A glance at recent polls shows Chicago voters dividing their support for mayor along strictly racial proportions. However, a closer look shows that those who plan to vote for frontrunner Rahm Emanuel are a far more diverse bunch than these numbers imply.
A poll released Tuesday by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association and We Ask America shows more than 56 percent of likely African-American voters say they support Emanuel, nearly double their citywide percentage. The same poll shows 20 percent of blacks plan to vote for Braun.
The We Ask America poll shows Emanuel getting the support of 53 percent of likely voters – more than the minimum 50 percent plus one required for him to win the Feb. 22 election outright.
Around 45 percent of Chicagoans across several recent polls say they’ll vote for Emanuel, 25 percent support Carol Moseley Braun, and another 25 percent is split between the two Latino candidates, Gery Chico and Miguel del Valle. That breakdown closely parallels 2009 census estimates of Chicago’s population at 42 percent white, 34 percent black and 27 percent Hispanic.
In its survey results, released Jan. 20, the Chicago Tribune reported Emanuel receiving support from 44 percent of all respondents, and leading in all ethnic categories with 40 percent of blacks and 30 percent of Hispanics.
Dick Simpson, head of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an expert in Chicago politics looks to the elections of Mayor Harold Washington for historical context.
“It’s important that there are crossover voters,” Simpson said. “Harold Washington won with solid African-American votes but with significant Latino and some white support.
“No mayor in Chicago can win without crossover votes,” he said.
Simpson said, regardless of the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision on Emanuel’s residency qualifications, Braun and Chico are likely to pick up support from undecided African-Americans and whites, respectively.
“It’s hard to tell what’s going to happen in the last month, but a racial statement or event could change it,” Simpson said. “Voters will tune into those TV debates and make up their minds about what they see.”
Elizabeth Ossoff, an expert in voter behavior, said voters could step outside their own demographic profiles when they feel an emotional connection to a candidate.
“That can often mean someone that is similar to them,” Ossoff said, but “if there is a particular issue that’s resonating with voters, they will step away from rules of thumb and gravitate toward those choices.”
Ossoff, psychology department chair at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, said Chicagoans of all stripes might support Emanuel because he is seen as a “favorite son who has come home to fulfill a dream” of becoming mayor.
“People have thought: Wow, he’s a favorite son who worked for a favorite son [President Barack Obama] as his chief of staff,” Ossoff said.
“This guy must really resonate with African-Americans if Obama trusts him,” Ossoff said.
“Women might feel the same way, given that they can see themselves as somewhat of a minority.”
Emanuel’s high profile contributed to his taking an early lead in both polls and fundraising, and both Ossoff and Simpson said that contributed to a sense of inevitability that pervades the election.
“The front-runner effect is important,” Simpson said. “People want to be with a winner.”
Regardless, Ossoff said people rarely choose whom to vote for based on a single issue or change their minds once they decide on a candidate.
“Once people have that first reaction, it’s difficult to change that. We’re busy people. We don’t often go back to it.”