Chicago voters will head to the polls today to elect a new mayor. While both candidates in this mayoral runoff are Democrats, they present wildly different visions for the future of America’s third-largest city. With big-city Democrats split over policies on crime and policing, this election presents an opportunity for both reformist and tough-on-crime sides to claim national momentum.
Chicago uses a jungle-primary with a top two runoff for its mayoral elections. The first round, held on February 28, resulted in no candidate gaining a majority of votes. Although Chicago elections are nonpartisan, none of the nine candidates were Republicans. Incumbent Democratic mayor Lori Lightfoot was unpopular and widely seen as vulnerable, setting up a competitive field.
The two highest vote-getters were Democrats Paul Vallas (32.9%) and Brandon Johnson (21.6%); Lightfoot finished in third with 16.8%. Two other candidates – Chuy García and Willie Wilson – finished with notable performances, recording 13.7% and 9.1%, respectively. As is usual in Chicago, the election fell along demographic lines; Vallas and Johnson performed strongest with white voters, Lightfoot won most majority-black wards, García performed strongest among Hispanic voters, and Wilson performed best in majority-black areas.
Johnson is a member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. A Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) organizer and educator, Johnson’s platform skews decidedly progressive and pro-CTU. Johnson previously supported efforts to defund the police, but has since promised to not cut police funding. Johnson is strongly supported by progressives and by the CTU, which has spent a large amount of money in support of his campaign.
Johnson’s signature policy proposal is a plan to raise taxes; he has proposed increasing Metra taxes on suburbanites, imposing a $1 to $4 per-employee tax on large businesses, and imposing or increasing taxes on financial transactions, real estate transfers, and jet fuel. With this new funding, Johnson would invest in mental health clinics, violence prevention, youth jobs programs, homelessness programs, and public schools. Johnson has pushed back on the idea of hiring more police officers; instead, he has supporting hiring more nurses and teachers.
Although Johnson is black, most of his support in the first round came from affluent white voters. The city’s black voters generally consolidated around Lightfoot, who finished third. A Johnson win would likely rely on strong support from both black voters and upscale whites. Polling indicates Johnson has consolidated black support since the first round and holds a commanding lead among black voters.
Vallas previously served as the CEO of public schools in both Chicago and Philadelphia and ran for mayor in 2019, placing in ninth. The more moderate Democrat in the race, Vallas’s signature campaign issue is his strong support for police officers and a strong police presence in Chicago. Vallas supports hiring over 1,100 new employees in the police department and returning to a policy of community policing. Vallas is also seen as hostile to the CTU; he has proposed expanding voucher programs and creating more charter and magnet schools, and intends to use his influence as mayor to influence the city’s last unelected school board, which is transitioning to an elected model.
Vallas is supported by Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and its President, John Catanzara, but Vallas has attempted to keep the group at arm’s length. This is due not only to the FOP’s reputation in the city, but also due to Catanzara himself, a controversial figure known for his conservative views, inflammatory statements, and staunch support of former President Donald Trump.
Vallas’s more conservative stances have also proven controversial. While Vallas is a lifelong Democrat, and was the Democratic nominee for Lieutenant Governor in 2014, he spent the last several years frequently criticizing President Joe Biden and other prominent Democrats. Johnson has frequently insisted that Vallas is a closet Republican. For their part, unlike in 2019 the Chicago Republican Party has not endorsed Vallas; Chicago Republican chair Steve Boulton noted Vallas’s policy views are “marginally closer to Republican positions on the issues, but more because Mr. Johnson’s are so far away.”
In the first round, Vallas’s support came primarily from white voters, but he also performed well in predominantly Hispanic areas, where he ranked 2nd behind García. Although García, a progressive, has endorsed Johnson, Vallas is expected to perform well with Hispanic voters.
With Johnson generally assumed to have support from black voters (30% of Chicago’s voting-age population) and Vallas to have support from white voters (35% of Chicago’s voting-age population), the main demographic up for grabs in the runoff is expected to be Hispanic voters (27% of Chicago’s voting-age population). Polls currently show the race as a dead heat. The most recent poll from Emerson showed Vallas up by six points, while the most recent poll from Victory Research has Vallas up by four points.
As is usual in Chicago elections, the mayoral race will likely split sharply among racial lines. The Victory Research poll in particular displays striking numbers – Johnson leads by 57 points among black voters, while Vallas leads by 59 among white voters and 8 among Hispanic voters. Progressives back Johnson, but moderates and conservatives back Vallas; Johnson leads in the South and West sides, but Vallas leads in the Lakefront, Northwest, and Southwest.
With all factors considered, we think Vallas is the favorite; we’re rating it as Lean Vallas. However, we don’t think Vallas is an overwhelming favorite; we’d be surprised if this election isn’t close.