Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s reelection battle is clouded in uncertainty, her chances of beating either U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García or former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas in a run-off appearing slim — and her prospects for even making it to the April election up in the air.
With the election less than three weeks away, three out of five voters disapprove of the job the mayor has done in her first term, more than half hold an unfavorable opinion of her and 71% think the city is on the wrong track.
Those are among the key findings of a WBEZ/Chicago Sun-Times/Telemundo Chicago/NBC5 Poll conducted last week.
All falling within the poll’s margin of error, Lightfoot, García and Vallas were essentially locked in a statistical dead heat when respondents were asked whom they would vote for if the Feb. 28 election were held today.
García led with 20%, followed by Vallas with 18% and Lightfoot with 17%. Businessman Willie Wilson trailed closely with 12% and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson with 11%. Just 2% said they’d vote for activist Ja’Mal Green, and 1% chose either Ald. Sophia King, 4th Ward, or state Rep. Kam Buckner. Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th Ward, drew no support. Another 18% said they were still undecided.
But with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points — and a large number of voters still making up their minds — there is no clear leader in the waning days of the February election.
The poll was conducted Jan. 31 through Feb. 3 by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy, Inc. A total of 625 registered voters were interviewed by telephone, all stating they were likely to vote in the Feb. 28 election.
Asked their opinions of some of the leading candidates, voters gave the highest marks to García and Vallas — and dismal ones to Lightfoot.
The mayor was viewed favorably by 22% of likely Chicago voters — and unfavorably by a whopping 54%.
García was viewed favorably by 33% and unfavorably by 18%, followed by Vallas with 30% favorable views and 20% unfavorable. Wilson’s favorable-unfavorable ratings were 29% and 26% and Johnson’s 26% and 11%.
Voters were even more sour on Light’s performance as mayor, with 61% of those polled saying they disapproved. And 71% of those polled said the city was on the “wrong track” — with just 23% stating the city was on the “right track.”
Pollster Brad Coker said Lightfoot’s bleak unfavorable rating coupled with nearly three-quarters of voters thinking the city is on the wrong track are tough stumbling blocks to overcome in three weeks — or in April.
“Those don’t paint a pretty picture for an incumbent,” Coker said. “It’s hard to make the case for reelection when your numbers are that bad, and you’ve got so many people in the city — and it’s across the board — saying they don’t think things are going well.”
Lightfoot’s campaign, in a statement released Wednesday morning, expressed confidence in her chances.
“As we’ve shared transparently, our internal polling paints a distinctly different picture. We fully anticipate winning this election, particularly once the voters learn all about the extremely troubling histories of Mr. Vallas and Mr. García. Mayor Lightfoot has always been underestimated by pundits, and apparently today is no different. See you on April 4.”
Runoff road rough for Lightfoot
If no candidate wins a majority on Feb. 28, the two candidates who win the most votes square off in an April 4 runoff.
Voters were asked about seven potential runoff matchups — and Lightfoot fared poorly in the scenarios that included her.
In a hypothetical Vallas-Lightfoot contest, the former CPS chief led the mayor 48% to 35%.
That gap widened when voters were asked to choose between Lightfoot and García, with the Southwest Side congressman earning 54% of the vote compared to just 30% for the mayor.
When García and Vallas were pitted head-to-head, 47% of respondents chose García and 36% went with Vallas.
García, by far, had the most support in the Hispanic community, with 56% of Latino voters saying they’d support him. Black voters were split, with 26% supporting Wilson, 25% supporting Lightfoot and 16% in support of Johnson. For white voters, 38% of those polled said they’d vote for Vallas, followed by 16% for Lightfoot, 14% for Johnson and 10% for García.
The poll did find a slight gender gap, with García leading among male voters, and Lightfoot among women.
The congressman had the support of 24% of the men surveyed, compared to 19% for Vallas, 14% for Lightfoot, 12% for Johnson and 11% for Wilson. Among women voters, 20% said they’d vote for the mayor, 18% for García, 17% for Vallas and 12% for Wilson.
Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy received an A- grade among pollsters analyzed by FiveThirtyEight. That grade is based on the firm’s historical accuracy and surveying methodology. The pollster, based in Jacksonville, Fla., accurately predicted the outcome of 86% of races it called, FiveThirtyEight reported.
Lightfoot has had a rocky first term, having to guide the city through the pandemic, inflation, violent crime and protests over police brutality. Last year she challenged the media to “find another mayor” who faced the “unprecedented challenges” that confronted her. There was “no honeymoon period for me,” she said.
