How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won the race that shocked the country

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez after learning she had won the New York District 14 Democratic primary.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez after learning she had won the New York District 14 Democratic primary.
Corey Torpie/Courtesy Ocasio 2018
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez after learning she had won the District 14 Democratic primary.

How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won the race that shocked the country

Sustained canvassing, tech savvy and hardcore progressivism was her recipe for success.
June 27, 2018

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stunned the New York political establishment and Democrats nationwide with her upset victory against Rep. Joseph Crowley, a 10-term incumbent and chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, on Tuesday night. The 28-year-old political organizer drubbed Crowley 57 percent to 42 percent.

Ocasio-Cortez’s success came down to demographics, a progressive ideology and a smart, unconventional focus on social media and nontraditional news outlets.

Ocasio-Cortez tailored her campaign to underrepresented constituencies such as Latino and younger voters. Her age and ideology may have helped her engage a large cross-section of the district’s population.

Many assumed that Crowley, the chair of the Queens Democratic Party, would easily win Queens. Instead, Ocasio-Cortez, a Bronx native of Puerto Rican descent, had widespread support throughout the district.

Ocasio-Cortez’s largest margin of support came from neighborhoods in western Queens like Astoria and Sunnyside that have lower Latino populations and higher white populations. It was assumed that Crowley, who is white and Irish-American, would win white voters in the election. The younger white voters who have been gentrifying western Queens helped hand the election to Ocasio-Cortez. “It’s an example of how you can’t necessarily look at elections through the lens of race and ethnicity,” said Steven Romalewski, director of the CUNY Mapping Service for the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center. Data show that Ocasio-Cortez also had significant support in areas with higher Latino populations.

Ocasio-Cortez ran a youth-oriented, tech-savvy campaign that may represent the future of the Democratic Party. Her campaign platform called for abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a current progressive cause, as well as supporting Medicare for All. She garnered favorable profiles from liberal outlets, such as The Intercept, HuffPost and Refinery29. Her campaign advertising included some radio but was almost entirely digital, including a campaign ad that went viral.

“Everybody keeps saying ‘digital is the future of campaigns.’ It's not the future of campaigns, it's the present of campaigns.” – Corbin Trent, communications director for Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign

Corbin Trent, communications director for Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, said that her victory was due to the perfect storm of ceaseless canvassing, endorsements and media attention.

“There was an element of luck here, right?” Trent said, his Tennessee drawl quickening with enthusiasm. He discussed the co-endorsement of Crowley and Ocasio-Cortez by progressive Rep. Ro Khanna, after initially only endorsing Crowley, and the endorsement of gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon the day before the election. “If Ro Khanna hadn’t done what he did the way he did it, no way would that have got the attention it got. The fact that the endorsement from Cynthia Nixon came when it did, the fact that she delayed it till the day before the primary,” Trent said.

Ocasio-Cortez’s media coverage was largely favorable. A Democratic source close to the Crowley campaign, who requested anonymity to discuss campaign strategy, said that this had worked in her favor. “There was a general unwillingness of some of your colleagues in the press to write anything other than the Cinderella upset story as opposed to those things that would potentially disqualify her,” the source said, adding that even members of the press “didn’t take her seriously.”

However, the source said that her victory was also due to the strength of her campaign. “Look, it's a credit to her. She did a very good job of organizing and in generating a turnout spike among younger voters,” the source said.

Ocasio-Cortez had indeed been canvassing and campaigning for nearly a year, and had a strong presence on social media. If yard signs are considered a traditional marker of electoral enthusiasm, tweets are their new equivalent – and Ocasio-Cortez built a large following on social media, and had many enthusiastic supporters online. (Even before the election, she had surpassed Crowley in Twitter followers.) “Everybody keeps saying ‘digital is the future of campaigns.’ It's not the future of campaigns, it's the present of campaigns,” said Trent.

New York City Councilman Bob Holden, who defeated Crowley’s cousin, Elizabeth, to obtain his Queens Council seat in 2017, said that Crowley did not do enough to connect with voters in his district. Crowley has a house in Virginia, and his children are enrolled in school there. “Joe Crowley was interested more in Washington politics and less about his neighborhoods,” Holden said. Meanwhile, Ocasio-Cortez was going local. “I knew some people who lived in the area who said ‘I got two visits from her campaign. I got a lot of literature from Joe Crowley but never a visit.’”

Trent also credited Ocasio-Cortez’s victory to her canvassing credentials. “What we did is load this 75,000 somewhat-likely primary voters into our digital marketing tools and we hit those folks with ads fairly frequently,” Trent said. “Then we knocked on their doors, we sent them mail, we knocked on their doors again, we called them.”

In an off-year congressional primary in which turnout is typically low, mobilizing even a small share of those voters could be decisive.

Ocasio-Cortez’s message was perhaps able to resonate so strongly with voters in the district because this was, in the words of the Democratic source, a “change election.” She was the only progressive primary challenger to defeat an incumbent in New York City. However, Adem Bunkeddeko nearly defeated Rep. Yvette Clarke, and Rep. Carolyn Maloney defeated Suraj Patel by a far smaller margin than her last primary challenger in 2010.

“All over New York, the candidates that were the establishment candidates generally got beaten and beaten pretty badly, and obviously there's no person more establishment than Joe Crowley,” the source said. Activist Liuba Grechen Shirley defeated Suffolk County Legislator DuWayne Gregory in the 2nd Congressional District, and businessman Perry Gershon beat former county Legislator Kate Browning in the 1st Congressional District. In the 24th Congressional District near Syracuse, Dana Balter defeated Juanita Perez-Williams, who was supported by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The source believes that Clarke and Maloney had the advantage of gender dynamics, as women facing younger men. Ocasio-Cortez was a young Latina facing a white man who some believed was disengaged with the district.

Ocasio-Cortez’s victory may be the result of a confluence of events and a knack for strategy, but it also speaks to the candidate herself, and her ability to harness the undercurrent of enthusiasm that has been brewing in the Democratic Party since the 2016 presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

“This is the start of a movement,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted at around midnight on Wednesday. “Thank you all.”

Grace Segers
is City & State’s digital reporter. She writes daily content on New York City and New York state politics.
20180716