In the N.Y.C. Mayor’s Race, Being Second Might Be Good Enough to Win

In the fiercely competitive world of New York City politics, it is hard to imagine a candidate embracing a strategy to be voters’ second choice. Yet in the volatile, crowded race for mayor, such a gambit might actually pay off.

The reason? Ranked-choice voting.

The introduction this year of the ranked-choice system — allowing the selection of up to five choices for mayor, ranked in preferential order — has inserted a significant measure of unpredictability into an election still unsettled by the pandemic.

With the June 22 primary less than two weeks away, campaign officials for the leading Democratic candidates are still trying to figure out how best to work the system to their advantage.

Some campaigns have hired staffers who have experience with ranked-choice voting. They are weighing the risks of making a cross-endorsement with a rival. And candidates are openly reaching out to voters committed elsewhere, hoping to become their second choice.

When Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, recently lost an important endorsement from his friend John Liu, a state senator, he was unbowed. He called on Mr. Liu to rank him second, behind a key opponent, Andrew Yang.

“I’m going to need No. 2 voters, and I’m hoping that I can get him to endorse me as No. 2,” Mr. Adams said.

Even before Shaun Donovan, the former federal housing secretary, entered the race last year, an “electability” presentation to potential backers extolled how his “broad appeal makes him a natural second and third choice for voters.”

New York City approved the switch to a ranked-choice system in a 2019 referendum; it was designed to give voters broader influence by allowing them to back their top choice while still weighing in on the race’s other candidates — lessening the chances of a scenario where two popular candidates split the vote and a candidate without broad support wins.

If a candidate does not initially win a majority of the votes, the rankings come into play. The last-place candidate is eliminated in a series of rounds, with that candidate’s votes reallocated to whichever candidate their supporters ranked next. The rounds continue until there are two candidates left, and the winner has a majority.

The winner will still need to appear as the first choice on as many ballots as possible. But with 13 Democratic candidates diffusing the vote, securing the second spot on other ballots could be just as important, and could elevate a candidate with fewer first-place votes into the lead.

Uncertainty over how voters will approach the new voting system is making many of the campaigns nervous.

“We’re in uncharted territory, and our campaign has done everything it can to ensure that we get as many votes as we can get,” said Chris Coffey, a campaign manager for Mr. Yang, a former presidential candidate.

In most cases where ranked-choice elections have been held, the candidate who is ahead in the first round prevails. But there have been exceptions, including the 2010 mayoral election in Oakland, Calif., where Jean Quan won despite placing second in the first round. Ms. Quan, the city’s first female mayor, collected more second- and third-choice votes than her top rival, boosting her to victory.

Ms. Quan had openly supported the candidate who placed third, Rebecca Kaplan, as her second choice and believes that the friendly gesture helped her with voters.

“I knew there was a risk of helping Rebecca, but I thought it was more important to beat the front-runner,” she said in an interview.

Those types of alliances have been rare in New York.

A campaign adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning said that a cross-endorsement would only work if the other candidate was unquestionably lower in the standings. “You have to know that you’re going to beat the person you’re cross-endorsing — that’s rule No. 1,” the adviser said.

Indeed, the campaigns of Mr. Yang and his chief rival, Mr. Adams, both considered trying to craft a cross-endorsement deal with Kathryn Garcia, the former sanitation commissioner, according to two people familiar with the plans. But her recent rise in the scant public polling available has made that proposition more unlikely.

“We’re not overthinking our ranked-choice strategy,” said Lindsey Green, a spokeswoman for Ms. Garcia. “The goal is still to get as many No. 1 votes as we can and to win outright.”

Only two of the leading mayoral candidates, in fact, are even willing to list a second choice: Mr. Yang backs Ms. Garcia; Mr. Donovan, the former federal housing secretary, supports Maya Wiley, a former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The only known cross-endorsement pact was between Joycelyn Taylor, a businesswoman, and Art Chang, an entrepreneur, two Democrats who have shown little support in polling and fund-raising, and stand little chance of winning.

