little more than a year several months, the great city of Chicago will select its next mayor. Following the retirement of Mayor Richard Daley, the field is wide open.
Enter Rahm Emanuel. A powerful Democrat and President Barack Obama’s former chief-of-staff, Mr. Emanuel currently looks like the front-runner for the office. With many strong candidates declining to run and his potential opposition divided, things look good for Mr. Emanuel.
And yet one shouldn’t overestimate Mr. Emanuel’s chances as media-anointed front-runner. Mr. Emanuel has a number of hidden weaknesses that may combine to badly damage his campaign.
A strong attack, for instance, could be levied against Mr. Emanuel as a Washington insider who doesn’t care for the little man. This attack is all the more damaging because its first portion is completely true: it is hard to find a politician more immersed in Washington than Mr. Emanuel.
There are other variations on this theme. There is the geography version: Mr. Emanuel is a carpet-bagger who hasn’t lived in Chicago and doesn’t care about it. There is the populist version: the Washington elite may have already declared Mr. Emanuel the winner, but Chicago doesn’t have to listen to what the elite say. There is the class version: Mr. Emanuel is one of the rich elite who don’t understand the concerns of the working-class. There is the race version: Mr. Emanuel is one of the white elite who don’t understand the concerns of Chicago’s minorities.
None of this possibilities has yet been tried out, or turned into a coherent critique of Mr. Emanuel. It is too early in the game for that. But already there are signs that Mr. Emanuel has limited appeal amongst Chicago’s poor and its minorities (who compose a majority of the city’s population).
Mr. Emanuel does have a lot of things going for him, more than for any other single candidate. He has the support of most of Chicago’s machine, the business community, the politically influential North Side, and probably President Barack Obama (although most pundits probably overrate the importance of an Obama endorsement). Other candidates would probably love to be in his position.
On the other hand, Harold Washington had all this interests aligned against him when he campaigned for mayor. Yet Mr. Washington – the first and to date only black mayor of Chicago – still won consecutive elections on the back of minority support.
Chicago has a run-off system, in which if nobody gets more than 50% of the vote, then the first two winners go on to a second-round. Most experts expect Mr. Emanuel to get in the somewhere in the 40s, if not an outright majority of the vote.
But it’s also quite conceivable that Mr. Emanuel polls in the low 30s come election day, if he fails to attract the working-class and minority votes that he needs to win in a place like Chicago.