America’s cities are some of its most solidly Democratic areas — but that doesn’t mean they are solidly liberal. Over the past two years, the mayoral elections in our two biggest cities have boiled down to surprisingly tight contests between a moderate Democrat and a more liberal alternative.
Tuesday’s runoff election for mayor of Chicago, the nation’s third-most populous city, is no different. Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas rode his pro-police, tough-on-crime messaging to first place in the first round of voting on Feb. 28 but has faced accusations of being a Republican based on comments he made in 2009. And Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson finished second on a platform of taxing the rich to pay for more public services but has had to walk back his past support for decreasing police funding. (Dogged by COVID-19, rising crime rates, personality conflicts and broken promises, incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot didn’t even make it out of the first round, finishing third with 17 percent of the vote.)
But with Vallas (33 percent) and Johnson (22 percent) combining for barely half of the vote in February, a lot of voters are up for grabs in the runoff — and most Chicagoans don’t fit into neat “moderate” or “progressive” buckets. Chicago politics has more layers than a deep-dish pizza, and you need a more nuanced taxonomy to understand them — so we made one.
Like we did with New York City and Los Angeles, we’ve divided Chicago into political neighborhoods based on the results of four recent elections: the first round of the 2019 mayor’s race, the 2020 Democratic primary for president, the 2020 Democratic primary for Cook County state’s attorney and the 2020 general election for president. While four races — and four neighborhoods — can’t capture every political idiosyncrasy in the Windy City, they do a pretty good job identifying the blocs that will likely decide Tuesday’s election. So reload your virtual Ventra card and join us for a tour of Chicago’s political geography.
The Spiritual South Side
Chicago is divvied up into “sides,” and none looms larger in the public imagination than the South Side. But politically, parts of the West Side resemble the South Side: They are heavily Black and tend to vote for Black or moderate white candidates. So together, they make up our first political neighborhood, the Spiritual South Side.
|2020 pres. general||Biden||92%|
|2020 pres. primary||Biden||66|
|2020 state’s attorney primary||Foxx||79|
The Spiritual South Side is the most loyally Democratic political neighborhood in Chicago. President Biden got 92 percent of the vote here against former President Donald Trump; in fact, no ward in the neighborhood gave Biden less than 86 percent. The Spiritual South Side was also Biden’s best political neighborhood in the 2020 primary, giving him 66 percent of the vote versus 30 percent for progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders.
But before you label the Spiritual South Side a moderate stronghold, consider the 2020 primary for Cook County state’s attorney. When she was first elected in 2016, Kim Foxx was at the forefront of a wave of progressive prosecutors that have since been elected in places like Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, St. Louis and Los Angeles. Yet when she received a stiff reelection challenge in 2020, the Spiritual South Side was her strongest political neighborhood.
And in the 2019 mayoral race, the Spiritual South Side was the best neighborhood for self-described progressive Cook County Board of Commissioners President Toni Preckwinkle and the only neighborhood where Trump-voting businessman Willie Wilson received meaningful support.
Like 70 percent of the Spiritual South Side’s voting-age population, Foxx, Preckwinkle and Wilson are Black. As this political neighborhood seems to vote more based on identity than ideology, this could be good news for Johnson, who is also Black. In a recent Emerson College/WGN-TV/The Hill poll of the runoff, Black voters overall favored Johnson over Vallas 55 percent to 25 percent. In addition, most precincts in this political neighborhood voted for Lightfoot in the first round of the 2023 mayoral race, meaning many voters here will be looking for a new candidate.
But it must be said that the Spiritual South Side is not homogenous. While Wilson won most wards in this neighborhood in 2019 with at least 24 percent of the vote, there were a few notable exceptions — namely, the wards that extend into whiter neighborhoods like Hyde Park, the South Loop and the West Loop. Sanders also got 35 percent of the vote in the wards that contain Hyde Park (where the University of Chicago is) and creep into heavily Hispanic Gage Park.
By contrast, our second political neighborhood, Boho-Chicago, covers much of the city’s North Side — from boho-chic (get it?) neighborhoods like Wicker Park to rapidly gentrifying Humboldt Park (an historically Puerto Rican community) to gay-friendly Andersonville to northerly Rogers Park, home to many students at nearby universities. Unsurprisingly, this is the heart of Chicago’s burgeoning progressive movement.
|2020 pres. general||Biden||86%|
|2020 pres. primary||Biden||42|
|2020 state’s attorney primary||Foxx||52|
While almost as Democratic as the Spiritual South Side (every ward herein gave Biden between 83 and 89 percent of the vote in November 2020), Boho-Chicago as a whole opted for Sanders in the primary, 53 percent to 42 percent. It also powered Lightfoot to victory in 2019, giving her 27 percent of the vote, and was progressive strategist Amara Enyia’s best political neighborhood too. This neighborhood is also home to four of the five self-identified democratic socialists on the Chicago City Council.
Boho-Chicago is the city’s most racially diverse quadrant; though it is barely majority-white, it also has a sizable Hispanic population. The more Hispanic corners of the neighborhood, like Hermosa, have voted most heavily for Sanders and less enthusiastically for Lightfoot, while some largely white wards, like the ones containing Lakeview and Bucktown, voted for Biden in the primary. In the 2019 mayor’s race, these areas also voted at an above-average rate for former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley (the son and brother of two powerful former mayors), whose moderate views fell flat in the rest of the neighborhood but held more appeal in wealthier areas closer to downtown.
In 2023, Johnson won many precincts here in the first round. However, Vallas could find some support, especially on the neighborhood’s wealthier, whiter edges, which he won in February.
