THERE’s an old self-mocking joke hacks like to tell each other: How does a journalist count to three? One, two, TREND! Nobody wants to be caught flat-footed as the world changes; everyone wants to be the first to spot an emerging story. So when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley trounced older, white male incumbents (Joseph Crowley and Michael Capuano, respectively), many journalists rushed to write versions of the same story: progressives are claiming moderate Democratic scalps, just like Tea Party insurgents did to moderate Republicans in 2010.
There were two main problems with this story. First, it robbed Ms Pressley and Ms Ocasio-Cortez of agency. They did not win because the penumbras of history and energy were somehow shimmering in their favour. They won because they are exceptionally gifted politicians—charismatic, intelligent, forceful, with a clear set of policy goals aligned with an equally clearly expressed set of values—who ran exemplary campaigns. Yes, they benefited from increased enthusiasm among Democratic voters. They also caused increased enthusiasm among Democratic voters.
Second, it is inaccurate. As Matt Bennett of Third Way, a centrist Democratic group, pointed out, 39 of the 41 candidates endorsed in primaries by the DCCC—the House campaign arm of the Democratic party—have won. That does not mean, of course, that progressive energy is a fiction: it obviously is not. Only that you cannot measure its effects solely in scalps claimed. Witness, for instance, the primary in New York on September 13th.
All three mainstream Democratic candidates—Andrew Cuomo, Kathy Hochul and Letititia James, running respectively for governor, lieutenant-governor and attorney-general—faced formidable challenges from the left. Cynthia Nixon, a former actress and political neophyte, ran on a platform of tenants’ rights, legalising cannabis, criminal-justice reform and clean government. She charged that Mr Cuomo, the current governor, was a candidate of the rich who failed to clean up Albany and allowed schools and the New York subway to decay. For lieutenant-governor, Jumaane Williams, a three-term city councilman who co-sponsored the bills that ended New York’s reviled and unconstitutional “stop and frisk” policy, won Bernie Sanders’s endorsement. He charged Mr Hochul with being too subservient to Mr Cuomo; he promised to challenge the governor. For attorney-general, Mr Sanders also endorsed Zephyr Teachout, who refused corporate PAC money and pledged to go after President Donald Trump.
All three progressives ran savvy social media campaigns. And all three lost. As always, there are multiple reasons: Ms Nixon and Mr Williams never really expanded beyond their progressive bases; Mr Cuomo is a skilled, bare-knuckled campaign tactician (in the race’s waning days a mailer, which Mr Cuomo barely managed to condemn, accused Ms Nixon of being an anti-Semite—a farcically scurrilous accusation against a candidate raising two Jewish children). He ran hard against Mr Trump and locked up institutional support. Though Ms James was lambasted as a machine candidate, she in fact amassed a strong record as a councilwoman and New York’s Public Advocate—and it helped that she is also poised to become the first black woman to win state-wide office in New York.
Progressives ought not be too dejected over the results. Six conservative Democratic state senators lost to primary challengers. If Democrats manage to flip the state senate next November, they will find passing legislation easier without that sextet who frequently partnered with Republicans. That shift also looks likely to push Mr Cuomo leftward, as did Ms Nixon’s challenge. She, meanwhile, partly blamed “extremely high” voter turnout caused by “Andrew Cuomo pushing voters to the polls”—an unseemly argument from anyone who claims to believe in democracy, but particularly from a progressive Democrat.
Mr Cuomo is reportedly pondering a White House run. Those dreams may not long survive contact with reality: America does not need a presidential contest between two vain, thin-skinned, abrasive New Yorkers. The three mainstream Democrats will almost certainly win their matchups in November, but may find Albany a different place come January 2019.