Shattering runoff myth: incumbents often win


One of the enduring myths surrounding Chicago’s nonpartisan aldermanic runoff system is that incumbents usually lose if they are forced into a runoff.

The premise is that any alderman who cannot muster more than 50 percent of the vote in the February municipal election is irredeemably unpopular and cannot win the April runoff. After all, if more than half the voters opted for candidates other than the incumbent, why would they then come back to the alderman?

An examination of the adjoining chart indicates otherwise. Voter mood, be it foul or fair, is the determinative factor. When voters are agitated, angry or polarized, as they were in 1983, 1987 and, to a lesser extent, in 1991 and 2011, incumbents suffer, especially in runoffs. Seven of 11 incumbents lost runoffs in 1983, and it was seven of eight in 1987, five of 11 in 1991 and six of 10 in 2011. This year 18 wards have runoffs on April 7, with 13 incumbents at risk.

Here’s the formula for analyzing runoffs:

If a non-incumbent in an open seat contest gets more than 45 percent of the vote in the municipal election, he or she invariably wins the runoff. Those candidates have the best organization and the best message.

If a first-term incumbent gets 45 to 49 percent of the vote in the municipal election, he or she wins the runoff two-thirds of the time. Failing to win in the first round usually is because of a multiplicity of candidates, not the alderman’s unpopularity.

If a longtime alderman gets less than 45 percent of the vote in the municipal election, he or she is toast. They always lose the runoff. They are no longer salable, and their shelf life has expired.

If three or more candidates run for an open seat, a runoff is a certainty, but if all the candidates are mired below 40 percent of the vote, the runoff outcome is unpredictable.

Inasmuch as the 18 runoffs this year is the most since 1991, and a first-ever mayoral runoff will draw a larger-than-usual turnout, it is logical to conclude that Chicagoans are in more of a foul than fair mood. That bodes ill for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and for pro-Emanuel aldermen.

On the North Side and the Northwest Side, runoffs will occur in the 29th, 31st, 36th, 37th, 41st and 45th wards, with five incumbents at risk — John Arena, Mary O’Connor, Emma Mitts, Deborah Graham and Ray Suarez. Arena, O’Connor and Graham are first-term aldermen who received 45.5, 47.7 and 40.6 percent of the vote, respectively, on Feb. 24. That makes them slight favorites on April 7. Suarez, a 24-year incumbent, got 47.5 percent of the vote, while Mitts, a 15-year incumbent, got 49.1 percent. Suarez looks like a goner, but Mitts may pull through.

Here’s a look at the history of the 45th Ward, which illustrates the vagaries and evolution of runoffs:

Created in 1961 by dividing the old 41st Ward, its first alderman was elected in 1963, following a brutal runoff between John Hechinger, who was backed by Democratic Committeeman Bill Cowhey, and Polish-American attorney Ed Fifielski, who prevailed. Tom Lyons became the committeeman after Cowhey died in 1968, and he and Fifielski had an uneasy alliance. Fifielski was never much of a politician, and his popularity waned. In 1975 Fifielski faced four opponents, the most credible being Department of Streets and Sanitation deputy commissioner Bob Mulcahy, who had a base in Edgebrook. In the municipal election, Fifielski got a miserable 41 percent of the vote (7,302 votes), to 22 percent (3,996) for Mulcahy, in a turnout of 17,720. He should have been toast.

However, Lyons weighed in, spurring his precinct captains to deliver for Fifielski. If Mulcahy had been elected alderman, his next goal would have been to oust Lyons as committeeman in 1976. With the runoff turnout 3,000 higher, Fifielski eked out a 10,684-10,444 win, a margin of 240 votes.

Exception number one: Fifielski got 3,382 more votes in the runoff than municipal election. Mulcahy got almost all of the anti-Fifielski votes. The path to victory for an alderman in a runoff is to get the support of municipal election non-voters, not anti-voters.

Fifielski was through. The 1979 battle for succession began. Mulcahy was running again. However, Lyons’ state senator, Dick Clewis, lost in 1978, as did state Representative Mike Holewinski, a liberal independent. Both ran for alderman in 1979, with Holewinski cutting into Mulcahy’s anti-Lyons, anti-Michael Bilandic base. Clewis got 37 percent of the vote (8,095) in the municipal election to 31 percent (6,603) for Holewinski and 21 percent (4,516) for Mulcahy, with two others running; turnout was 21,591. In the mayoral primary, Jane Byrne beat Bilandic in the ward 11,620-9,772.

Clewis beat Holewinski in the runoff 14,491-11,438, in a turnout of 25,929, which was 4,338 higher than the primary. Lyons managed to increase Clewis’ vote total by 6,396. Holewinski’s vote was basically his and Mulcahy’s.

Again, Exception Number One: Find new voters.