The mayoral primary will be the first citywide contest in New York City to use ranked-choice voting, and the new system was expected to change the race’s dynamics.

Most mayoral primaries typically feature bruising campaigns; ranked-choice was supposed to discourage that, with candidates wary of alienating each other’s base. That had largely been true this year, but the level of sniping and negative campaigning has increased in recent weeks.

One thing is certain: There will be no costly runoff this year; whoever emerges as the winner will be the Democratic nominee, even if that person did not get 50 percent of the initial vote.

But the voting system also has its quirks.

Assuming no one wins a majority in the first round, the city’s Board of Elections must completely receive and process mail-in ballots before it begins the ranked-choice tally. That is expected to take weeks, and officials have cautioned that a victor may not be declared until mid-July.

“Ranked-choice voting has definitely added an unpredictability to the race,” said Ester Fuchs, a politics professor at Columbia University. “The candidates would like to figure out how to maximize their chances of winning, and they haven’t been able to figure it out.”

Mr. Yang, who has strong name recognition and centrist views, has tried to evoke a cheerful image on the campaign trail. He said recently on MSNBC that the voting system rewards candidates like him with “broad appeal.”

Mr. Yang is working with Bill Barnes, a veteran of San Francisco government, which uses ranked-choice voting, and Billy Cline, who worked on the campaign of London Breed, that city’s first Black female mayor.

Mr. Adams, who appears to be the front-runner in the race, is working with Evan Thies, a media strategist who has experience with the issue, and Ben Tulchin, a San Francisco-based pollster from Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.

At the same time, progressive groups and the city’s powerful teachers’ union are urging New Yorkers not to rank Mr. Yang or Mr. Adams at all.

“Any appearance on your ballot, even as your fifth choice, can get them elected,” the United Federation of Teachers recently told its members.

Our City, a super PAC backed by progressive groups, is also arguing that anyone else would be better than Mr. Yang or Mr. Adams.

“The rest of the candidates — we don’t feel like they’re completely unreachable for progressive issues,” said Gabe Tobias, who is running the PAC. “Adams and Yang are unreachable. That’s a situation where we couldn’t win any of the things we want to win.”

Over the last few weeks, more endorsements have been given in ranked-choice format: The Working Families Party had endorsed the city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, first; Dianne Morales, a nonprofit executive, second; and Ms. Wiley third. But the group withdrew its support for Mr. Stringer and Ms. Morales after their campaigns became mired in controversy, and it is now supporting only Ms. Wiley.

Daniel Rosenthal, a state assemblyman, and two Jewish groups in Queens just ranked Ms. Garcia second. Their first choices were split between Mr. Yang and Mr. Adams.

Representative Adriano Espaillat, the first Dominican-American to serve in Congress, also recently endorsed Mr. Adams first and Ms. Wiley second. (He rescinded his initial endorsement of Mr. Stringer after allegations emerged that Mr. Stringer had sexually harassed a woman working on his 2001 campaign for public advocate. Mr. Stringer denies the allegations.)

The system allows voters to hedge their bets and rank multiple candidates — extending the odds of casting a winning vote for someone agreeable, even if not preferable. A voter could, for instance, rank three left-leaning candidates — Ms. Wiley, Mr. Stringer and Ms. Morales — guaranteeing that one would get their vote in a late round.

The same scenario could present itself to a voter who wanted to support a Black candidate, and rank only the four major Black Democrats: Mr. Adams, Ms. Wiley, Ms. Morales, who identifies as Afro-Latina, and Raymond J. McGuire, a former Wall Street executive.

Yet some Black leaders are also concerned that minority and working-class voters might not rank more than one candidate because there has not been enough public education about the process. More than half of voters say they will pick a second choice; 30 percent said they would only pick one choice, according to a Fontas Advisors poll in May.

Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York, a good government advocacy group, said that ranked-choice voting eliminates the need for an expensive runoff election, which could take just as long to find a winner.

“Democracy takes time, and every vote counts,” she said. “Accurate and fair election results are worth waiting for.”

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