of Zoom,” Yang added. “I think a lot of the country is sick and tired of Zoom.”
Though relatively few New Yorkers may be aware of this fact, they will probably be choosing their mayor for the next eight years three months from now, on June 22. In heavily Democratic New York City, the primary winner will steamroll over nominal GOP opposition. Incumbents usually get re-elected — Bill de Blasio, for all his challenges, easily did.
But this mayoral race, for many reasons, is unlike any other. The vaccination pace is heating up, but COVID-19 still lingers as a threat, shrinking crowds and keeping commuters at home. Mass death rates, along with job losses, have taken a significant toll.
In 2013, the last time there was an open Democratic primary, candidates jostled for attention for many months, the race culminating in an election at the close of a turbulent summer. Hundreds of town halls, street festivals, parades, and rallies built to a satisfying crescendo. There were no fewer than three front-runners — City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the scandalous Anthony Weiner, and, finally, de Blasio — plus a city comptroller’s race that featured Eliot Spitzer, the governor who resigned after he was caught soliciting a prostitute.
These days, the primary is in June, not September. After a federal judge ruled that congressional primaries be moved to June to allow sufficient time to get absentee ballots to military voters for the general election, the state legislature eventually decided to set all primaries in June, including the mayoral race. This year, such a condensed contest will probably benefit those who’ve already built up support bases around the city.
Yang is well-known to most New Yorkers from his long-shot presidential bid, but the rest of the field is not. The parades and parties aren’t yet materializing. There will be relatively few opportunities to meet voters face-to-face.
The race, many campaigns believe, may be decided wholly on screens — traditional cable television, digital advertising, and whatever online chatter can be generated.
“In this race right now, it’s really hard to do any level of retail campaigning,” says Peter Ragone, a former senior adviser to de Blasio and a veteran Democratic operative. “It’s really going to be, number one, are you on television? And are you creating any content yourself that has huge levels of engagement?”
A traditional Democratic primary in New York City is arrayed around huge parades, captivating stunts for television, and other mass events. All the candidates in 2013 pressed the flesh at the famous West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn, with Weiner blaring music and shouting through a bullhorn on his blue and orange float. The Democrats all staged a sleepover at a public housing development with the Rev. Al Sharpton. Bill Thompson, the runner-up in the race, dragged reporters on a 24-hour tour of New York City, bringing them to a frozen meat locker in the pre-dawn hours.
Top candidates would routinely invite reporters along for trips to the subway and door-knocking expeditions. Every day promised another debate, a rally with supporters, or a visit to a community center, synagogue, or nursing home. Everywhere were the voters — it was an imperfect system, but ordinary people, on a given afternoon on Broadway or in the South Bronx, could run into the future mayor and strike up a conversation.
For the campaigns themselves, there was a feedback loop that is clearly missing now. A campaign event, if well-attended or interesting enough, could draw journalists and end up on the nightly news. This footage could be used for paid television ads a month later. Journalists, meanwhile, could attempt to gauge how well a candidate might be connecting with New Yorkers. Were they becoming increasingly recognizable? Did they have notable interactions with voters?
“In every other campaign I’ve worked on, the retail campaigning is front and center. Not only do you get to meet voters, reporters have something to cover, television news stories have rallies to get pictures of, and there’s this whole ecosystem of political communication that goes on apart from paid advertising,” says a top ad maker attached to one of the current mayoral campaigns. “This time around, because we have so little capacity to do old-fashioned handshakes and hugs and big rallies, there’s going to be a greater reliance on paid communication to reach voters — radio, digital, and direct mail.”
This isn’t the first campaign to be run during the pandemic. Last year, numerous candidates for state office in New York had to suspend operations and recalibrate for a June primary that came right after the peak number of coronavirus deaths in the city. Door-knocking was ditched and campaigns turned to glossy mailers, digital ads, and phone calls to reach as many voters as they could. But these were all small-scale campaigns, operating in districts where fewer than 20,000 people could vote. The mayoral primary is expected to draw anywhere from 700,000 to a million voters, with many campaigns planning for a spike from the middling 2013 turnout.
To make matters more challenging, voters have other pressing concerns. The pandemic is on the wane but remains a concrete, unsettling reality. Then there are the scandals surrounding Governor Andrew Cuomo, all-consuming online, in the newspapers, and on cable television. Granular, daily coverage of the mayoral race — the type seen in 2013 — has been far less evident. “All of our attention is drawn to stuff that isn’t the mayoral race,” said Micah Lasher, campaign manager for Scott Stringer, the city comptroller and one of the leading candidates.
The top campaigns are gearing up for heavy cable TV expenditures in the months to come in the hope of breaking through. Most of the campaigns expect to dedicate a far larger share of their spending on television than they would have in a more ordinary year. Others, like the progressive Dianne Morales, who reported that she just qualified for public matching funds, are leaning heavily into digital campaigning, rapidly accruing online followings.
