It’s a long-standing rule of politics that being perceived as soft on crime can be a candidate’s undoing. At least that’s what we’ve been told was the lesson from the “Willie Horton” ad aired in the lead-up to the 1988 Bush–Dukakis presidential election. Analysts and politicos have already suggested that voters’ perception of Mayor Lori Lightfoot as soft on crime led to her ouster in the first round of Chicago’s mayoral race last month.
The true test of this theory, however, will come on April 4, when Chicago voters choose between two candidates with very different perspectives on crime. Paul Vallas, the former CEO of the city’s public school system, is running as the law-and-order candidate, criticizing the public-safety records of Mayor Lightfoot and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. Vallas has also expressed concern about the bail reform provisions of the much-discussed Illinois SAFE-T Act. His opponent, Cook County commissioner for the first district Brandon Johnson, is a SAFE-T Act proponent. He has also been critical of policing and has defended Foxx’s “progressive” approach to law enforcement.
A new Manhattan Institute poll of Chicago voters suggests that these differences could decide the race. The poll found that 54 percent of Chicago voters—including 51 percent of black voters—cited crime and public safety as the most important issue, and that clear majorities feel that the city is unsafe and that crime is on the rise (57 percent and 78 percent, respectively). The poll also shows that voters overwhelmingly disapprove (by a margin of 27 points) of the recently reelected state’s attorney Foxx; that 71 percent of voters want the city to hire more police, with half (49 percent) saying the city should hire “a lot more”; and that clear majorities believe punishments for criminals are too lenient (55 percent) and favor stronger punishments for repeat offenders (79 percent).
Data from years past, highlighted in the first chapter of my book, Criminal (In)Justice, also show that the parts of the city hit hardest by crime are the mostly black and Latino neighborhoods on the city’s South and West Sides. In 2019—before 2020’s 55 percent murder spike—Chicago’s ten most dangerous community areas, which, on average, were almost 96 percent black/Latino, already had a collective homicide rate of nearly 62 per 100,000. This figure was well above the city- and state-wide rates that year, which were 18.2 and 6.5, respectively. In some of those community areas, like West Garfield Park (131 per 100,000) and Englewood (78 per 100,000), the homicide rates were even higher. These numbers contrast dramatically with the city’s safer enclaves. The 28 Chicago neighborhoods with one or zero homicides in 2019, which housed 264,000 more residents, saw just 11 murders in all—250 fewer murders than the ten most dangerous neighborhoods.
All this would seem to suggest a clear and relatively easy path to victory for Vallas. And yet, the poll also highlights why, despite the top-line results and recent crime trends, the outcome of the mayoral election is far from certain.
A plurality of voters expressed support for the SAFE-T Act’s bail reform component (44 percent, versus 39 percent expressing opposition), and a majority (53 percent) voiced support for recent restrictions placed on the ability of Chicago police to engage in foot pursuits—a policy enacted after the shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo by a Chicago police officer during a foot pursuit.
Perhaps most notable is the finding that, while the poll reports a 5-point lead for Vallas among voters who’ve decided whom they’ll support, about one in six (17 percent) remain undecided. Those undecideds are more likely to be black, female, young, and from the city’s South Side—all groups among whom Johnson enjoys advantages, and who seem more skeptical of Vallas’s law-and-order message. Indeed, undecided voters expressed more support for a social-spending approach to the crime problem than they did for one focused on enforcement.
The old wisdom about avoiding the soft-on-crime label, then, may be due for an update. Even in a race in which concerns about public safety are at the forefront of voters’ minds, there’s no guarantee that a “tough-on-crime” message will win the day. What we’re learning as jurisdictions around the country continue their push to weaken the criminal-justice system even amid rising crime is that we can no longer take as a given the political lessons of the late 1980s: that voters understand crime as a problem that turns primarily on enforcement.
Regardless of whether Vallas emerges victorious next month, it seems clear that we critics of the reformers’ approach have more work to do. And given the violent crime rates in Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods, we must work quickly.
Photos by Scott Olson/Getty Images