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Progressivism and Representation: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Voter Demographics

The historic number of women and people of color, most of whom were Democrats, elected to Congress was one of the biggest stories to come out of the 2018 midterms. Two of the most high profile candidates, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) and Ayanna Pressley (MA-7), unseated longtime Democratic incumbents in close primary races (Joe Crowley and Mike Capuano respectively), both of whom are white men. Both candidates campaigned on progressive, populist platforms and were hailed by progressives as signs of a Democratic base ready for change and a shift away from the party establishment.

These races were rightly hailed among many Democrats as victories for more diverse representation in government and possibly the beginning of a new era of progressivism on the left. However, recent analyses of primary voting data, in particular Thomas Edsall’s Jan. 23 column in The New York Times, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is Leading and Following at the Same Time,” have illuminated some surprising trends in voter demographics. These patterns run counter to many popular narratives from the left, and should sound alarm bells for progressives and Democratic leadership alike.

While Ocasio-Cortez won the Hispanic vote (Hispanic voters form almost half of the district’s population), some of her strongest areas of support were the more white and affluent Astoria and Sunnyside neighborhoods in Queens, and other gentrifying neighborhoods, where she won over 70 percent of the vote in some cases. In contrast, some of Crowley’s strongest areas of support were working class Black enclaves, such as LeFrak City, or Ocasio-Cortez’s own Parkchester Bronx neighborhood where he won 65-70 percent of the primary vote.

Pressley’s base of support was among young, wealthier college-educated whites in a majority-minority district, that has also gentrified in recent years under Capuano’s tenure as Congressman and previously as mayor of Somerville. Capuano did well in the working class towns of Chelsea and Everett. 62 percent of Chelsea’s population identifies as Hispanic. Although the data on the MA-7 primary race is not as specific as NY-14, Pressley did well in wealthy areas of Boston and Cambridge.

Some analysts sought to explain this pattern in the NY-14 race by noting that Ocasio-Cortez campaign messaging was more widespread in gentrified neighborhoods, claiming that in some cases minority voters said that they would have voted for her if they knew she was running. However, this dodges the fact that, in both cases, each candidate’s base of support was among wealthier, white populations, despite both candidates’ embrace of a brand of progressive populism that emphasized standing up for working families and shaking up the political establishment.

Working class, minority voters have been an integral part of the Democratic party coalition for decades. In the context of the 2017 Alabama special election, DNC chairman Tom Perez acknowledged Black women as the “backbone of the Democratic Party”. In many races, including the Alabama race (which was won by Doug Jones), as well as the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race, minority and women voters were indeed crucial to Democratic support, even in the face of voter suppression efforts. There were problems with access to voting machines in New York during the 2018 elections, which may have had an impact on votes in minority, working class areas, although these problems were not documented in the primaries.

Media coverage of the NY-14 and MA-7 races often portrayed them as pulling the party to the left – placing them in the context of the constant debate over whether the Democrats should put forward an unabashedly progressive presidential candidate in 2020 or seek to recapture white, working class midwestern votes with a moderate message. However, these debates miss a deeper point about progressive, minority politicians and minority voter populations. It seems that Democrats of all stripes are quick to assume that candidates with minority backgrounds will automatically appeal to populations that share a similar identity. One need look no further than the commentary discussing Cory Booker or Kamala Harris’s appeal to Black voters versus Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden’s potential appeal to the same populations.

The NY-14 and MA-7 primaries would suggest that many working class minority voters, at least in East Coast urban areas, prioritize a candidate’s seniority and ability to deliver concrete policies or benefits. Joe Crowley was one of the most senior Democrats in the House, and supported many measures, such as tax credits to provide rent relief that affected many constituents in his district. Mike Capuano was a Somerville native with working class roots that had been involved in local politics for decades, and had a reputation as one of the most progressive representatives in the House. Capuano opposed the Iraq invasion, was a vocal critic of the financial industry after the 2008 crisis, expressed ardent support for LGBTQ rights, and even embraced protesters protesting against the 2011 Wisconsin budget repair bill,when he told a crowd that Every once and awhile you need to get out on the streets and get a little bloody when necessary – a quote that would later prove to be controversial. Despite AOC’s, or Pressley’s (to a slightly lesser extent) national superstar status, they do not have the same political clout that Crowley or Capuano enjoyed in the House and could employ to push through legislation. This could be one of the factors that motivated large numbers of minority and working class voters to turn out for the incumbents.

While many on the left were excited by both Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley’s victories, it seems like both congresswomen were carried to victory by a surge of support that was more cultural than political. The voters that comprised their strongest bases of support were often from communities that had a lesser stake in the specific issues at hand in comparison to the working class minority voters who voted in large numbers for the establishment incumbent.  In Pressley’s case, though her policies were almost identical to Capuano’s, voters were enthusiastic about an energetic, up and coming, woman of color who represented a generational shift from older generations of Massachusetts politicians. In Ocasio-Cortez’s case the wealthier, mostly white voters, who were part of the “changes” in New York that Ocasio-Cortez decried as leaving working-class families behind, gave her strong support. While progressives may rightly look towards both figures as a vanguard of a populist progressive political movement, they should be wary of holding them up as evidence of nominations of progressive candidates from minority backgrounds translating into electoral success among working class minority voters. At a time when Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics comprise about 40 percent of Democratic voters nationally, Democrats and progressives must realize that appealing to minority populations requires more than just putting forward diverse candidates.

While the electoral victories of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley were hailed as victories for progressive politics, Democrats and Progressives should be wary of assuming that candidates who are more representative of their constituents will automatically be more appealing to voters from minority backgrounds, even in districts with majority minority populations.

Photo: “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez