Ocasio-Cortez by the Numbers

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has prospered under the media spotlight. She has probably gotten more airtime, bits, and column inches than all the other incoming freshman House Democrats of 2019 combined. The narrative that has taken hold in the media is that a massive popular uprising has propelled her into power. Photogenic, charismatic, and feisty, this Bernie Sanders protégé seems born for the role she is now playing.

According to the narrative, Ocasio-Cortez trounced 20-year incumbent Congressman Joseph Crowley by a margin of 57.13 to 42.5 percent in the 2018 Democratic primary and went on to win the general election against the Republican nominee by another wide margin. Sounds like a landslide, doesn’t it?

But the primary-day tallies tell a different story. The New York State Board of Elections lists a total of 235,745 registered Democrats in New York’s 14th District, which includes parts of the New York City boroughs of Queens and the Bronx. Of those, 214,750 are described as active and another 21,175 as inactive. Let’s set aside the inactive voters and focus on the active ones.

Of the 214,750 active voters in the district, 15,897 voted for Ocasio-Cortez and 11,761 for Crowley. That means Ocasio-Cortez won the primary with just 7.4 percent of registered Democrats. That’s not exactly a landslide.

The real story of the election is not the triumph of an underdog. The real story is that the majority of voters stayed home, presumably because they felt Joe Crowley — an old-school machine politician who served 10 terms and chaired the Democratic Caucus — was unbeatable. But in New York City, Democratic primary elections are more important than general elections. If you stay home, don’t complain about the results.

Another potential (though rarely discussed) factor in the primary race was ethnicity. Hispanics form a near-majority in the 14th District with 49.8 percent of the population. The runners up are whites, at 18.41 percent; Asians, with 16.24 percent; blacks, with 11.39 percent; and Native Americans, with 0.45 percent. Another 3.71 percent are classified as “other.”

That suggests that an Hispanic candidate might have an advantage. However, with the majority of the active registered Democrats having stayed home, it’s impossible to be certain if ethnicity clinched the election for Ocasio-Cortez. Even if it did, one might regard that as an inevitable changing of the guard. Hispanics have as much right to be represented in Congress as anyone else.

Other things about Ocasio-Cortez’s ascendancy are more troubling. One is that she jetted around the country with Bernie Sanders sandbagging other Democratic primary candidates, including Sharice Davids of Kansas, a fellow woman of color who was running against a white male, former Sanders state campaign manager Brent Welder. Davids went on to win the primary and defeated Republican Kevin Yoder in the general election to become the first Native American and first openly gay person to win any House district in Kansas. (Full disclosure: I contributed to her campaign.)

The success of Davids, who flipped a red seat to blue, is at least as important as that of Ocasio-Cortez, who unseated an incumbent with just over seven percent of the vote and went on to win the general election in a safe district where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by more than 6:1. If only the media would give as much attention to Davids as they do to Ocasio-Cortez.

At least Ocasio-Cortez is paying attention to Davids. A day after the election she tweeted this to her fellow freshman Democrat: “Your win is an incredible inspiration to so many, myself included.” That’s quite a pivot away from slamming Davids as an enemy of progressive values. “What a difference a day makes,” commented Mark Trahant of Indian Country Today.

Another troubling thing about Ocasio-Cortez is her cavalier treatment of facts. It appears she wouldn’t know a fact if it walked up to her and handed her a business card. She has had two run-ins with fact checker Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post following the primary and since the general election.

When questioned on 60 Minutes about this, Ocasio-Cortez responded that “there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.”

Let’s unpack that. Is it true that there are people who care more about facts than morals? You probably wouldn’t have to look far to find some in Washington. But Ocasio-Cortez seems to miss a few more important truths.

One is that facts are the indispensable feedstock of sound legislation and government policy. Another is that it’s good strategy to get the facts right — that way, other people who care about facts are more likely to take you seriously. Most crucially, in the Trump era we have seen exactly how corrosive lying can become when practiced on a massive scale. So yes, facts matter.

Does Ocasio-Cortez stand for solid fact-based policymaking? Does she deplore the lies that slither out of Trump’s mouth on a daily basis? Frankly, it’s hard to tell. She seems to care more about being “morally right” than being factually correct, suggesting that — like Bernie Sanders — she is more about protest than policymaking.

That should trouble her constituents. In Joe Crowley they had a 10-term veteran with an impeccably liberal voting record who was short-listed to become Nancy Pelosi’s successor as Speaker of the House. That would have provided enormous clout to the people of the 14th District. Instead a tiny percentage of them elected the youngest person ever to serve in the House.

That’s not too shabby either, as historical markers go. But 7.4 percent of the vote is hardly a landslide. It does not give Ocasio-Cortez the mandate she claims (and that the media claim for her). If anything, it makes her more vulnerable to challengers in the 2020 Democratic primary. There are veteran Democrats elected to New York state and city offices who are eyeing her seat as a step up to the federal level and wondering if the other ninety-plus percent of her district’s voters may be open to persuasion.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is vulnerable. She just doesn’t know it yet.