Negative Ads Fly in Chicago Mayoral Race as Candidates Seek to Define Opponents

The race for mayor is heating up and the attack ads are beginning to fly but in a nine-candidate field, how do you stand out from the crowd?

“Math, message and money are what campaigns are ultimately about, particularly in a primary field,” says Jason DeSanto, senior lecturer at both Northwestern University’s School of Law and School of Communication.

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Also a political speechwriter, DeSanto has worked as a debate strategist for members of Congress and multiple presidential campaigns.

“Math is really how do you put the coalition together that allows you to survive and advance,” says DeSanto. “So then you go to the other two — and what it really comes down to is standing out enough to be able to make it to that next round. That’s really about message and money. You’ve got to have the resources to put out a message and that message has got to be clear, it’s got to be contrasting, and it’s got to be affecting those different groups that you think you need to add up in order to advance.”

The WTTW News Chicago Mayoral Forum will strem live at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 7, on our website, Facebook, YouTube and the PBS/WTTW video app. It will air on “Chicago Tonight” at 10 p.m.

So far, DeSanto believes Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson have been waging the most effective campaigns.

“They have resources and they have been crystal clear in their messaging and that is how you stand out,” says DeSanto. “You take what are your positives, you accentuate them, emphasize them in order to provide clarity out of the chaos that is nine candidates, and you attempt to define your opponents where you can, when you can, in order to enhance your own position and build up the math you need to get to the next round.”

Vallas has clearly focused on the issue of crime and public safety “from minute one” and backed that up with money and “some very cleanly executed advertising,” says DeSanto. “He’s made it about leadership. He’s made it about Lightfoot’s combativeness. But really, the headline for him has been we’ve got to get the city to be safe and to feel safe and that trickles into every other issue.”

DeSanto says Johnson’s message sets him apart from the rest of the field.

“He’s saying something a little different than pretty much everybody else,” says DeSanto. “Obviously when we talk about money, he comes in with a lot of Chicago Teachers Union money that helps him get the message out. But in these public forums and in these debates so far, he’s really kind of carved out this position, which is kind of, I would say the truly left-wing or progressive position in this race. And he’s occupying a lot of ground that Chuy García used to occupy.”

DeSanto says that ads from both Lightfoot and García “are a little muddled.”

“They’re trying to tack to the middle, but they’re not doing it very effectively I think right now,” says DeSanto.

He expects Lightfoot’s campaign to go more on the offensive to attack Johnson, García, as well as Vallas. A recent poll from FOX-32 Chicago had Vallas leading the race in a statistical tie with Lightfoot.

“I think Vallas has got a lot of vulnerabilities on the question of who some of his supporters are in the Fraternal Order of Police,” says DeSanto. “But I think the best messaging (for Lightfoot) would kind of push García and Johnson further to the left. Push Vallas more to the right. And when that’s done, the she appears to be more of the commonsense problem solver who has faced a lot of challenges but pulled us through COVID and is trying to make things better.”

Although polling may not be reliable, one consistent theme is Lightfoot’s high disapproval rating across polls. That is a stark contrast to the race in 2019 when a surging Lightfoot campaign won every ward in the city.

“Lightfoot is in the disapproval range of around two-thirds to maybe 70-75% of people. It’s a sign of fatigue. It’s a sign of discontent,” says DeSanto. “It is reflective, I think of a general lack of enthusiasm for her campaign.”

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