By Rick Pearson and Bill Ruthhart
Mayor Rahm Emanuel still has a ways to go to persuade city voters to give him a second term next month and allow him to avoid a politically risky runoff contest in April, according to a new Chicago Tribune poll.
The survey showed the mayor at 42 percent support, shy of the 50 percent-plus-one majority he needs to win re-election outright on Feb. 24. Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia was the closest challenger at 18 percent, with Ald. Bob Fioretti at 10 percent, businessman Willie Wilson at 7 percent and perennial candidate William "Dock" Walls at 2 percent.
A key factor in whether Emanuel will reach that majority is the 20 percent of voters who are undecided with less than a month to go. In elections past, the majority of undecided voters who turn out at the polls typically tend to vote against an incumbent, but that percentage has softened in recent national elections.
The field of challengers so far has struggled to gain traction and failed to raise enough money to tell their story to voters, many of whom remain largely unfamiliar with them, leaving Emanuel mostly running against perceptions of how he's fared during his first term.
Since November, Emanuel has spent millions of dollars on TV ads to try to rehabilitate his image and held a frequent string of public appearances to draw attention to what he's done since taking over for Richard M. Daley in 2011. The tactic seems to have helped: His plummeting job approval rating has stabilized, especially among African-American voters, and he's now viewed more favorably by voters than he was just five months ago.
In August, a Tribune poll found 46 percent of voters had an unfavorable view of Emanuel while just 29 percent viewed him favorably. The new survey shows Emanuel has turned that around, with 43 percent viewing him favorably compared with 35 percent who look at him in an unfavorable light.
Similarly, the August poll found more than half of the city's voters -- 52 percent -- disapproved of Emanuel's job performance compared with 35 percent who approved. Again, the latest poll found Emanuel had recovered some, as voters were split over his stewardship of the city: 44 percent voiced approval and 42 percent disapproval.
The most notable factor in Emanuel's turnaround is African-American voters' view of him. Back in August, nearly six in 10 black voters disapproved of Emanuel's handling of City Hall. Now, that group of voters is split, with 40 percent approving of Emanuel and 42 percent disapproving. Continued street violence and closing of nearly 50 schools, many in predominantly black neighborhoods, had helped drive Emanuel's unpopularity among some black voters.
Still, the poll numbers show Emanuel likely would have been much more vulnerable if he faced a higher-profile challenger. Last summer, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle opted not to run. Then last fall, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis was preparing to run until doctors diagnosed her with brain cancer. Prior to ruling herself out, Lewis held a 43 percent to 39 percent advantage over Emanuel last summer in a hypothetical one-on-one contest.
The latest poll found Emanuel with a sizable lead among black voters, garnering 39 percent, followed by Wilson with 14 percent, Garcia with 10 percent, Fioretti with 7 percent and Walls with 2 percent. Wilson and Walls are the two African-American candidates in the race.
Wilson is the only other candidate to air TV ads, though on a much smaller scale. One in four voters said they'd never heard of Wilson while 43 had no opinion of him, including 40 percent of African-American voters. Overall, 19 percent of voters viewed Wilson favorably while 13 percent had an unfavorable view.
More than one-third of voters said they had never heard of Walls. Nearly half of those who had heard of him had no impression of him.
Emanuel has taken steps to remind black voters of one reason many supported him four years ago -- his work as President Barack Obama's chief of staff. The mayor recently rolled out a radio spot in which Obama backs Emanuel's re-election.
In one cable TV ad, two black contractors applaud Emanuel for hiring from their neighborhood for the reconstruction of the Red Line on the South Side. In another, 16th Ward Ald. JoAnn Thompson credits the mayor with fighting for a grocery store in Englewood.
Emanuel does not speak in either commercial, which reflects a broader campaign strategy of placing more emphasis on his record than his often divisive personality. In the radio ad, Obama noted that Emanuel at times can be "hard-headed."
Despite the ad blitz, 28 percent of black voters said they had not made up their minds about a choice for mayor.
