As the 2021 race rolls along, candidates over the city are touting their endorsements — which is when a group or individual publicly supports a candidate. 

Those endorsements may seem like a bunch of acronyms and more names to keep track of. But they can be a tool to help some voters sort through a big election like this, especially when there are so many people running. 

So, for example, when you see that a huge health care worker union endorsed mayoral candidate Maya Wiley recently, here’s how to make sense of that — and other endorsements that will start to pile up the closer we get to the June 22 primary.

How much do endorsements matter, anyway?

Reader Liz M. from The Bronx got us thinking about this with her excellent question: “Which endorsements are the most sought after, and why?”

To answer this and other endorsement queries, we spoke to three New York politics experts: Fordham University political science professor Christina Greer, Baruch College political science professor Doug Muzzio and campaign veteran and political consultant Neal Kwatra.

Here’s what the experts say

To Muzzio, there’s “no general rule of endorsements,” and which ones matter vary widely depending on the race. A high-profile local endorsement could have a huge impact in a City Council race in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, for example, but may mean nothing in a citywide race.

But the experts agreed on at least a few big names and influential groups that hold sway in New York no matter what.

The unions — and their members

The big unions — including 1199, DC-37 (representing city government employees), 32BJ SEIU (representing building service workers), the Hotel Trades Council (representing hotel workers) and the United Federation of Teachers — are definitely at the top of that list. Why? Because they can mobilize thousands of members to broaden a campaign’s reach.

MTA union members hand out flyers at Kings Highway in Brooklyn imploring commuters to wear masks while riding buses, Oct. 1, 2020. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“They provide troops for the campaigns. They’re sources of money and sources of person-power,” Muzzio said.

“They’ll phonebank for you. They’ll help you with get-out-the-vote efforts,” Greer said. “This is a built-in, politically educated class of people who have now said that you’re their candidate.”

Plus, of course, their backing often translates into votes, Kwatra said — though by how much varies widely depending on the union.

A recent survey Kwatra’s consulting firm helped conduct for the Hotel Trades Council found that among hundreds of members, 70% said they would choose the union’s preferred candidate “even over their own primary research around candidates,” he said.

“They were that emphatic about it,” he said.

The individual endorsements — AOC … and Patrick Ewing?

Individual endorsements — from a celebrity or a notable politician — can play a role, too, but how much power they hold is mixed.

“The impact of endorsements, as far as political science literature is concerned, is contested,” Muzzio said.

But for the experts, one person in New York tops the list of people whose endorsement could make a big splash locally: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“The name alone signals a certain set of beliefs and values, and, if she endorses, a voter might look at that and say, ‘Ah, I know what this candidate stands for, and since I like AOC, I can move to vote for that person,’” Muzzio said. “Or maybe more, they can move to volunteer for that person. It’s not only voting.”

For Kwatra, Ocasio-Cortez can speak to a specific group of voters who are “increasingly engaged and activated in the Trump era.”

“I think for a lot of those voters — they’re younger, they’re more diverse, they’re more female — she is as impactful as anybody right now in the city of New York,” he said.

Mayoral campaigns will often tout celebrity endorsements, too, Greer said — for example, Ray McGuire and former Knicks star Patrick Ewing or Scott Stringer and actor Scarlett Johansson. But she sees that more as advertising than a sure-fire way to boost votes.

Credit: lev radin/Shutterstock

“For a lot of people, it doesn’t really matter. But it does help when you don’t know who a candidate is,” she said.

The right celebrities can help with fundraising, however, especially from outside of New York, she added.

The groups — DSA, WFP … but not PBA

There are also politically influential groups, like the Working Families Party and the Democratic Socialists of America, two left-leaning organizations with engaged memberships in the city that are more likely to vote in primaries when turnout is low.

But Greer isn’t sure how big of a wave those on the left will make when the ballots are tallied — because while New York is very Democratic, it’s “not a progressive city.”

“Most voters are not progressive. The progressives are a faction that happen to be pretty well organized and loud, but they’re by no means the majority,” she said.

According to our experts, in the Democratic field, there are a few endorsements most candidates don’t want nowadays. Among them: the police unions — which have become politically toxic in New York City, especially in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter marches — and the city’s real estate trade groups.

Should you care about these endorsements? Well, that depends. 

Right now, political groups of all kinds are actively deciding how to endorse candidates.

We’ve spoken with tenant groups, neighborhood political clubs and issue-based coalitions that are interviewing and vetting candidates through questionnaires and marathon Zoom sessions before giving a stamp of approval.

Some are considering endorsing a top-choice candidate, as well as second and third choices — in line with the way voters will choose candidates on the ballot this year through ranked choice voting. Bronx State Senator Gustavo Rivera followed this method when he endorsed both Scott Stringer and Dianne Morales — in that order — for mayor in January.

THE CITY Helps You Navigate the 2021 Elections

Our guide is here to make your decisions easier, with details on candidates, the jobs they’re running for, how to use the new ranked-choice voting system and more.

For neighborhood-based races like the City Council, an endorsement from an influential political club, progressive coalition or popular community leader can make all the difference, Kwatra said. Local clergy can also hold a lot of sway, as can local parent leaders, youth coaches or former neighborhood politicians.

“Each of these neighborhoods have these spheres of influence,” he said. 

Muzzio sees endorsements as a “shorthand aid for voters,” particularly when “there’s so much competing noise with so many candidates” where few are especially well known.

The experts say that voters might want to look at who their favorite local organizations and elected officials are endorsing as one factor in choosing candidates in crowded races from mayor to neighborhood City Council contests with up to a dozen hopefuls in the mix.

When do endorsements happen?

With a record number of people running for office in 2021, endorsement announcements are happening every day.

And with the June 22 primary coming up fast, Greer expects the big unions to weigh in on the mayoral race in the next month or so. 

“By April, the herd needs to thin out,” she said.

Where can I find more information about who’s endorsing who?

More often than not, candidates want you to know who’s endorsing them, so reading through their campaign websites and literature is a good way to learn who’s backing them.

We have a number of guides about all the races going on this year — not just for mayor — so you can find out who’s running for what in your neighborhood and borough.

And we’ve found this spreadsheet tracking endorsements (and a lot of other things) to be very thorough and helpful. It was created by two politically-obsessed local college students who have monitored endorsements for every City Council race in the city, as well as each citywide race and the races for borough president and district attorney. Check it out!

Got some time? Here are a few campaign events this week

…and don’t forget: Our first round of Civic Newsroom meetings start this week and we’d love for you to join us!

  • Mott Haven meeting: Saturday, March 6 at 2 p.m. – 4 p.m. Sign up here.
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