Eric Adams’s strong showing in New York City’s Democratic primary for mayor reflected his ability to build an old-school political coalition that united Black and Latino voters with unions.
He was able to persuade working-class people, largely outside Manhattan, that he was the best candidate to make the city safe from crime and return it to economic health. But even as he held a 75,000-vote lead on Wednesday night over his closest rival, Maya Wiley, his victory was not assured.
Nearly 70 percent of voters did not choose Mr. Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, as their first choice, and the final outcome will depend on how many of those voters listed him lower on their ballots.
Under the city’s new system of ranked-choice voting, where voters select as many as five candidates in order of preference, thousands of votes will be shifted among the candidates before a final winner is declared. Tens of thousands of absentee ballots must also be counted, and the entire process may take until July 12.
It remains mathematically possible for Mr. Adams’s closest rivals — Ms. Wiley, a former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, or Kathryn Garcia, a former city sanitation commissioner — to still finish first after ranked-choice tabulations, but it seems unlikely, according to voting experts.
In ranked-choice elections in the United States over the last two decades, the candidate who is in first place in the first round of voting usually wins. Ms. Wiley or Ms. Garcia would have to be overwhelmingly ranked higher than Mr. Adams among voters who supported other losing candidates.
It is also unclear how many voters ranked five candidates; a phenomenon known as “ballot exhaustion,” when every candidate ranked by a voter has been eliminated, could favor Mr. Adams.
“It’s mathematically possible, but it’s highly unlikely,” Ken Sherrill, a professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College, said of Ms. Wiley or Ms. Garcia pulling off a win. “Seventy-five thousand is a very large number to overcome.”
If Mr. Adams does win the primary — and the general election in November — he would be the city’s second Black mayor after David N. Dinkins, who was elected in 1989. Ms. Wiley is also Black; she and Ms. Garcia are both seeking to become the first woman to be elected mayor of New York.
Ms. Wiley performed well in some largely Black neighborhoods in Brooklyn and in Astoria and Long Island City in Queens. Ms. Garcia had strong support in Manhattan and parts of Brownstone Brooklyn.
But Mr. Adams, who ran as a moderate, led in every borough except Manhattan, and did particularly well in the Bronx. In some parts of the city like Jamaica in Southeast Queens, Mr. Adams won more than 60 percent of votes, compared with 15 percent for Ms. Wiley.
“Adams used his approach on policing of saying we need justice and safety simultaneously to fuse together that traditional coalition,” said Bruce Gyory, a veteran Democratic strategist.
The city’s Board of Elections will do its first ranked-choice voting run — covering all in-person votes — on Tuesday, giving a better sense of the likely outcome.
Some progressive groups attempted to persuade voters to leave Mr. Adams off their ballots; Ms. Garcia made several appearances late in the campaign with Andrew Yang, a rival candidate, in a bid to be ranked by his supporters.
On the day of the primary, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the city’s most famous progressive, criticized Mr. Adams and pressed hard for Ms. Wiley.
And many voters said they had ranked Ms. Wiley and Ms. Garcia in the first two spots on their ballots, and it is possible that one of them could capture a majority of the other’s supporters under ranked-choice voting.
Ms. Wiley told reporters in Brooklyn on Wednesday that she still had a path to victory, saying that she had “every reason to believe we can win this race.”
Asked if she was considering conceding, Mr. Wiley scoffed at the idea.
“No,” she said with a mildly outraged laugh. “’Cause I’m winning.”
Ms. Garcia did not hold any public events, and her campaign said she was spending time with family.
The fact that three of the candidates who finished in the top four were relatively moderate — Mr. Adams, Ms. Garcia and Mr. Yang, a 2020 presidential candidate — seemed to signal the mood of the city as New Yorkers emerge from the pandemic. A recent rise in gun violence has led to widespread concerns over safety.
But Ms. Wiley received nearly a quarter of first-choice votes, proving that a share of the electorate liked her message of cutting the police budget and focusing on inequality. It is possible that Ms. Wiley, who became the standard-bearer for the left, peaked too late in the race. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez did not endorse Ms. Wiley until the last month of the race after other left-leaning candidates faltered.
If Mr. Adams wins in the coming weeks, his victory could stall the progressive movement’s momentum in New York, reinforcing the idea that rising crime and public safety were of more concern to voters.
Still, progressive candidates had a strong showing in several key races: Alvin Bragg was ahead in the Democratic primary for Manhattan district attorney; Brad Lander was leading the city comptroller race; and left-leaning candidates won mayoral primaries in Buffalo and Rochester.
The night featured other small surprises: In the Republican primary for Staten Island borough president, Vito J. Fossella, a former congressman, had a slight lead over Steven Matteo, a prominent city councilman. Mr. Fossella decided not to run for re-election in 2008 after he was charged with drunken driving and admitted to fathering a child in an extramarital affair.
Whoever ultimately wins the Democratic primary will face the Republican nominee, Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angels, in November. Mr. Sliwa received nearly 69 percent of votes among the roughly 58,000 Republicans who voted in the primary.
Mr. Adams’s lead reflected a potent outer-borough strategy. His institutional support from the Brooklyn machine and veteran Democrats in Queens and the Bronx likely helped him turn out key constituencies.
Mr. Adams appeared to do well in Latino neighborhoods — a key demographic that he pushed hard to secure with key leaders like Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx borough president. In the heavily Latino neighborhood of Mott Haven in the Bronx, for instance, Mr. Adams won more than 45 percent of first-choice votes, compared to less than 20 percent for Ms. Wiley.
Mr. Adams ran a disciplined campaign — his motto was “stay focused, don’t get distracted, grind” — and hammered away at the message that he was the only candidate who could tackle both crime and police reform. Mr. Adams also secured a series of critical endorsements and raised a campaign war chest of more than $10 million — the most among candidates participating in the public matching funds program.
Running as a working-class underdog, Mr. Adams focused on communities that were hit hard by the pandemic — a message he touched on during his primary night speech, said Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University.
“There are so many communities feeling left out and Adams, as his authentic self, seemed just as angry and hurt and inspired as those communities,” Professor Greer said.
As one of the moderate candidates in the Democratic field, Mr. Adams would be a significant departure from Mr. de Blasio in style and substance, though Mr. de Blasio was believed to privately support Mr. Adams in the race.
Mr. de Blasio praised Mr. Adams on Wednesday and said their coalitions were similar.
“I give credit to Eric Adams — the strength he created in Brooklyn, in Queens and the Bronx,” he said. “Eric obviously had an outer-borough-focused, working-class-focused strategy. That’s a lot of what we did in 2013.”
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo also weighed in on the race and said he would welcome a new mayor; his feud with Mr. de Blasio is well established. Mr. Cuomo said that Mr. Adams showed competence on the issue of public safety that New Yorkers care most about.
“I have a good relationship with Eric Adams,” Mr. Cuomo said. “I know him. He was in Albany. We worked together.”
This was the first year that the city offered early voting in a mayoral election, and turnout was better than expected. Nearly 800,000 votes have been counted so far in the Democratic mayoral primary — higher than turnout in the last competitive mayoral primary in 2013. That number will grow as counting continues and absentee ballots are processed — more than 90,000 have already been received.
The absentee ballots are unlikely to greatly deviate from the voting patterns seen in the Primary Day vote count, although a large number from Manhattan could favor Ms. Garcia.
At his primary night party on Tuesday, Mr. Adams smiled broadly as he celebrated his lead. Then he took aim at the city’s news media and elites and said he had focused on voters who reliably showed up at the polls.
“Social media does not pick a candidate,” he said. “People on Social Security pick a candidate.”
Anne Barnard contributed reporting.