The United Center
The United Center isn’t just the arena where the Bulls and Blackhawks play; it’s also an apt name for our third political neighborhood, Chicago’s most moderate.
|2020 pres. general||Biden||68%|
|2020 pres. primary||Biden||57|
|2020 state’s attorney primary||Foxx||32|
The United Center was Trump’s best political neighborhood in 2020, though it still voted for Biden 68 percent to 30 percent. In the primary, it strongly supported Biden over Sanders and was Foxx’s worst neighborhood in the state’s attorney race. In the 2019 mayoral race, Daley carried the United Center with 22 percent. It was also the best neighborhood for two other moderate mayoral candidates that year: attorney Jerry Joyce and none other than Paul Vallas, making his first (far less successful) bid for City Hall.
It’s possible to subdivide the United Center even further based on what flavor of centrism its voters prefer. The three downtown wards covering the Loop, the Near North Side and Lincoln Park gave Biden more than 61 percent in the primary and 76 percent in the general election. These are some of the wealthiest areas of Chicago, chock-full of pro-business Democrats who live in the Gold Coast and shop on the Magnificent Mile. Given Daley’s business background, it’s no surprise that this was some of his strongest turf in the mayoral race.
Most of the rest of the United Center, though, consists of ethnic, working-class neighborhoods on the city’s northwest and southwest fringes. For example, Mt. Greenwood is heavily Irish American; Portage Park is a hub for Chicago’s vaunted Polish American community; West Rogers Park is home to Chicago’s Little India and a large Orthodox Jewish population. These wards tended to be less enthusiastic about Daley. Joyce even won two of them (including Ward 19, once represented by his father, by 34 percentage points) despite getting just 7 percent citywide. As Republicans have made gains with working-class voters nationally, these farther-flung wards have also gravitated toward the GOP in general elections. They all gave Biden less than 70 percent of the vote in November 2020, and the neighborhoods of O’Hare and Mt. Greenwood voted for Trump.
People of color constitute just 38 percent of the United Center’s voting-age population, making it Chicago’s whitest political neighborhood. But it also has the city’s largest share of Asian Americans, Chicago’s fastest-growing racial group. Asian Americans now outnumber whites in historically Irish American Bridgeport — the original home of the Daley family.
It’s no mystery for whom the United Center will vote on Tuesday: Vallas. His support here in 2019 was double what it was citywide, and he racked up huge margins in these areas in February.
The “L” Barrio
Our final political neighborhood, the “L” Barrio — named after Chicago’s famous elevated train system — looks like one of the Comiskey Park pinwheels, with sectors on the city’s northwest, southwest and southeast sides. These three sections are predominantly Hispanic, and 72 percent of the neighborhood’s voting-age population is Hispanic as well.
|2020 pres. general||Biden||76%|
|2020 pres. primary||Biden||36|
|2020 state’s attorney primary||Foxx||34|
This neighborhood tends to vote for Hispanic candidates and moderate candidates. In 2019, the “L” Barrio supported state Comptroller Susana Mendoza for mayor. It was also the best neighborhood for former state Board of Education Chair Gery Chico (both Mendoza and Chico have Mexican heritage). More progressive candidates haven’t seemed to find a constituency in the “L” Barrio: Lightfoot and Preckwinkle had their worst performances here, and Foxx earned just 34 percent of the vote in the state’s attorney race. And it also voted redder than Chicago as a whole in the presidential election, giving 76 percent to Biden and 22 percent to Trump.
The one exception to this region’s aversion to progressivism was in the 2020 presidential primary. The “L” Barrio was Sanders’s best political neighborhood — likely the result of Sanders’s concerted efforts that cycle to appeal to Hispanic voters, especially young ones.
Like the other political neighborhoods, though, subtle internal differences exist within the “L” Barrio. For example, the parts of Garfield Ridge and Clearing west of Midway Airport are relatively white and middle-class, making them relatively conservative as well (these wards gave Trump more than 30 percent of the vote and also voted for Joyce in the 2019 mayor’s race). By contrast, one of its wards stretches into predominantly Black Englewood, making it relatively anti-Trump, pro-Foxx and pro-Wilson by the “L” Barrio’s standards.
Despite being the smallest of Chicago’s four political neighborhoods, the “L” Barrio may be where the 2023 mayor’s race is won or lost. Rep. Chuy García won many of the precincts in this neighborhood in February but got only 14 percent of the vote overall and failed to advance, so this neighborhood is now up for grabs. García, a progressive, has endorsed Johnson in the runoff. But Latino voters appear to be leaning toward Vallas instead, 42 percent to 31 percent, according to a BSP Research poll conducted for a coalition of nonprofits and Northwestern University’s Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy. If that’s correct and Vallas ends up winning, the “L” Barrio could be the neighborhood that puts him over the top.
Tuesday’s mayoral race in Chicago offers a stark contrast between a progressive and a moderate vision for tackling the daunting problems facing 2.7 million Americans. But even if you don’t give a flying Frango about who wins the mayoralty, you might still want to pay attention, because Chicago’s political geography is not all that different from the political geography of many other American cities. Like in New York City, the city center is full of Democratic elites, while the quarters farthest from downtown are anti-establishment and even conservative. As in Los Angeles, the most progressive parts of town are gentrifying neighborhoods that are relatively white but are still racially diverse. And like in Boston, Minneapolis, Detroit and St. Louis, identity is just as, if not more, important to voters of color than a candidate’s political persuasion. So if you are trying to understand the great American city, you could do worse than starting with the Great American City.
Aaron Bycoffe contributed research.