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Rahm Emanuel: The Least Popular Mayor in Modern Chicago History

The mayor’s job approval drops well below the Bilandic Line in the latest Tribune poll—and his approval rating among white voters is just four points ahead of Harold Washington’s in 1985.

Protesters march on downtown Chicago in December.   Photo: Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune

A decade ago, TV writer John Rodgers was trying to figure out how low George W. Bush’s approval ratings would go. A friend predicted 27 percent, because that was the percentage of the vote the hapless Alan Keyes received in his comically lopsided Senate race against Barack Obama. “Twenty-seven percent of the population of Illinois voted for him,” his friend said. “They put party identification, personal prejudice, whatever ahead of rational judgment.” (Bush would drop to 25 percent in the Gallup poll, making it a pretty impressive prediction.)

The Tribune just polled Rahm Emanuel’s approval rating. What do you know: it is 27 percent.

It’s a big poll for a local politician, almost 1,000 respondents, and Emanuel gets killed on basically every question. The only thing resembling a bright spot is that “only” 41 percent of respondents think he should resign, versus 51 percent who don’t. But the racial breakdown is dramatic. Whites are 26 percent for resigning versus 69 percent against, while blacks and Hispanics have basically same split: 51 percent and 50 percent for resignation, respectively, versus 40 percent against. It’s a big blow for a politician who needed the black vote to win a surprisingly contested second term.

How bad is 27 percent? It’s real bad. According to my search of Tribune job approval polls, since the era of Daley dominance began no mayor has ever been this unpopular. In fact, it’s so bad that it’s six points below the previous worst. 

Richard J. Daley

He served before the age of regular job-approval polling, but a Gallup poll taken 10 years after his death in 1986 gave him a 73 percent job-approval rating. Before his last election, Daley won a Trib poll in a four-way mayoral primary with 55 percent.

Michael Bilandic

Remember him? He was the machine politician whose handling of the 1979 blizzard—both logistically and politically—is a famous cautionary tale for urban leaders. Prior to it, he had a 48-percent approval rating, according to a WBBM poll; afterwards, he fell to 33 percent.

Jane Byrne

She won because of Bilandic’s collapse, but a year later had a mere 35 percent job-approval rating—and, according to the Tribune in 1980, her good/excellent numbers were actually lower than Bilandic’s.

Harold Washington

Racial tensions caused problems for Washington in City Council, but his top-line numbers were good: 54 percent approval versus 36 percent disapproval in 1985 (though the split was 33/58 for whites), and 67 percent approval in 1987. The Trib used the northwest and southwest sides as a proxy for white voter approval that year, and he notched 47 percent in the former and 32 percent in the latter.

Eugene Sawyer

Washington’s successor was unable to fill his shoes, but his numbers weren’t atrocious. In 1988 the Tribune polled residents on a number of questions about his performance; 55 percent thought he was not “strong, decisive, and independent”; 54 percent thought he was not an “effective leader”; and 45 percent said he wasn’t “good at getting things done.”

Richard M. Daley

For most of his tenure, Da Mare maintained high approval ratings: 80 percent in 1991, 79 percent in 1999. After the Hired Truck scandal, arguably the biggest of his time in office, it slipped to 53 percent in 2005. By late 2009, after the parking-meter deal turned into a disaster, even the great Daley slipped to a Byrne-level 35 percent.

 

As for Rahm? His highest job approval ratings are among whites, but they’re bad, too: 37 percent, a mere four points above Harold Washington’s approval rating among whites in 1985.

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