New York City’s Changing Coalitions

New York City is the most diverse city in the world and its electoral coalitions follow these sectional lines. Because voters with similar identities often share political preferences, understanding demographic change helps explain the coalition changes in New York City across forty years: between the 1984 and 2020 presidential elections.

The first significant groups of non-English immigrants, including Germans, Irish, Italians, and Russians came through Ellis Island during the Second and Third Immigration Waves from the 19th century until 1920, establishing the city’s status as an immigration hub. The 1970’s saw another wave of European immigration thanks to migration from what was then the Soviet Union, bolstering the Slavic communities in southern Brooklyn. 

The map above shows the prevailing White ancestry in tracts that were at least 25% White according to 1979 census data. It shows that Italians were the most dominant White ethnic group in the outer boroughs, followed by Irish and Russians. Brooklyn and Queens also had prominent Polish, Greek, and German communities. Manhattan hosted a mixture of all eight groups, but had an outsized Anglo presence.

Ethnic Europeans may have been first to urbanize New York, but nonwhites now comprise a majority of the city. African-Americans from the South were the first nonwhite group to build a large presence in the city, with the Great Migration and the Great Depression drawing millions to urban cores. Since then, they have been joined by a large West Indian population, and the two Black groups combined now make up 20.2% of the city’s population.

New York also has an incredibly diverse Latino population, with Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Mexican communities forming considerable shares of the city. Puerto Ricans were the first to come to New York, as the island became part of the United States and was not subject to the immigration restrictions which were lifted in 1965. The Hart-Celler Act ultimately allowed more Latinos from the rest of the world to immigrate to the US and they now form 28.3% of the city.

The most recent group are Asians. It started with Chinese immigration in the late-19th century that increased significantly after 1965. Large parts of the city are now also home to Korean, Indian, and Bangladeshi communities. Asians currently form 15.6% of the city’s population, numerically the largest Asian-American population in the country. 

The three maps above highlight the decline of the ethnic White population in New York’s outer boroughs over the past thirty years. White flight is particularly visible in Brooklyn and Queens. Canarsie, for example, transformed from an Italian enclave into an extension of the Bed-Stuy/Brownsville Black community. Most of its original residents left for Long Island or moved to nearby Howard Beach — now one of Queens’ few Republican bastions.

In Queens, New York’s growing Asian population has radiated out of Flushing and Elmhurst, taking over historically Italian and Irish neighborhoods. The rapid expansion of Brooklyn’s Chinatown is part of the same process. Hispanic growth has had a similar effect in the Bronx neighborhood of Morris Park, which is much less Italian today compared to 1990. In Richmond Hill, both Hispanics and Asians have replaced White voters.

New York City’s demographic landscape has also been impacted by gentrification. Since the 1980’s, White renters have moved into traditionally Black and/or Hispanic neighborhoods, like Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn.

Gentrification impacts the ethnic makeup and culture of affected communities, but not their general election voting patterns because new residents tend to be just as Democratic as the voters they replace. Gentrification’s biggest electoral impact is making Democratic primary electorates more favorable to progressive candidates in a progressive belt from northern Queens down into northern Brooklyn. 

The above maps show the 1984 and 2020 presidential elections in New York City. Ronald Reagan did much better than Donald Trump citywide thanks to both a larger share of ethnic White conservatives, especially in the outer boroughs, and because he outperformed Trump by 15 points nationwide.

By 2020, most of Reagan’s Italian and Irish supporters had moved elsewhere or aged out of the electorate, increasing the influence of more Democratic blocs like African-Americans in Canarsie, Puerto Ricans in the Bronx, and Chinese-Americans in Brooklyn and Queens. 

Both presidential coalitions diverged in two other noticeable ways. Historically Democratic Brooklyn neighborhoods like Midwood and Sheepshead Bay flipped Republican thanks to a growing population of Orthodox Jews and Eastern Europeans. Conversely, Reagan managed to win parts of Manhattan’s wealthy Upper East Side and Midtown, which are now heavily Democratic.

A Look To The Future

The 2022 election highlighted the ongoing electoral impact of New York City’s changing demographics. Eastern European voters in South Brooklyn have started to abandon their traditional allegiance to local Democrats, culminating in three Republican State Assembly pickups there last year. Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin also made extensive inroads with Asian American voters, generating a double-digit rightward citywide trend among a historically Democratic constituency.

This year’s City Council elections will reveal whether those recent Republican gains will solidify into a deeper, long-term realignment. If they do, Asian Republicans could target additional seats in the City Council and legislature. Even Rep. Grace Meng’s solidly-Democratic congressional district, NY-06, could potentially become competitive under ideal conditions.

Despite this, consolidating support among ethnic Whites or pulling more Asian-American voters into the Republican column isn’t enough to make the GOP competitive in citywide elections. Minor additional gains with Hispanic and Black voters simply aren’t enough to cancel out both groups’ lopsided Democratic leans. While Democrats do have room to fall, Republicans shouldn’t assume current trends will continue, or will be strong enough to flip the city. 

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