The finish line is in view.
Just four more days of campaign ads, mailers and constant appearances in the evening news. And then — we likely get to do it all over again for a mayoral runoff election.
While polling on the Chicago mayoral race has been somewhat inconsistent, what appears clear from multiple polls is that incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot and challengers Paul Vallas, Brandon Johnson and U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García have pulled clear from the pack.
Jason DeSanto, a veteran political speechwriter and debate strategist for members of Congress and multiple presidential campaigns, said candidates at this point are just trying to do whatever it takes to make it into the top two — and the likely subsequent runoff election.
“These are the last-minute efforts to secure whatever small portions of vote that will get somebody to No. 2 and into the runoff,” said DeSanto, a senior lecturer at Northwestern University’s School of Law and School of Communication. “We’re talking about fractions of fractions of points. … I think a lot of that action has been in the Black community and with liberals along the lakefront. Those are the two areas where I think we’ve seen the most action.”
DeSanto said that, at present, Vallas appears to be the frontrunner.
“He seems to be polling consistently well at the top,” DeSanto said. “So that tells us a little bit of something empirically, even accounting for noise inside of the polls.”
Vallas’ campaign behavior would also seem to indicate he thinks he’s got a lead, DeSanto said.
“Throughout most of this race, he’s done very little to contrast himself with other candidates,” said DeSanto. “That’s usually somebody who’s a frontrunner and believes that.”
DeSanto said Lightfoot is strongest placed to join Vallas in the runoff, although DeSanto admitted there remains a high degree of uncertainty in trying to forecast the race.
“Look, this is art, not science,” DeSanto said. “I don't think anybody can tell you with any level of certainty or even probability about this.”
He said what has impressed him about Lightfoot’s candidacy is her ability to maintain a base level of support, despite voter disapproval ratings as high as 70%.
“That’s a really hard number to overcome,” DeSanto said. “And yet she has managed to maintain pretty solid, stable numbers throughout this race. What that indicates to me is not that she could win a runoff, but that she might have enough strength and durability in the coalition that she can put together to survive into the next stage.”
DeSanto said Johnson, with the strong backing of the Chicago Teachers Union, also has a good shot of finishing in a top-two spot.
“I think Johnson has made great gains,” DeSanto said. “I think he still has a really good chance of making the runoff. But he’s coming from outside. He hasn’t been able to run quite as much in the way of advertising, and he’s taken on a little bit of water now being attacked by Lightfoot and being attacked by Garcia. … As we get closer to Election Day, those attacks, they’re coming a little bit more frequently and that may put a little dent in his ability to get over the finish line.”
As for Garcia, DeSanto said he has found the campaign “puzzling.”
“He started late,” DeSanto said. “Didn’t get on TV until late. Did not have a strong message. Had a muddled message. Nevertheless, until about two weeks ago, I really believed he was in a good position because even though he was being outspent by about 8 to 1 by the mayor and about 5 to 1 by Vallas, polling even a couple of weeks ago still had him even in lead.”
DeSanto said Lightfoot’s attack ads tying Garcia to the now disgraced FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried and former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan have also taken a toll.
“He still has a strong base within the Latino community — no question about it,” DeSanto said. “He has that mostly to himself. But he really has not done a very good job of expanding beyond that base and really articulating a clear message as to what he stands for and why he’s running with respect to other communities —that really hasn’t come through. And I think the numbers reflect that.”