Progressives’ Urgent Question: How to Win Over Voters of Color

A yearslong challenge for the left was starkly illustrated this week as its hopes faded in the New York mayor’s race.

By Lisa Lerer

Can progressives win broad numbers of the Black and brown voters they say their policies will benefit most?

That provocative question is one that a lot of Democrats find themselves asking after seeing the early results from New York City’s mayoral primary this past week.

In a contest that centered on crime and public safety, Eric Adams, who emerged as the leading Democrat, focused much of his message on denouncing progressive slogans and policies that he said threatened the lives of “Black and brown babies” and were being pushed by “a lot of young, white, affluent people.” A retired police captain and Brooklyn’s borough president, he rejected calls to defund the Police Department and pledged to expand its reach in the city.

Black and brown voters in Brooklyn and the Bronx flocked to his candidacy, awarding Mr. Adams with sizable leading margins in neighborhoods from Eastchester to East New York. Though the official winner may not be known for weeks because of the city’s new ranked-choice voting system, Mr. Adams holds a commanding edge in the race that will be difficult for his rivals to overcome.

His appeal adds evidence to an emerging trend in Democratic politics: a disconnect between progressive activists and the rank-and-file Black and Latino voters who they say have the most to gain from their agenda. As liberal activists orient their policies to combat white supremacy and call for racial justice, progressives are finding that many voters of color seem to think about the issues quite a bit differently.

“Black people talk about politics in more practical and everyday terms,” said Hakeem Jefferson, an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University who studies the political views of Black people. “What makes more sense for people who are often distrustful of broad political claims is something that’s more in the middle.”

He added: “The median Black voter is not A.O.C. and is actually closer to Eric Adams.”

In the 2016 Democratic presidential primary race, Senator Bernie Sanders struggled to win over voters of color. Four years later, Black voters helped lift President Biden to victory in the Democratic primary, forming the backbone of the coalition that helped him defeat liberal rivals including Mr. Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren.

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