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How N.Y.C. Votes: Money, Not Race


How N.Y.C. Votes: Money, Not Race

October 22, 2001
Urban PolicyNYC

An exclusive exit poll of the Democratic runoff confutes the conventional wisdom about why New Yorkers vote as they do.

For our political pundits, race is always the key fact in all city elections. But race isn't what drives New York's politics—economic self-interest is.

To the pundits, Fernando Ferrer's strong showing this year represented a tectonic shift in our politics: the emergence of a new black and Hispanic voting block that made up half the Democratic electorate. In fact, many who voted did so not out of ethnic pride but because they were there to elect their next boss.

Exit polling commissioned by City Journal found that 41 percent of voters in the Oct. 11 runoff worked directly for government or for the heavily government-subsidized nonprofit sector. Just 38 percent of Oct. 11 voters worked in the private sector.

And if you count spouses of those who work for government, or retirees with pensions from public-sector jobs, it's possible that a majority of Oct. 11 voters in some significant way depend on public spending for their living.

These numbers are nothing short of astounding, since three-quarters of all jobs in the city are in for-profit firms. (Nationally, government employs only about 15 percent of the workforce; perhaps another 4 percent work in nonprofit social services.)

The poll also suggests that this year's minority-turnout surge came mainly from those with government-related jobs, belying the notion that ethnic pride was the driving motive.

For instance, 36 percent of black voters worked directly for the government, versus only about 11 percent of voting-age blacks in the U.S. population. For Hispanic voters, the gap was even greater: A third were government employees, compared with just 6 percent of voting-age U.S. Hispanics.

How much influence do the municipal and social-services unions have in Democratic primaries? The hospital-workers union boasted that it would use its computerized database to urge as many as 250,000 voters to get to the polls and support Ferrer. His strong showing suggests that Local 1199 may have come close to achieving that ambitious turnout—and that 1199 understands what drives voter choice.

All this has profound significance for the city's future. "Public-sector" voters are naturally more inclined to back candidates who support big government and greater public spending. Such candidates, after all, are the best bets to deliver big pay raises and to ignore calls to improve the productivity of government workers.

With the vote so skewed to government and nonprofit workers, the two most liberal, big-government candidates among the original Democratic mayor field—Ferrer and Green—finished in a near tie in the Sept. 25 primary.

In the runoff, Ferrer pulled in 56 percent of the votes of government workers, nearly giving him the win. His post-Sept. 11 refusal to back off his big-government agenda—including the possibility of higher taxes—surely helped him with these voters.

But it probably scared off private-sector voters: 60 percent of them went for Green. That vote, along with some support among government and nonprofit workers, was enough.

The true alignment in city politics may be not white vs. minority, but government workers vs. those who toil in the private sector and generate the taxes that support public spending.

This reality points to an opportunity, now that New York's economy faces its post-Sept. 11 crisis, for GOP nominee Michael Bloomberg to forge a coalition of private-sector voters with a platform based on smaller government, less taxes, more efficient services and a business-friendly city hall.

None of the Democratic candidates tried to woo moderate Democrats with this kind of a message, so many probably just sat out the primary. Can Bloomberg get those private-sector citizens into the voting booth in the general election?