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The Pulse

Chicago's 1991 and 1983
Democratic mayoral primaries

Richard Day


In order to redirect history in Chicago politics, at least two things are needed: circumstances that favor your effort and a widely held belief that your effort will be successful.

Consider the 1983 Chicago mayoral primary. The circumstances that favored the master politician, Harold Washington, were a generally unpopular incumbent mayor, Jane M. Byrne, and a divided white vote with both Byrne and Richard M. Daley on the ballot.

These conditions led to the belief that those who had historically been shut out (African Americans, Hispanics and liberal whites) could win in 1983 behind the charismatic Washington. It resulted in an unprecedented turnout of black voters, who accounted for 42 percent of the total vote of over 1.2 million.

Flashing ahead to 1991, the circumstances were reversed. The incumbent mayor, Rich Daley, is held in very high esteem. Our preelection polling for WLS-TV in Chicago (ABC) asked voters to rate the candidates on a zero (least favorable) through 10 (most favorable) scale. Daley's overall esteem score on this scale was a 7.1 (extremely favorable). This rating is akin to Harold Washington's esteem at his zenith. More importantly, black voters rated Daley's performance as mayor a favorable 5.7.

Daley's popularity was the result of a quiet and careful two years as mayor. He knew his Achilles' heel: People would think he would become a political boss, insensitive to the needs of many city residents, especially blacks. To prevent any perception of a "boss" image, Daley avoided purely political endeavors, eschewed any relationship with the Cook County Democratic party and focused on his duties as mayor. He has been careful to adhere to such programs as affirmative action and has stressed good government as the focus of his administration. It is a tribute to the elixir of power that the son of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley would position himself as a nonpolitical mayor.

Finally, the Daley campaign raised over a million dollars for the primary. Some aldermanic candidates had raised more money than Daley's opponents, Cook County Commissioner Danny Davis and former Mayor Byrne.

Former Aid. Davis was Daley's chief opponent in the February 26 primary, but Davis was unable to get African-American voters to believe that he could win, and he could not draw any of the white or Hispanic vote away from Daley. In our preelection survey, Davis received a neutral overall esteem rating (5.0). His rating among blacks (6.9) fell far short of the esteem that black voters held for Mayor Washington (8.3) in the middle of his first term.

Before the election, virtually every survey showed that fewer than half of the black voters said they intended to vote for Davis. Furthermore, nearly a third of the Davis supporters felt it was unlikely that he would win in the primary, hinting that many Davis supporters would stay home on election day. The result was a record low 35 percent turnout in the 19 predominately black wards. In 1987 blacks

28/April 1991/Illinois Issues

constituted 42 percent of the total vote. In 1991 they comprised just 34 percent. In the end, Davis was unable to appeal to nonblacks. In Harold Washington's two victories for mayor, he received about one-fifth of the white vote and approximately half of the Hispanic vote. In the 1991 primary our exit poll for WLS-TV showed that only 3 percent of the white and Hispanic voters supported Davis.

Byrne, the third "major" candidate in the primary, garnered just 6 percent of the vote. Our preelection survey showed her average esteem at a very low 3.5, similar to Ed Vrdolyak's when he was the Republican candidate for mayor against Daley in 1989. Byrne has won one election and lost four since her 1979 mayoral victory over Michael Bilandic. It is anybody's guess whether or not a stake has been finally driven through her heart.

To prevent any perception of a 'boss' image, Daley avoided purely political endeavors . . . and focused on his duties as mayor

The size of Daley's 1991 win appears to mark the end of a highly competitive era in Chicago mayoral politics which began with the 1979 Byrne-Bilandic primary. Will Daley achieve the dominance of his father? Voters leaving the polls on Tuesday, February 26, told our exit pollers that they supported Daley because he has done a good job in office and he has helped bring the city together. Daley can expect another two terms as mayor if he avoids any major gaffes. Demographic trends indicate a future city with proportionally fewer white residents, and Daley will one day be unable to defeat a formidable opponent who has energized a nonwhite population that represents the majority of the electorate. Our guess is that he will step down before that day arrives, rather than experience electoral defeat.

Richard Day has his own survey research firm, Richard Day Research, in Evanston. Jeff Andreasen is an associate in the firm.

April 1991/Illinois Issues/29

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