But as Lightfoot has touted the accomplishments of her first term that she hopes to build on, her opponents have railed on her in forums and in campaign commercials. In one ad, Vallas criticized Lightfoot for “combative leadership.” In García’s first commercial, he vowed “enough is enough,” when it comes to rising crime.
‘Getting worse and worse’
Melvina McElroy, a 57-year-old Englewood resident, had high hopes for Lightfoot when she voted for her in the 2019 mayoral election, and even helped give people rides to the polls. But McElroy said she feels Lightfoot has failed to make progress on the issues that she sees plaguing her neighborhood, such as crime, vacant lots and shuttered schools.
McElroy said over the years a dozen of her relatives have left the city for other states.
“That’s 12 people who could be paying taxes to help the city. But yet the families left, because, one, nothing is changing, and it’s actually getting worse and worse under her administration,” McElroy said of Lightfoot. “It is.”
Ross Harano was among those polled who planned to vote for García. Harano, 80, said he considered voting for Vallas, but believes García “brings so much more experience than Paul.”
An Uptown retiree, Harano said he supported Lightfoot when she ran in 2019, “because all of the candidates looked alike — they were all politicians.” This time around, Harano said he’s seeking a candidate with political experience who can work with different groups — and the City Council.
“I think Chuy can bring the groups together, which I think is important because there’s so many different splintering groups now in the City Council,” Harano said. “I think he has experience and background with a lot of political forces in Chicago to bring things together.”
The future of the City Council is also up in the air. Sixteen members who were elected four years ago have either already left or are planning to do so.
Among the progressive groups vying to sway the political tilt of City Hall are United Working Families and the Chicago Teachers Union, who have backed Johnson.
The CTU endorsed Johnson after deciding not to wait for García’s decision to enter the race. But the congressman and county commissioner are both still vying for the progressive vote. García has openly called Vallas a Republican for views he argues are more at home in the GOP.
While 22% of voters said they didn’t recognize Johnson’s name, the former CPS schoolteacher and CTU member was neck and neck with Vallas when voters were asked to choose between them in a hypothetical runoff — Johnson earning 39% to Vallas’s 38%.
But Johnson lagged behind García in a potential runoff, earning 37% of the vote to García’s 47%.
Lightfoot’s place in history
Crime and public safety have been major issues at most of the debates and forums the nine candidates have attended. While homicides decreased in 2022, the previous year was the city’s most violent in a quarter century as crime spiked amid the pandemic.
All of the candidates have sought to address the issue, but Vallas and Wilson have been the most outspoken, focusing mostly on beefing up the police.
McElroy said officers have taken 45 minutes to respond to crimes she’s witnessed in her neighborhood. She’s installed deadbolts on her door in the last few years. The Englewood resident said she’s leaning toward García, but also still considering Vallas for his tough-on-crime stance. She said she’d take either over Lightfoot.
“She’s not hearing the people’s cries,” McElroy said. “She’s not listening to our needs.”
But to Jazz Allen, a 47-year-old Greater Grand Crossing resident who took the poll, crime is an issue that has plagued Chicago for decades. She supports Lightfoot and thinks the mayor is tackling crime the best way she can.
The other candidates lack plans, Allen said, while she appreciates that Lightfoot is focused on crime prevention and directing dollars to help returning citizens who were incarcerated — like Allen once was.
While she supports police, Allen said comments like Wilson’s that officers should be able to chase people down “like a rabbit” are “crazy.”
“If the only plan you have for Chicago is to fight crime, what about the rest of us that don’t do crime?” Allen said. “What about my sons and my daughters that have never committed a crime? That have a future ahead of them?”
Lightfoot made history in 2019 as the first Black woman and first openly LGBTQ person to be elected mayor of Chicago. If she fails to make the runoff election, she would be the first elected Chicago mayor since Jane Byrne — the city’s first woman mayor — to fail to win a second term.
A feminist, Allen said Lightfoot’s historic election resonated with her, and she plans to vote for her again — even if Lightfoot doesn’t make it into a runoff election.
“I’m writing Lori in,” Allen said with a laugh.
WBEZ is hosting two more candidate forums on Wednesday and Thursday, each featuring part of the nine-candidate field. They will be broadcast live on special editions of “Reset on the Road,” starting each day at 11 a.m. Mail voting is already underway for the Feb. 28 election.
See more of the poll results here.
Tina Sfondeles is the chief political reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. Tessa Weinberg covers city politics and government for WBEZ.