Campaigns & Elections

What if the next mayor finished second?

Although it’s unlikely, a candidate can ‘come from behind’ to win in ranked-choice voting.

Mayoral candidates Andrew Yang and Eric Adams

Mayoral candidates Andrew Yang and Eric Adams lev radin/Shutterstock; Steve Sanchez Photo/Shutterstock

In the 2001 New York City primary, which was delayed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then-Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer won 36% of the vote in the mayoral race – the most of anyone in the field. But he didn’t break 40%, so under a 1972 law, he was forced into a runoff with the second-place candidate, Mark Green, who topped Ferrer in that election two weeks later.

Twenty years later, we have a new system, ranked-choice voting with an instant runoff. But a poll in the Democratic mayoral primary released this week raised the specter of a 2001 redux. What if the candidate with the most first-place votes doesn’t end up winning the primary? The Manhattan Institute poll, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, showed Andrew Yang with 22% of the first-place votes and Eric Adams with 21%. But when the poll played out, respondents ranked choices in an instant runoff, Adams won the race, beating Yang 52% to 48%.

That scenario, where a candidate “comes from behind” to win, is relatively rare in RCV. Experts will tell you the candidate with the most first-place votes wins the vast majority of the time – 96% or so since 2004. That tracks with publicly released polling too, since of the handful of RCV polls released before this one have shown the candidate who won the first round of voting also won in the end. But candidates that don’t win the first round can win overall if they get enough lower-ranked votes – with the 2010 Oakland mayoral election as just one example.

And that’s a real worry for Greg Floyd, president of Teamsters Local 237, which has endorsed Scott Stringer for mayor. “I’m confused even thinking about it, thinking somebody could be in third and end up coming in first,” he told Campaign Confidential. Floyd seemed stressed even imagining what could happen, saying some New Yorkers would “stop voting, because the narrative of ‘elections are fixed’ will come in play.” He fears “the person who was in the lead will cry that the election is fixed.” And worst of all? “Donald Trump will certainly chime in,” he said.

But would candidates in that position actually complain? CBS News asked the campaigns of the eight leading Democrats this week if they would accept the results of the election if the leader after the first round didn’t end up winning. Five said “yes,” while Stringer, Adams and Ray McGuire did not respond. Asked again Thursday, Stringer’s campaign said he would accept the result in that case, but McGuire and Adams’ campaigns once again did not respond – something that raised the hackles of Evan Roth Smith, co-founder of Slingshot Strategies and pollster for Yang’s campaign. “An election’s an election. The city made a decision about how this election should be run,” he said. “It should be just as verboten to say I won’t accept an RCV outcome as it should be for Donald Trump to say I won’t accept the outcome of an election.”

Adams and McGuire’s silence is notable, since they are the two candidates in the race who have been the most critical of the rollout of RCV, with both candidates, who are Black, raising concerns that it would disenfranchise lower-income Black and brown voters. Is the memory of the Latino Bronxite, Freddy Ferrer, losing to a white Manhattanite in 2001 haunting them? After all, Ferrer endorsed Adams this year. But another Adams supporter, City Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel, told City & State she wasn’t worried about RCV hurting Adams – after all, he won in the Manhattan Institute poll. She’s worried that the city isn’t doing enough education and outreach, but she isn’t worried about what might happen if a candidate won in spite of losing the first round. “That’s the system that we have in place,” she said. “There’s no need to talk about the first-place votes.”