Another candidate seeking to woo black support is Garcia, who has sought to market himself as a onetime reformer alderman who decades ago backed Harold Washington, the city's first African-American mayor. The poll shows Garcia's message has yet to resonate, with 44 percent of black voters having no opinion of him and another 21 percent saying they'd never heard of him.
Garcia, a Mexican-American who also has served as a state senator, led among Hispanic voters surveyed. The latest poll showed 48 percent of Hispanic voters supporting Garcia compared with 30 percent for Emanuel, 5 percent for Fioretti and 3 percent for Wilson. Another 15 percent of Hispanic voters remained undecided.
Overall, 34 percent of Chicago voters have a favorable impression of Garcia, compared with 6 percent who view him unfavorably. But 16 percent of voters had never heard of Garcia and of those who had, 44 percent had yet to form an opinion of him.
The latest poll was conducted Jan. 22 through Tuesday by APC Research Inc. and featured live land line and cellphone interviews of 708 registered voters who said they were certain to vote in the Feb. 24 city election. It has an error margin of 3.7 percentage points at a confidence level of 95 percent. The error margin for racial and ethnic subgroups is 6.5 percentage points.
The survey could help Garcia push his contention that he's Emanuel's chief nemesis who is best suited for a one-on-one matchup April 7 should the mayor not secure a majority next month.
Among other candidates, Fioretti, an early challenger who announced his candidacy in September, was viewed favorably by 25 percent of voters while 8 percent had an unfavorable image of him. But nearly a quarter of city voters had never heard of him. Of those who had heard of him, 43 percent had not formed an impression.
The poll found Emanuel led among white voters, with 50 percent backing the mayor compared with 17 percent for Garcia, 16 percent for Fioretti and 2 percent apiece for Wilson and Walls. Another 12 percent were undecided. Among white voters, slightly more than 50 percent approve of the job Emanuel has been doing and have a favorable impression of him. Those numbers also have improved since August, when white voters were split.
Emanuel's advantage over his rivals came despite serious concerns about him among voters.
Critics of the wealthy mayor have labeled him "Mayor 1 Percent," and a majority of Chicago voters, 54 percent, said they believe Emanuel is out of touch with people like themselves. Even 53 percent of voters with incomes of $100,000 or more said they thought Emanuel was not in touch. Among all voters, 37 percent said they considered him "in touch" with people like themselves.
Those percentages are a slight improvement from the August survey, which found more than six in 10 voters considered Emanuel to be out of touch with people like themselves.
At the same time, a majority of voters said they believed Emanuel had not kept his first-term campaign pledge to keep government from becoming "an insiders game, serving primarily the lobbyists and well-connected."
A total of 55 percent of voters said Emanuel had not kept his pledge compared with 21 percent who said the mayor had.
City voters also were divided on whether Chicago is better off under Emanuel's leadership. A total of 24 percent said the city is better off, 23 percent said worse off and 49 percent said Chicago is about the same under Emanuel.
Those percentages were a slight improvement since August, when only 17 percent of voters said the city had become better off under Emanuel while another 32 percent said it was worse off. Another 49 percent said they saw no difference. Among black voters five months ago, more than four in 10 said the city had become worse off under Emanuel. Now, that figure has dropped to 28 percent.
Since January 2012, Emanuel has been able to raise $13 million for his re-election. In recent months, the mayor has been aided by the lifting of contribution limits after a short-lived candidate who's not on the ballot reported putting $100,000 of his own money into the race.
By comparison, Garcia ended the year with $817,000 in his campaign fund after spending $59,000 in the last quarter of 2014. He's since raised $44,000, records show.
Fioretti ended the year with $196,000 in his campaign fund after spending $258,000 in the last three months of the year. Records show he's raised $27,000 since.
Wilson, the owner of a medical supply company, has contributed more than $1.6 million to his campaign.
Walls had about $26,000 in his political fund at the end of the year.
Asked about Emanuel's sizable fundraising advantage, one in four city voters said the mayor's edge in campaign cash made them less likely to support his re-election. But two-thirds of Chicago voters said the mayor's deep campaign pockets made no difference in how they would cast their vote.
(c)2015 the Chicago Tribune