Vallas appears to surge as Lori tries to fix image
Analysis & Opinion by Russ Stewart
Politicians have a shelf-life and a brand. If and when the product or the brand become distasteful or unpalatable, then they’re off the shelf.
That’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s problem. Her mayoral tenure has become so exceedingly distasteful that even when she Tweeted out “Happy New Year” many people did not have kind things to say to her. Her current attempt to re-brand and re-invent herself is way too late. The damage has been done.
Some of her media ads showcase her and her mother to show says that she has worked to “widen and open opportunities for families like mine.” That’s called “identity politics.” Another ad oozes with contrition, and she says she has “made mistakes” and “learned” from them – and will do better during the next 4 years. In another ad “she delivers” and shows up at the door of two guys, saying she delivers jobs and a pizza.
She is even trying to soften her surly, off-putting brand by smiling and wearing makeup. Sort of like former Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried to do when he was wearing a fuzzy sweater.
It’s not working and it’s not going to work. Chicago is in a crisis mode. Crime is not under control. It seems unsafe to walk in the Loop at night. Carjackings seem commonplace. There are more than a dozen homicides and/or shootings every weekend, and not just on the South and West sides. Lightfoot owns that. She says she’s going to do better but does not say exactly what and how. And voters refuse to trust her to fix things by rewarding her with 4 more years.
Recent polling, just 60 days out from Feb. 28, indicate the mayor’s dire predicament. The scent of defeat and departure hovers. There are nine mayoral candidates, the top 3 challengers being Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Paul Vallas and Willie Wilson. That number alone indicates her vulnerability. A Dec. 13 M3 Strategies poll put the numbers at 28/15/19/13 for Garcia/Lightfoot/Vallas/Wilson, with 13 percent undecided and the rest (12) for others.
A Nov. 17 Impact Research poll put the numbers at 25/18/14/10 and an Oct. 27 Public Policy Polling poll put them at 14/22/8/12. So over 45 days there was a clear trajectory: Garcia was up 14 points, Vallas up 11, and Lightfoot down 7.
The key number is 85 percent. That is the number of Chicago voters, according to the polls, who are projected NOT to be voting for Lightfoot. To be sure, a poll is just a snapshot, a sample of 400-500 “likely” voters, at a moment in time, and a modest deficit can be overcome over time. It takes about 2,000 calls to get a representative sample. The normal yardstick is that an incumbent needs to be polling at 45-50 percent to get re-elected. For Feb. 28 the “magic number” is 24-28 percent to make the April 4 runoff, or about 160,000 votes.
It is understandable that the “danger zone” plunges in a multi-candidate race. But Lightfoot is approaching a “DOA zone.” Her latest 15 percent is less than the 17.5 percent she got in 2019 when she was mostly unknown and had no particular base. Now she is mayor, has a record and total ID, had $2.9 million on-hand and will spend $6 million, hired the supposedly brainiest consultants – and 85 percent in polls either outright reject her or don’t know (and if they’re not FOR her now why would that change in 60 days?).
To get into the runoff – and there is no certainty that she could win a runoff, as her opponent won’t be Toni Preckwinkle – the mayor needs to plug her floor at 15 percent and win 2/3rds of the 10-15 percent of undecideds. She is not going to crack into any racial demographic. Chicago’s population is 2,717,534, with 1,540,821 registered voters (RVs), and is 48.7 percent White, 31.3 Black and 29.1 Latino, although turnout is not in those proportions.
BLACK BASE: Of the 9 2023 mayoral aspirants, seven are Black. In addition to Lightfoot, that includes millionaire medical products manufacturer Wilson, who go10.6 percent in 2015 and 10.6 percent in 2019; has a base among churchgoers, but 10 percent is apparently his ceiling. South Side Lakefront aldermen Roderick Sawyer (6th) and Sophia King (4th), neither of whom are going anywhere but each of whom has a ward base, will get 2-3 percent citywide, as will state Rep. Kam Buckner.
And county commissioner Brandon Johnson, a “democratic socialist” who is the candidate of CTU, AFT and SEIU, who will bankroll him, and of the CTU’s United Working Families (UWF) operation, that will provide grassroots, in-precinct manpower. Johnson has been polling in the 3-4 percent range. Unless he increases that up to close to 10 percent, the CTU won’t waste their money. Also running is Ja’Mal Green. That adds up to between 22 and 28 percent, and those are non-Lightfoot voters.
WHITE/LAKEFRONT BASE: The key number is “4” – as in the “Four White Guys” (Daley, Vallas, Joyce, McCarthy) who got a cumulative 30.1 percent, or 167,400 votes in the Feb. 2019 election. So Vallas’ floor is 150,000 votes. The turnout was 560,701 and will be about the same in 2023. But this year Vallas is the “Only White Guy,” plus he has a background and credibility: He is the former CPS CEO, headed Philadelphia’s schools, and was Rich Daley’s chief-of-staff. He is acceptable to White liberals who have soured on Lightfoot. As for White conservatives and law-and-order types – Trump got 181,234 votes (15,8 percent) in 2020 – who else are they going to vote for?
As to issue stances, Vallas will be nuanced. He has hired veteran consultants who have advised him that it is wiser to say “restore public safety” than to say “hire more cops,” and wiser to say “give more money to parents and teachers” than to say “spend more in the classroom.” Besides, the teachers’ vote is going to Johnson anyway. But Vallas is looking toward the April runoff.
Vallas is embarking on a 50-ward “listening tour” beginning in the 41st Ward supposedly next week. He is renting bars or restaurants, offering free food (but a cash bar), and will invite 2,000-2,500 registered voters in each ward, of which at least 500 will show up. There will be Q&A, a speech and volunteer recruitment. Polls have shown that one of voters’ biggest gripes is that politicians DO NOT LISTEN to them.
Vallas has a $20 million projected campaign budget through April 4, but that is wholly contingent on him moving into the mid-20s by the end of January. If he does, and is firmly in second place behind Garcia, the cash will come cascading in.
LATINO BASE: Garcia, now a congressman but then a county commissioner, got 160,414 votes (33.6 percent) in the 2015 election against Rahm Emanuel and then 258,562 votes (43.8 percent) in the runoff with a turnout of 478,204. Garcia pulled a lot of anti-Emanuel voters. The total 2019 vote for the 2 Latinos (Mendoza, Chico) was 84,834 (15.3), so the citywide Latino voter base is around 100,000.
Garcia is pushing the Latino vote ceiling. As set forth in the adjoining chart, the total vote in majority or near-majority Latino wards was 177,024 in 2022 and 138,304 in 2019. Some wards, like the 1st, 13th, 23rd and 40th still have White majorities, as reflected in much higher turnouts. The heavily Latino wards had turnouts in the 20s. To get close to 30 percent Garcia needs 65-70 percent in these wards and a 150,000 turnout. He’s not going to crack 30 percent, but he will make the runoff.
Outlook: Likability matters. Likability cloaks stupid mistakes and/or incompetence. Daley was likable. Emanuel was borderline, even though he never could have won in 2019 after the Laquan McDonald murder. Lightfoot is underwater. There is a palpable sense of disappointment, that she never fulfilled high expectations or just offered lip-service to die-hard progressives that helped to elect her. She will finish third.
As for the Garcia-Vallas runoff, the Black vote will be determinative. Do they vote for the White guy? Or for the Latino guy who would be Chicago
Read more Analysis & Opinion from Russ Stewart at Russstewart.com