One of the mayoral candidates, the financial executive Ray McGuire, is not participating in the public matching funds system at all, a move that will allow him to spend as much as he wants — those abiding by the Campaign Finance Board’s regulations receive generous matching funds in return for adhering to a strict spending cap — but also permit his rivals to spend more as well. A spokesman for the CFB said a determination on whether to raise the cap in the race will be made after April 26, the final deadline for candidates to join the matching funds program.
The system is designed to incentivize small-donor giving. While a mayoral campaign can receive a $2,000 check, only donations up to $250 are eligible to be matched, amplifying the power of a $25 or $50 donation. Based on the CFB’s criteria, all participating campaigns will be able to spend at least several million more. The current cap, at about $7.3 million, rises to $10,929,000 if a nonparticipating candidate spends at least $3,643,000. (Surpassing $21,858,000, which the billionaire Michael Bloomberg routinely did, would mean lifting the cap entirely.)
McGuire is no billionaire, but he has already spent more than $3.7 million. Raising the cap would most benefit the candidates who have raised enough to take advantage of it: Yang, Stringer, Eric Adams, and former de Blasio counsel Maya Wiley, whose campaign has recently reached the matching threshhold. Stringer and Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, have already banked more than $6 and $7 million respectively.
For campaigns, TV advertising is the least efficient but most effective way of reaching a broad swath of voters. Enough older Democrats are still watching CNN and MSNBC every day, as well as local stations like NY1. The ads cannot be perfectly tailored or targeted like digital solicitations on Facebook — a resident of New Jersey can end up seeing a 30-second spot for a mayoral candidate — but they can reach, on a given day, hundreds of thousands or millions of people.
It is all exceedingly expensive: a strong ad buy can easily run $1 million a week. With multiple candidates spending millions to purchase ads, there’s a fear of being drowned out. At the same time, not being there carries great risk, with a rival hogging precious airtime. A Democrat attempting to break into the top tier, Shaun Donovan, a veteran of the Obama and Bloomberg administrations, has already been spending on weekly TV ads. (Outside Super PACs are also stepping up for Donovan and McGuire.)
To complicate the picture in 2021, well-funded candidates will be targeting popular connected TV services such as Roku, Hulu, and Apple TV, which were barely part of the mix in 2013. De Blasio won that race eight years ago for many reasons, including Weiner’s implosion and de Blasio’s own disciplined, anti-Bloomberg messaging, but television played a decisive role. De Blasio was prescient, dedicating a larger share of his campaign spending to television advertising than his rivals and foregoing direct mail. Years later, the “Dante” ad is still discussed in mythic terms: how 30 seconds of de Blasio’s biracial son talking about his father’s promise to “really break from the Bloomberg years” captivated Democratic voters and entered the popular culture.
Most ads don’t carry such emotional impact — at best, they may introduce a candidate, make an argument, or attack a rival. Yang is the public polling leader, and could be, in the weeks to come, the focus of negative advertising, particularly if a wealthy interest group or labor union aligned with a rival decides to spend against him.
“It’s not a paper endorsement,” says Kyle Bragg, the president of the influential building workers’ union, 32BJ SEIU. “Our members are super engaged voters.” 32BJ, like several other large unions in the city, is backing Adams, who is shaping up to be Yang’s top rival. Yang has shunned negative campaigning thus far, while Adams has criticized Yang for leaving the city in the early stages of the pandemic. Some of the Adams-supporting unions could train their fire at Yang if they view him as a durable threat.
To drive media coverage, Yang has relied on his Twitter feed, with 2 million followers, and, unlike most of his rivals, frequent in-person campaign stops. Recently, he has started appearing with opponents at events, like the press conference in Harlem to promote an app for small businesses envisioned by Kathryn Garcia, a Democratic contender and the former Department of Sanitation Commissioner. These sorts of team-ups have grown more common as candidates vie to be second choices for voters who can now rank up to five candidates. According to Yang’s campaign, media turnout was much higher than a typical press conference, thanks to the unusual nature of a multi-candidate appearance.
In 2013, one of de Blasio’s fiercest rivals in the early months was John Liu, the city comptroller at the time. Liu was renowned for his vigorous campaign schedule, appearing at as many as a dozen rallies, block parties, and subway stops a day. Now a state senator, and happily watching the race from the sidelines, Liu says the candidates must learn to adapt to the new normal: lots of Zoom, lots of TV, and a lot of time online.
And get used to not being the center of attention.
“It’s New York City. At what given moment is there not a whole lot of shit going down?” Liu asks. “In 2013, we had months of the Weiner circus. I think candidates can be thankful they don’t have to deal with that.” ❖