Why the Hipster Vote Is Meaningless In New York City

by Marc Tracy | July 19, 2013

On Thursday night, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean appeared at a closed-press grassroots fundraiser for Bill de Blasio, the New York City public advocate who is running for mayor. The “Night of Drinks & Fun” was hosted by Democracy for NYC, a branch of Democracy for America, the grassroots progressive advocacy group founded in the wake of Dean’s unsuccessful 2004 presidential run. And it was hosted at a location far different from the churches, senior centers, and been-around-for-decades small businesses where so much of New York’s retail campaigning takes place. It went down at The Crown Inn, a hip bar on Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Studious readers of some of the more maligned articles in The New York Times Styles section will recognize the significance of several signifiers. Franklin Avenue, for example: The street, which runs south from Bedford-Stuyvesant through Crown Heights all the way down to southeast Prospect Park right near where Ebbets Field used to be, has become shorthand for “hipster gentrification craft cocktails etcetera”; here, for example, is a 2012 Times slide show that begins, “Franklin Avenue is the focus of the renaissance for the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.” (For its part, The Crown Inn offers an impressive array of spirits as well as “From the Farm Sandwiches”—“All ingredients are locally sourced,” the menu promises, “and of the highest quality.”)

Add Dean—who probably led to more political awakenings among today’s liberal twenty- and thirty-somethings than any politician not named Barack Obama—and de Blasio’s own multicultural-marriage, “organic milk,” and economically progressive image, and it seemed fair to ask: Could it be that—in a crowded Democratic primary in which De Blasio is tied for third, pretty distantly behind Christine Quinn and Anthony Weiner—de Blasio is actively courting progressive young people who typically work in creative fields and predominately live in certain neighborhoods in lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, and western Queens? Is de Blasio going after the hipster vote?

Dan Levitan, de Blasio’s spokesman, demurred. “Bill is running as a full-throated progressive,” he told me, “and that’s what Dean did when he ran for president."

I called Jefrey Pollock, a New York-based, one-time “Pollster of the Year” (who is not affiliated with any of the mayoral campaigns) to ask this question. His short answer was: No, de Blasio is not specifically going after the hipster vote, because that is not really something a candidate can do.

“There’s no such thing as ‘hipster’ on the voter file,” Pollock told me in a phone interview. “We don’t think about people that way. We don’t think about people in the hipster vote—it isn’t an organized bloc.”

According to Pollock, political campaigns looking at various demographics tend to start with large groups bound together by “a common characteristic—singularly defining things.” And in New York City, that “singularly defining thing” is overwhelmingly ethnicity. “There’s a reason that David Dinkins got 90 percent of the African-American vote, and Bill Thompson is going to get some overwhelming percentage of it,” he explained, referring to a black former mayor and the current black candidate. Indeed, cross-referencing the results of the 2005 Democratic mayoral primary—which featured a Hispanic man, Fernando Ferrer, who won (and then lost to Mayor Michael Bloomberg); a black woman, C. Virginia Fields; and a Jewish man, Weiner—with 2010 Census data does a pretty good job showing this. (Thanks to my colleague Nate Cohn for helping with the maps!)

Pollock even turned his analysis on himself: “If I’m a young urban professional living in Park Slope, the most defining characteristic of me isn’t that,” he explained. “The number one defining characteristic is that I’m Jewish. I’m most likely to vote for the Jewish candidate. And when I was a young professional, still the singular defining characteristic for me is that I’m Jewish.”

So the problem with going after any sort of hipster vote is that a more concrete “singularly defining thing” is elusive. “You would have to be willing to separate the Jewish hipster from the white-ethnic hipster from the African-American hipster,” Pollock argued. “Hipster is not a defining characteristic.”

“And none of the candidates are hipsters,” he added. “Let's be clear.”

None of this is to say there aren’t hipsters, or that they may not vote a certain way. It is not too difficult to come up with an array of local issues that young urban professionals living in these neighborhoods disproportionately care about—gentrification-friendly zoning policies, improved public transit, and, of course, bike lanes all come to mind. (Why yes, of course, de Blasio loves bike lanes.)

Beyond that, if we suppose that such voters may be more amenable to a certain kind of appeal—the kind that Dean embodied in 2003—then it stands to reason that they might be particularly drawn to the first New York mayoral candidate Dean has ever endorsed. For even if de Blasio does not espouse his brand of traditional progressivism specifically in order to draw out the hipster vote, that stance is part of a political strategy. As New York’s Chris Smith recently reported, “Positioning himself as ‘the real progressive’ in the mayoral field flows from de Blasio’s genuine beliefs about how and for whom the city should work, but it’s also a calculation about how he thinks he can win. Lacking a natural geographic, racial, or gender constituency, he is trying to assemble an ideological coalition.”

In other words, winning hipsters overwhelmingly may turn out to be a byproduct of who de Blasio is. “For Bill,” Pollock said, “the reason why those people may be more likely to vote for him is he’s running the most progressive campaign. For Quinn, it’s her historic position as a woman or a lesbian.” And so on.

So will we be reading a New York Times Thursday Styles story about de Blasio actively seeking out the hipster vote? Probably not. “I don’t think Bill de Blasio having a fundraiser on Franklin Avenue tells you anything,” Pollock told me. But that doesn’t mean the hipster vote isn’t his. “Dean definitely has appeal for young progressives,” said Levitan, de Blasio’s spokesperson, when I asked him about Thursday’s event. “And it’s a cool bar.”

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