The red wave decidedly did not materialize this year, with the notable exception of New York, where Democrats stepped on a series of rakes and Republicans capitalized by picking up three House seats and winning a series of state legislative elections, including a very strong showing on Long Island. Some of this undoubtedly has to do with the Democrats’ botched and self-inflicted redistricting fiasco, but it is true that they also simply failed to turn out their base and woo swing voters. What happened?
This isn’t a particularly controversial or remarkable statement, but the people who live in the downstate suburbs are people who want to live adjacent to the city but can’t or won’t actually set down roots in New York City for reasons either economic, cultural, or political. In the former case, there are a number of communities of primarily low- and middle-income workers that have sprung up in Nassau and Suffolk counties, as well as northern suburbs, to benefit from and participate in the NYC economy while remaining somewhat outside the massive upward pressure on rents and cost of living and having a little more space.
Many of these are Latinos, who now make up over 20 percent of the population of Long Island, which in turn numbers about 7.6 million people, not dramatically less than the five boroughs next door. This Latino bloc includes large congregations of people from the so-called Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
That is very much a recent phenomenon. It’s important to note that, through the end of the 1970s, the two Long Island counties were massively white, and the diversity that has come in the last half-century has not been the result of the mixing of communities. The suburb is extraordinarily segregated, with Black and white and Latino enclaves being more or less homogenous. The long-standing white population is the one that forms the latter part of that equation above, the communities who enjoy a certain proximity to NYC but actively decided to remove themselves, starting in the aftermath of WWII utilizing federal incentives that largely excluded people of color as part of the broader phenomenon of white flight.
These were not often old-money WASP-type folks, but maybe second- or third-generation descendants of European immigrants who were middle class but built wealth through homeownership. Add to that the smaller slice of very wealthy, predominantly white residents who live in famously tony areas like the Hamptons. Point is, there is a lot of diversity on Long Island, but not exactly in the same way as there’s diversity in NYC, and the people who live there are, for myriad reasons, pointedly not living in NYC, which opens them up to certain political messaging.
For white voters especially, but also some voters of color, there’s the ability to overhype crime as an existential issue that feels real and vivid given the closeness to NYC, but without them actually living in the city and witnessing that the descriptions of lawless wasteland aren’t exactly accurate. In an ironic and representative quote from a recent New York Times story on the motivations behind Long Island voters, an Oyster Bay-based dental hygienist said “I wouldn’t go into the city even if they paid me,” neatly encompassing the fact that she both does not actually ever go into NYC, but is driven to vote Republican due to safety concerns over a place she won’t visit.
As we’ve discussed a few times before, the actual crime picture here is at the very least much more nuanced than it’s being presented, but the thing about narratives is that they have a way of perpetuating themselves apart from base realities on the ground, particularly if there’s political gain to be had. Not that crime alone can explain the support for the GOP. As we’ve also explained, there are aspects of the right-wing MAGA movement that have taken hold in New York as they have around the country, with the added motivator that NY MAGA voters often find themselves particularly driven to go go the polls with the knowledge that they’re up against significant odds but can make a distinct impact in a state where Democrats have the clear numerical advantage, which can lull them into a false sense of security.
As for that ballooning Latino population, it’s not as much a stronghold for Democrats as some might expect. Four years ago, I wrote and photographed a story about how Latino voters were thought to be a bulwark for the Dems in the Long Island suburbs, and in that instance, the prediction turned out to be correct. This time around, things aren’t so simple. There isn’t the uniquely bizarre and malevolent figure of Donald Trump at the helm to drive GOP opposition, nor were there weirdo handpicked Trump candidates like Pennsylvania’s Mehmet Oz and Georgia’s Hershel Walker, who both lost in their respective states, in addition to assorted other Trump cronies.
As I wrote recently for City & State, a lot of Latinos feel left behind and disappointed by the Democrats, who they feel are blocking their ascension to true power despite their increasing numbers and political organizing. We also often forget that, culturally, a lot of newish Latino immigrants are actually rather conservative, often coming from places seeped in Roman Catholicism and with relatively rigid social norms. There’s a reason that a lot of Republican agitation these days centers on the so-called culture war issues of race and sexuality and religious values, which is that it works (to some extent, there are certainly candidates who take it too far and end up alienating voters with niche obsessions).
What all this points to is a trajectory that Dems won’t be able to quickly and easily reverse, and which probably isn’t just a fluke this year. If New York City is the state’s blue bulwark, the almost-as-populous Long Island might be the iceberg that breaks it. It’s left to be seen.