Let's face it: Rahm Emanuel is probably going to be re-elected mayor of Chicago

Polls show that "Mayor 1%" has opened up a wide lead ahead of next week's runoff. Why?

Published March 31, 2015 3:37PM (EDT)

Rahm Emanuel                    (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Rahm Emanuel (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

One month ago, Rahm Emanuel was clinging to political life. Badly bruised by a weaker-than-expected showing in Chicago's February 26 elections, the mayor looked vulnerable to challenger Jesus "Chuy" Garcia ahead of the April 7 runoff vote. The first polls conducted after the initial round of voting underscored Emanuel's weakness, showing a statistically tied race. But with one week to go before voters head back to the polls, the latest surveys tell a sharply different story, showing a mayor on the rebound. If Emanuel hasn't triumphed in his fight for survival just yet, it's exceedingly difficult to see how he loses it.

First, the trend lines: Whereas Emanuel was once locked in a statistical dead heat with Garcia, posting a slight 43 percent to 39 percent lead after the first round of voting, he now boasts a double-digit edge. First came a mid-March Chicago Tribune poll showing Emanuel ahead 51 percent to 37 percent, followed by three surveys from Ogden & Fry -- the same pollster that once found a tied a race -- giving Emanuel leads between 10 and 17 percentage points. The Chicago Tribune deal yet another blow to Emanuel foes on Tuesday, releasing a poll that found Emanuel with a whopping 28-point advantage, taking 58 percent of the vote to Garcia's 30 percent. As his February performance attests, Emanuel has underperformed expectations before, but while his loss looked like a very real possibility just a few weeks ago, it would have to be considered a major upset at this point.

What gives?

While Emanuel has certainly made some effort to soften his notoriously rough edges, the belligerent mayor has hardly discarded his old ways. Meeting with mental health activists earlier this month, Emanuel allegedly screamed at his interlocutors, demanding that they "respect" his authority. The same man who once fulminated against "fucking retarded" progressives continues to exude downright contempt for the left, with one of the mayor's advisers deriding "liberals at Heartland Cafe in Rogers Park [who] think great thoughts and read poetry for Chuy."

Unpalatable as Emanuel can prove personally, his policy agenda has been even more unpopular. Emanuel wasn't vulnerable because he's arrogant and has a fondness for profanity; he was vulnerable because of mass discontent with his closure of 50 neighborhood schools, cuts to public pensions, privatization of city assets, and sweetheart city contracts for campaign contributors. It's little wonder that he's been dubbed "Mayor 1%" -- or that he's secured the backing of Republican plutocrats like hedge fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin.

But has Garcia offered a compelling alternative? The rap on Chuy -- repeated reliably by Emanuel's campaign and Very Serious commentators -- is that he has provided no specifics on how he'd tackle Chicago's troubled finances. But as Tyler Zimmer noted in Jacobin, Garcia's camp has put forth specific financial proposals -- and they're not exactly evocative of progressivism. While Garcia has offered tepid support for a more progressive tax system, his campaign also identifies a bloated public sector as the chief challenge confronting the city, and vows that a Mayor Garcia would continue to cut and consolidate public sector work. Debating Emanuel last week, the union-backed Garcia predicted that labor unions would be "upset" by his financial policies. So while Garcia is counting on populist anger with Emanuel to propel him to victory, he has not charted a bold progressive course.

Finally, any analysis of Emanuel's likely victory would be remiss if it did not take into account his massive campaign war chest. Though outside progressive groups and unions have given Garcia's campaign a boost, it pales in comparison to the financial juggernaut Emanuel has assembled, thanks to support from Chicago business elites like Griffin. All told, Emanuel's campaign coffers are about four times larger than Garcia's. That Garcia forced Emanuel into a runoff highlights that money can only go so far. But for the past month, Emanuel has saturated the airwaves and unleashed a torrent of attacks on Garcia, and it may ultimately prove too much for Chuy to overcome.

By Luke Brinker

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Chicago Chicago Mayoral Election Jesus "chuy" Garcia Jesus Garcia Rahm Emanuel