The role of so-called identity politics hovers as a big question mark over the first incumbent-free contest for New York City mayor since 2001.
Demographics have changed long-term. The black-voter-white-voter calculus of, say, the two close and epic contests between successive mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani may feel like ancient history.
The changes have left experts to wrestle with how so-called racial minorities -- African-American, Latino and Asian -- add up to a majority. Some wonder if the combined "minority-majority percentage" could reach the mid-to-high 50s in November. Figuring that out would depend as always on which registered voters in which communities choose to turn out, for whom and why.
"In general, the electorate has gotten more minority, more liberal, less white-ethnic" in the past 12 years, election consultant Jerry Skurnik said. Voting trends take a while to reflect population changes, he noted.
Identity politics means attitudes or positions based on gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. A dizzying array of big questions spring from it -- first of all, its relevance in choosing a mayor.
John Mollenkopf, director of CUNY's Center for Urban Research, sees a "mosaic that's hard to assemble into a pattern."
He calls identity politics "a double-edged sword in the sense that obviously candidates would have to have bases to mobilize to be credible" -- yet "they have to appeal across boundaries and bases."
Forming the right coalition among white voters "no longer guarantees a majority," Mollenkopf added. "Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg was quite good at realizing in 2005 and 2009 that he had to have substantial votes out of different minority communities if he was going to win."
Does it matter that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn would be the first woman mayor, and first in a same-sex marriage? Does Adolfo Carrion, Independence Party nominee, siphon Latino votes from Democrats? Will Bill Thompson, an African-American from Brooklyn, gain from his past cordial relations with Orthodox Jews? Does Taiwan-born Comptroller John Liu bring out a bigger Asian vote? Does it help Bill de Blasio, white and married to an African-American woman, when he mentions that he'd be the first mayor in a long time to have kids in public schools? What different bases would the Republicans -- Joe Lhota, John Catsimatidis, Carrion, Tom Allon or George McDonald -- cultivate?
Los Angeles also is electing a new mayor this year. Two candidates emerged from a nonpartisan eight-way primary last week to qualify for a decisive runoff on May 21.
If Wendy Greuel wins she'll be the city's first female mayor. If Eric Garcetti wins, he'll be the first Jewish mayor there; his father, the former county district attorney, was Mexican-American of Italian, Spanish and indigenous descent. The only openly gay candidate in the first round was Kevin James -- who was also the only Republican. Democrats Garcetti and Greuel are now making their appeals to his supporters.
If a New York-style obsession with identity politics bothers you, cheer up. Candidates' differences on education, budgets, jobs, taxes and conduct in office stand to occupy a bigger share of the campaign messages.