For a politician about to enter a tough campaign season, poor polling numbers can usually mean one of three things.
One, they can mean the candidate’s personality isn't resonating very well with voters.
Two it can mean that the campaign’s message isn't working very well, or isn't really being heard.
Finally, it can mean the candidate has done something or many things as an incumbent that people, really, really don't like.
Even though it’s early in the campaign season for the 2015 Chicago Mayoral election, it looks like Rahm Emanuel is currently hitting the trifecta on all three.
Following a recent string of poor poll results showing Emanuel has lost the faith of a large range of voters across the city, a new Chicago Tribune poll has put the number of ways Rahm is struggling into perspective.
For one, poll respondents find the mayor isn't doing a very good job:
Facing concerns over crime, education and the economy, Emanuel now holds a 35 percent job approval rating — down from 50 percent a little more than a year ago. In addition, more than half of city voters now disapprove of how Emanuel has handled his first term, up from 40 percent.
For another, many different kinds of potential voters don't like him, including members of his perceived voter base:
During the past year, the mayor's approval rating has dropped across all major racial, income, age and gender lines. Perhaps most troubling to Emanuel's re-election: crumbling support among white voters and an accelerating decline of support among African-American ones.
Even worse, it appears from the poll a lot of people are angry about specific policies he has enacted:
Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed disapprove of the mayor's handling of the public school system. And about the same number sided with the Chicago Teachers Union over Emanuel in the ongoing debate about how to improve CPS. Around a quarter of city voters polled back the mayor.
That’s a particularly bad situation for someone who’s primary potential challenger, Karen Lewis, runs the CTU, one of the most powerful unions in the state and seen by many as a champion for public education policies.
Perhaps even worse, Rahm’s vaunted political skills and campaign messaging don't seem to be hitting on all cylinders these days.
Take, for example, his tone-deaf attempt to blame his bad polling on “the economy”.
Or his attempt to basically shrug his shoulders and say bad polls today don't matter. Emanuel told the Trib:
Asked today why he was failing to connect with voters and what he’d do to turn his numbers around, Emanuel said it’s not yet election season and he won’t concern himself with a poll.
“When the time comes, we’ll deal with all types of different things, and I’ll tell the story of what we’ve done and what more work we have to do and what we have to focus on and what the policies are for the opportunities and challenges that face the people of Chicago.”
That didn't stop him, however, from possibly dropping a dime on his two biggest potential challengers earlier this week. The Chicago Sun-Times reported stories on Karen Lewis’ income and real estate holdings and problems for Bob Fioretti paying campaign staffers. Under the radar, both stories are seen by many political observers as coming directly or indirectly from Rahm’s campaign team.
You could consider Rahm’s attempts at hijacking positive buzz over Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West going to the Little League World Series as a heavy-handed attempt to gain votes in the black community.
Or view his recent touting of “progressive” policies and friends such as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio as a transparent attempt to burnish his liberal credentials.
Or his failing to get out ahead of the ongoing red light camera ticket scandal as the mark of a politician basically washing his hands on an issue that matters greatly to taxpayer’s pocketbooks.
Much has been made of Emanuel’s daunting campaign war chest, currently pegged at over $8 million. Many observers feel that should be enough to hold off anyone who might dare to challenge him for a second term.
Once, that group even included me.
But, the truth is, even this far out from Election Day, Emanuel’s not facing a traditional set of campaign problems that can be easily fixed with better messaging or more campaign money.
Instead, he’s facing a city that’s angry at him, and upset about the specific policies he’s been enacting. That’s what the Trib poll really tells us.
That’s a hard hurdle to get over for any politician. Throw in a challenger like Lewis that can attack him on a already-perceived weakness, or Fioretti who can run well to his left on progressive issues, and you’ve got an incumbent facing a whole new set of campaign problems.
And when a candidate's approval rating starts off a campaign at 35 percent or lower, he has to be seen by at least some voters and political observers as the underdog.
Or in the kind of trouble that loses elections. No matter how many other advantages he might have.