The primary for the New York City mayor’s race, poised to be the most consequential contest in a generation, is fewer than 100 days away.
But for many voters, that reality has not yet sunk in.
A slate of major debate matchups does not begin until May. Few of the candidates have the resources to advertise on television yet. Traditional campaign methods — greeting subway riders, for example — have limited reach as fewer New Yorkers use public transit. And while city residents were often preoccupied by the challenges of life in a pandemic, the crowded field of mayoral candidates spent the winter in one Zoom forum after another, often in front of sparse online audiences.
These extraordinary circumstances have made an always-fluid citywide race even more unpredictable this year, compressing the contest into a three-month springtime sprint for candidates eager to sway undecided voters before the June 22 primary that is likely to decide who will be the next mayor.
Their work will be cut out for them: Half of likely Democratic voters are still undecided about their choice to lead the city, according to a poll released on Wednesday.
The poll, from Fontas Advisors and Core Decision Analytics, offered a vivid illustration of the uncertain nature of the race.
“There is no front-runner,” said George Fontas, the founder of Fontas Advisors, who sponsored the poll and said that he is not affiliated with any campaign in the race. “It’s an open race. We have no idea what’s going to happen in the next three months, and if history shows us anything, it’s that three months is an eternity in a New York City election.”
The poll did show some early leaders. Only two candidates registered double-digit support: Andrew Yang, the former presidential candidate, at 16 percent, and Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, at 10 percent. Both have done more in-person campaigning than others in the field.
Maya D. Wiley, a former MSNBC analyst and ex-counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, was at 6 percent; Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller, got 5 percent; a former Citi executive, Raymond J. McGuire, received 4 percent; and Shaun Donovan, the former federal housing secretary; Kathryn Garcia, the city’s former sanitation commissioner; and Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive, each got 2 percent.
New York mayoral races have broken late in other years — three months ahead of the 2013 mayoral primary, Mayor Bill de Blasio was something of an afterthought — and many campaigns and strategists expect the contest to accelerate in earnest in late spring, when more candidates, and possibly independent expenditure committees, start spending on television ads.
Certainly, candidates have ramped up their campaigning in recent weeks. And as voters increasingly tune in, they are discovering that in addition to deciding on their favorite candidate, they must also think through the new ranked-choice voting system, which enables them to express a preference for up to five candidates.
“When you have that many candidates, it’s hard to know what to do, and then, of course, ranked-choice voting,” said Gale A. Brewer, the Manhattan borough president. “I think they’re very confused about trying to do the right thing. The people I talk to want to do the right thing, they feel the city needs a lot of good leadership.”
Neighbors, she said, have asked her, “‘If I’m doing this person first, who should I do second? Who should I do third?’ In their head, they’re all trying to figure this out.”
There are also many voters who have been consumed by national politics and the controversies surrounding Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in Albany, but have not yet turned their attention closer to home.
“You have D.C. and all of its machinations that have kept people more than engaged, and then you have Albany, which is taking up a tremendous amount of voters’ brain space,” said Christine C. Quinn, the former City Council speaker who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2013.
She also noted that some voters, accustomed to September primaries, are still adjusting to the June time frame.
“It was hard to get people to vote in September, it’s going to be harder to get them to vote in June,” she said. “They’re not used to it. And you add in ranked-choice voting, and it’s a lot of confusion. So campaigns are really going to have to do outstanding get-out-the-vote if they really want to win.”
There is limited credible public polling in the mayor’s race. But a number of both public and private surveys suggest that Mr. Yang is the early poll leader — by varying margins — typically followed by Mr. Adams. Mr. Yang on Wednesday released an internal poll that showed him at 25 percent of first-choice votes, followed by Mr. Adams at 15 percent.
Reflecting a growing rivalry, Mr. Adams and Mr. Yang’s campaign managers traded notably sharp attacks on Wednesday, with Mr. Adams wrongly claiming that “people like Andrew Yang never held a job in his entire life.” Mr. Yang’s campaign managers charged that Mr. Adams “crossed a line with his false and reprehensible attacks. The timing of his hate-filled vitriol towards Andrew should not be lost on anyone.”
Those two contenders, along with Mr. Stringer, had the highest name recognition in the Fontas survey as well. They all have significant fund-raising coffers.
Ms. Wiley has also appeared to gain some traction in recent weeks with a spate of new endorsements. Mr. McGuire and Mr. Donovan have already started pressing their messages on television.
The next mayor will confront a series of staggering challenges concerning the economy, education, inequality and a range of other problems exacerbated by the pandemic. “Who becomes the next mayor is probably one of the most important political decisions this city will ever make, ever,” said Keith L.T. Wright, the leader of the New York County Democrats.
But Mr. Wright acknowledged that many voters have had more immediate concerns in mind than electoral politics. “People are concerned about eating, let’s be clear. They’re concerned about whether they’re going to get their stimulus check.”
“The first one who’s able to break through and get the attention of those undecideds,” Mr. Wright said, “probably becomes the winner.”
The poll was the result of 800 live telephone interviews of New York City Democratic primary likely voters. It was conducted March 15-18, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 percentage points.
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