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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez demonstrated the power of young women in politics

People thought Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s win was a long shot. She showed them why young women should never be underestimated. 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is joined by New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon at her victory party in the Bronx.
Scott Heins/Getty Images

Before Tuesday’s shocking upset, many considered Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s candidacy to unseat Democratic stalwart Joe Crowley a long shot at best. Ocasio-Cortez — a 28-year-old Latina and democratic socialist — ultimately surprised pretty much everyone, blowing Crowley out of the water and dominating the primary with just under 58 percent of the vote.

Some of this surprise was warranted. Progressive candidates up until this recent primary haven’t seen many statewide wins. Crowley was a deeply entrenched player in the New York Democratic machine, and hadn’t even faced a primary challenger in over a decade. As recently as this past April, he was considered a top contender for speaker of the House if Democrats were to secure a “blue wave” this coming November.

But this reaction also points to something a bit more insidious: The overwhelming shock at Ocasio-Cortez’s win suggested that few, including Crowley, had ever taken her candidacy — and the aspirations of a young woman of color — truly seriously.

Many media outlets missed Ocasio-Cortez’s candidacy

The New York Times is among the publications that have picked up flak for coverage of Ocasio-Cortez’s candidacy — including from its former executive editor. While the paper mentioned Ocasio-Cortez in an editorial that took Crowley to task for sending a surrogate to a primary debate, the Times did not appear to feature her in any standalone stories.

Former Times executive editor Jill Abramson suggested this oversight was tantamount to the paper missing Trump’s win in 2016.

The Times itself highlighted this media gap, but did little to acknowledge its own role in it. (Vox’s coverage also focused on the race and did not profile Ocasio-Cortez specifically). Vivian Wang wrote in the Times:

Before Tuesday’s victory catapulted her to the front of the political conversation, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez seemed to find readier audiences with outlets such as Elite Daily, Mic or Refinery29 — websites most often associated with millennial and female audiences — than with traditional publications.

That is about to change.

As the Times story indicates, although Ocasio-Cortez’s candidacy may have fallen under the radar for some, it was the focal point of several profiles on other sites, many of which typically reach younger readers. (Its framing of the publications in its piece has since spurred its own backlash.)

Refinery29 and Elite Daily both sat down with Ocasio-Cortez. The Intercept published a detailed profile last month. And Vogue pondered whether she was “the future of the Democratic Party.”

These pieces, which spotlight her Puerto Rican heritage, policy positions and work as a bartender and community organizer drew a sharp contrast with some of the coverage that took place even after the election — including a tweet from the Associated Press that neglected to include her name.

One of the main people who underestimated Ocasio-Cortez: her own opponent

Crowley, who has long coasted to victory in his district, seemed to indicate how little he thought of his opponent when he couldn’t even bother to show to up to debates against Ocasio-Cortez earlier this year. He sent a surrogate to argue in his stead, prompting outcry from numerous members of the district.

The New York Times editorial board slammed his absence as part of its aforementioned editorial:

This is the second primary debate in which Mr. Crowley was a no-show. A spokeswoman for Mr. Crowley said he had scheduling conflicts that wouldn’t allow him to attend the two debates, inevitably leaving voters to wonder — what are we, chopped liver?

Beyond these debates, Ocasio-Cortez sought to connect directly with voters in the rapidly diversifying district: Her campaign outreach involved at least four languages including Spanish, Mandarin, and Bengali. This grassroots approach led to a $600,000 fundraising haul generated heavily from small donations.

“Everything from our field to our messaging is an invitation to participate for the first time,” Ocasio-Cortez told the Huffington Post.

Crowley might not have seen her as a viable alternative, but voters clearly did.

This is part of a bigger trend of young women and people of color as forces who are reshaping the left

Young women and people of color have long been questioned for their political heft, despite their roles as key organizers of grassroots protests like the widely popular Women’s March that took place after the election — not to mention the electoral power they have to help boost Democratic candidates. As a number of black women candidates have told the Atlantic, they’ve felt broadly ignored by the Democratic establishment even after winning their primaries.

Young women are also among the voters most likely to express an affinity to the left. As a Pew survey recently found, almost 70 percent of young women between the ages of 18-34 are leaning toward the Democratic candidate in their district ahead of the midterms this fall, a major resource that the party can harness.

By discounting the passion and interests of such groups, however, it can be easy to miss their power.

Ocasio-Cortez is among a number of young Democratic women seeking to topple incumbents this fall. Former nonprofit director Katie Hill is up for a runoff in California against Rep. Steve Knight and state Rep. Abby Finkenauer recently swept her primary in Iowa to go head-to-head with Rep. Rod Blum.

As Ocasio-Cortez’s win further cements, none of them should be underestimated.

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