Debate Rankings, Recent Poll, Who Can Still Grow Their Support, and Why Lightfoot Won in 2019
Updated: Jan 20
Last night's debate was full of rapid-fire sound bites and few surprises. Lightfoot was the target of much of the debate but honestly did pretty well defending her record. We're still struggling how to do worthwhile televised/streamed debates that are substantive in an era of huge fields of candidates running, whether for mayor or president. Maybe more substantive 5 minute candidate statements and less rapid-fire response questions would help get a better sense of how candidates communicate and think about problems.
The most effective debate performances were, in order:
The Sophia King campaign released a poll that they had commissioned, with these results:
Sawyer and Buckner seem to not have been included (interesting as their potential voters overlap with King's so it would help King here to not include them, but both are unlikely to get significant support so it's fine)
This is fairly similar to other polling we've seen, though city races are very difficult to poll. A couple of interesting points:
Johnson's support is starting to climb, as expected
Many voters are still undecided
Wilson's % is lower here than most polling and Green's higher, which probably isn't real, but it does allow for the irony of this- Wilson has $5 million for his campaign, basically all from his own money, and Green has raised essentially zero, and they are equal in support anyway... Willie Wilson, what exactly do you keep running for? You just have money to get rid of on something?
Who can increase their support as the campaign continues?
Garcia already has high name recognition, so there is probably not a ton of room for his support to keep increasing, though he is just now starting to spend significantly on advertising, while other major candidates, especially Lightfoot, have already been doing that. He also has the ability to run a significant organizing effort and get voters to the polls well. I could see him getting 30% and it's tough to imagine him not making the runoff.
Everyone already knows Lightfoot, and she's already spent $3 million on her campaign. She's burning cash faster than she is raising it, and as an incumbent, undecided voters typically won't decide late in the race to vote for her in significant numbers. Also her approval rating is terrible. It's hard to see her getting significantly over 20% here.
Vallas's name recognition is fairly high but there's still a good amount of voters that don't know him and he has enough money to introduce himself. The trouble for him is, there's only so many right-wing voters in Chicago, and that's who he's playing for. The other candidates are using him as a punching bag in forums, and he knows his facts but doesn't communicate them with much charisma. He has a real chance at a runoff though.
Johnson is gaining ground and has a lot of room to continue. With many unions, organizing groups, and aldermanic candidates behind him, as well as a good amount of campaign money, he has what he needs to grow his support. People largely don't know him yet, and as progressives start paying attention, many will break his way and some will switch to him from Chuy as it becomes clear he has a chance to make the runoff. He can get his voters to the polls, and he will impress every chance voters get to see him. Though in the single digits now, it seems like he has doubled his support over just a few weeks and may double it again by election time and be very much in the mix with Lightfoot and Vallas to make the runoff.
King really could have been a contender in this race, but a few things went against her. Mostly, Chuy Garcia and Brandon Johnson ran. She's close with Preckwinkle and had those two not been in, the remains of the Cook County Democratic Party machine and many unions probably would have backed her as the "progressive" alternative to Lightfoot. I think she is a competent and impressive alder and communicator and would have had a chance. At this point though, she is still well behind, and though she will have room to grow support as people get to know her, she has very little funding to help make that happen. See the section about the Tribune below though for how that might change.
Wilson- everyone who might vote for him already knows him. He has a lot of money, but there's only so much that billboards on every corner can do. Every vote he gets hurts Lightfoot and Vallas and helps progressives, so I don't mind that, but again, Willie Wilson, why are you here?
Green, with no money and strong opponents, has creatively managed to get some support, but it can't grow much as he won't be considered a top contender
Buckner and Sawyer also won't be able to grow support much, with little funding and all the focus on the others
Why did Lightfoot win and what surprises might be in store now?
At this point in 2019, Lightfoot was still a minor second-tier candidate. Two things came together for her to win. One was news about Ed Burke and others' corruption which hurt all the frontrunners who had some connection and helped Lightfoot who was running as an anti-corruption outsider (not that that's held up since). The other factor was the endorsements of the Chicago Sun-Times and Tribune editorial boards. Together, these launched her into a runoff against an unpopular Toni Preckwinkle and then into the mayor's office.
Now, the Sun-Times ownership has changed and prevents it from doing candidate endorsements, but the Tribune still will endorse and is in the midst of its interviews now. This was not the only factor in Lightfoot's rise and should not be overstated, but it can be a big help to a candidate who is trying to be taken seriously, especially if it can fit into a broader narrative like the anti-corruption narrative of 2019.
Who might the Tribune endorse? Lately they seem to oppose the Democratic Party "machine" and candidates on the ideological extremes. They'll want a strong communicator with a clear platform. They'll be unlikely to support Lightfoot again based on their various critiques of her throughout her term. The main options are Sophia King, Paul Vallas, Chuy Garcia, and Kam Buckner.
King seems like the type of candidate they would back, but Preckwinkle connections and her third-tier status at the moment might make them hesitate. Paul Vallas fits their conservative and anti-machine leanings and he could make the runoff. Crime will be a major factor in their decision and they may like his approach. He can be a bit of a policy wonk rather than a great communicator, but they may go for that. He has a chance at a runoff and criticized Lightfoot early and often. I wouldn't be surprised if they back him. Garcia has connections and history they probably won't like, but he is moving to the middle and looking like the favorite, so they may consider it. I think Buckner expresses himself well and might be a surprise pick for them even though he's third-tier. I'd be very surprised if they back someone as progressive as Johnson, but I suppose it's not impossible.
Most likely: Vallas, King, Garcia, Buckner, Johnson (they won't back Lightfoot, Green, Wilson, or Sawyer)
An endorsement could be a small boost for Vallas that would help put him over Lightfoot to the runoff. For King, there's a small chance it could jump-start the campaign, but I think the other candidates are stronger than they were in 2019 and she won't repeat Lightfoot's success. Garcia wouldn't really be impacted as he is already leading, and a Buckner endorsement would be much too little, too late. A Johnson endorsement is very unlikely but would be a surprising story that could really help him continue to grow his support and make the runoff.
Update: Additional Poll Out Today
Another poll is out today from M3 Strategies and it has some lessons:
Chicago polling is difficult- wide variation here from a couple of other recent polls
It's important to look at methodology- this one shows it's questions and demographic distributions and looks reliable, unlike a couple of surveys covered by media recently as polls which really were non-scientific surveys.
It's important to look at source- the poll was commissioned by "Americans for a Safer and Better Tomorrow" which doesn't seem to actually exist- which is sketchy. This pollster is a Republican, and is likely backing Vallas- the methodology looks pretty good, but the end results are vastly more positive for Vallas than other polling. So take it with a grain of salt. It's not clear where exactly they get the bias from, maybe some over-representation of the white northwest side (which is the group the pollster is from) combined with the highlighting of three candidates in questions at the top of the poll which boosts each of them a bit by highlighting them as frontrunners.
Sophia King's poll having her at 8% was probably more the outlier, and she's probably nearer to the negligible amount in this poll. (Ja'Mal Green too)
The breakdowns confirm to me that Wilson is largely taking more conservative black votes that would go to Vallas or Lightfoot if he weren't running. It's interesting he isn't getting the more conservative Latinos and that group seems to be largely going to Vallas.
Johnson's support confirmed to be growing in this one too, with a strong change-over-time from the pollster's earlier poll and Johnson now ahead of Lightfoot. Interesting he's ahead of Garcia among white voters as well. If these trends are real and continue, that Johnson-Vallas matchup could maybe actually happen.