In 1983 Lyons was between a rock and a hard place. Rich Daley was running for mayor against Byrne and Harold Washington, and Lyons was backing Daley. In 1980 Lyons supported Daley for state’s attorney against pro-Byrne Ed Burke. The ward went 8,547-5,906 for Daley, and Byrne became his enemy. John Donovan, Byrne’s streets and sanitation commissioner, recruited Gerry McLaughlin, a police officer, to run against Clewis. The plan was that Byrne would be re-elected, McLaughlin would beat Clewis, and Donovan would oust Lyons as committeeman in 1984.

The vote in the Democratic primary was 15,464-13,905-469, with the 45th Ward being the only area ward won by Daley. Clewis got 45.2 percent of the vote, topping McLaughlin 12,963-10,855 in a turnout of 28,677. In the subsequent election between Washington and Republican Bernard Epton, Epton won the ward 31,737-2,376, in an epic turnout of 34,113, but Clewis lost to McLaughlin 16,893-14,572. Turnout was up 5,436, but Clewis got only 1,609 more votes, even though he endorsed Epton.

Exception Number Two: Incumbents lose runoffs when turnout explodes.

With Byrne gone and Donovan jobless, Donovan’s aspirations fizzled, as did his alliance with McLaughlin. Both ran against Lyons for committeeman in 1984, getting a combined 10,483 votes, to 10,609 (48 percent of the total) for Lyons. McLaughlin was part of the "Vrdolyak 29" in the City Council, but he didn’t build a precinct organization. In 1987 Lyons was ready, backing Pat Levar, a Circuit Court Clerk’s Office employee, for alderman. Byrne was opposed by Washington in the mayoral primary. Turnout was 25,971, and Levar got 13,786 votes (54.5 percent of the total), to 9,661, (38.2) percent for McLaughlin, with Donovan getting 4.8 percent of the vote. Lyons got his revenge, and when Daley became mayor in 1989, he became impregnable.

Exception number three: If an alderman is going to focus on playing politics, as opposed to constituent service, he had better eliminate his political opposition. For an incumbent (McLaughlin) to get 38.2 percent of the vote is inexcusable.

Levar was easily re-elected in 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003 and 2007, and by 2011 Lyons had died, Levar was the committeeman, the precinct operation was in tatters, the Shakman decree and the inspector general meant that city and county workers couldn’t be compelled to work precincts or make campaign donations, and Levar retired. Levar’s candidate was Marina Faz-Huppert, an obscure union official. Could the precinct captains sell her? They couldn’t. In a seven-candidate election, Levar’s troops delivered just 19 percent of the vote to Faz-Huppert. The runoff was between two anti-Levar independents, John Arena of Portage Park, a self-proclaimed "progressive," and John Garrido of Gladstone Park, a police lieutenant. Arena had 3,567 votes (23 percent of the total) in the municipal election, Garrido had 5,121 (32 percent), and Faz-Huppert had 3,065, in a turnout of 15,761. Arena won the runoff 6,083-6,053, a margin of 30 votes in a turnout of 12,136. That was a decrease in turnout of 3,635. Arena and his union allies spent $200,000 in mailers blasting Garrido as a Republican, and it worked. That’s contrary to the norm.

What is the norm now is to malign one’s opponent.

Exception Number Four: Negativity matters. In the old days positive voter expansion was the key to victory, as precinct captains dug out and persuaded voters. Now it’s voter suppression. The idea is to bury your opponent in an avalanche of negative mailings and give voters reasons not to vote for your opponent, or preferably to not vote at all.

Now it’s Arena-Garrido Round II. The Feb. 24 turnout was 12,923, which is 2,838 lower than in the 2011 municipal election, despite a total of 40 mailers from the candidates. Arena topped Garrido 5,872-5,131, with two other candidates pulling 1,920 votes. Arena was 590 votes short of a majority, and Garrido was 1,331 short. The combined non-Arena vote was 7,051 (54.5 percent of the total). If those who voted for Michelle Baert (who has endorsed Garrido) and Mike Diaz vote for Garrido, he’ll win. After spending over $200,000 from Oct. 1 through Feb. 24 (including unions’ independent expenditures for mailings), Arena has hit his ceiling, roughly 5,800 votes, but that is a solid 5,800 voters who love their alderman. However, if the April 7 turnout exceeds 11,600, Arena will lose.

The anti-Garrido mailing barrage is under way, the purpose being to dissuade anti-Arena voters from voting for Garrido or from voting at all. Getting a mailer every other day tends to numb voters’ minds because it’s political overkill. It’s ignored and trashed, but it’s effective. Voters say to themselves: What’s wrong with these people? Why am I getting so much drivel? I haven’t got the time or inclination to decide what’s true, so they don’t vote.

That is the point. Turn out your base. Tune out your opponent’s base. That’s how to win a runoff.

Year # of Runoffs Incumbents in Runoff Icumbents
1971 2 2 1
1975 8 5 5
1979 10 7 5
1983 14 11 4
1987 14 8 1
1991 18 11 6
1995 11 7 6
1999 9 5 5
2003 5 5 2
2007 12 11 6
2011 14 10 4
2015 18 13