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() — Voters in Chicago head to the polls Tuesday, when they will choose one of two Democrats to become the next mayor in a race that has come to reflect a broader ideological divide within the party.
Paul Vallas, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, has campaigned as a law-and-order moderate and was the top vote-getter in the first round with 33%.
To Vallas’ political left is Brandon Johnson, a progressive Cook County commissioner and an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), who came in second with just over 20% of the vote.
The two emerged from a crowded field of nine candidates that included now-outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot but because neither received 50% of the vote, they’ll go head-to-head in a runoff Tuesday.
Political experts say the results in Chicago could serve as an important indicator for other political races across the country.
“Candidates can learn a lot about how they should position their message,” said Dick Simpson, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Chicago and a former city alderman. “And voters in other places can learn a lot about what kind of candidates they ought to support in nominations in the Democratic and Republican primaries.”
lATINO swing voters
A recent WGN poll showed Vallas holding a five-point lead with 13% of likely voters still undecided. Much of his support is expected to come from predominately white neighborhoods along the North Side’s lakefront and communities on the far northwest side. Johnson will likely outperform Vallas in many predominately Black precincts that Lightfoot carried on Chicago’s southside.
In a city that’s almost evenly split between white, Black and Hispanic residents, experts say the third group could ultimately decide the election.
“You basically have Latinos that are on both sides of the aisle,” explained Jaime Dominguez, a political scientist at Northwestern University.
A recent Northwestern poll found 46% of Latinos favor Vallas compared to 35% for Johnson. Some of that may be due to the fact that one-third of Latinos surveyed thought Vallas — who is white — was Latino, Dominguez pointed out.
About half of Latinos polled cited crime as the most important issue. Both Vallas and Johnson have promised to prioritize public safety, though they’ve offered different solutions.
Vallas — who’s been endorsed by the local police union — has vowed to fill 1,700 police vacancies and pushed back against Johnson’s accusations that he’s a Republican in disguise.
Johnson has said he would invest in promoting more detectives to solve crimes while emphasizing long-term solutions such as youth development programs and more police accountability. He’s tried to distance himself from the “Defund the Police” slogan that he embraced in a 2020 interview when he called the movement “an actual political goal.”
“I said it was a political goal, I never said it was mine,” Johnson said at a debate earlier this month.
Dominguez believes Latino voters are looking for a combination of both strategies — a plan that will prioritize public safety, as well as police reform and accountability.
U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who had strong support among Latinos in the first round of voting, has endorsed Johnson. Despite that, 38% of Garcia voters are supporting Vallas while 34% are backing Johnson, according to the Northwestern poll.
voter turnout will be key
In order to win Tuesday, Johnson will have to mobilize voters who historically turn out at lower rates than Vallas’ core base.
About 35% of all registered voters turned out in February for the first round of voting, according to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.
Across all age groups, voters between 65 and 74 turned out at the highest rate (51%), per a Chicago Tribune analysis. That group is most likely to support Vallas, with 60% of those 65 and older saying they’ll vote for him compared to 22% for Johnson, the Northwestern poll found.
By comparison, just 14% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in February.
Vallas also carried many North and Northwest precincts that had first-round turnouts well above the city average. On the flip side, most southside wards saw voter turnout below the 35% city average.
White-majority precincts also saw higher turnout (44%) in February compared to Black-majority (29%) and Latino-majority (27.7%) precincts, according to WBEZ. That could bode well for Vallas although white voters remain fairly split with 51% voting for or leaning toward Vallas compared to 42% for Johnson.
Simpson, who has been involved in Chicago politics for more than 50 years, thinks the race could still go either way.
“There’s a very large undecided vote, 10 to 12%, which is unusual, given how long the election has gone on and how many debates there are and how much TV advertising both candidates have spent,” Simpson said.
A Vallas win Tuesday would show that moderate, pro-law enforcement rhetoric can be successful in a major Democratic stronghold, whereas a Johnson victory may signal an appetite for bolder structural changes in American cities moving forward.