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Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis is hugged by a supporter outside Chicago Board of Education headquarters at 125 S. Clark St. in 2013. File Photo. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Exclusive poll: Karen Lewis could give Rahm run for his money

For the past couple of weeks, Karen Lewis has been saying she is “seriously” considering running for mayor.

It turns out voters are taking the fiery Chicago Teachers Union president’s potential candidacy seriously as well.

And Mayor Rahm Emanuel probably should, too.



At least that’s what a surprising new Early & Often Poll suggests.

If the mayoral election were held today, the lightning rod union leader who was the architect behind a 2012 teachers’ strike would beat Emanuel by 9 percentage points in a head-to-head contest, the survey found.

Lewis was leading Emanuel 45 percent to 36 percent with 18 percent of the likely voters undecided.

And Emanuel could face an even steeper hill if he faces Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, long considered his most formidable challenger.

A head-to-head contest found Preckwinkle in a romp vs. Emanuel by a stunning 24 points.

Preckwinkle dominated with 55 percent of those surveyed. Emanuel notched just under 31 percent.

“Laughable” is what Emanuel’s camp called the results of the automated telephone poll, conducted for the Sun-Times’ political portal by We Ask America.

POLL DETAILS: The Early & Often Poll is based on a random sample of 1,037 registered Chicago voters who said they were likely to vote in the Feb. 24, 2015, election. It is an automated poll conducted by We Ask America. Respondents were contacted by telephone on Wednesday, July 9, 2014. About 28 percent were reached on their cell phones. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.04 percentage points, larger for demographic subgroups.

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Lewis admitted she was surprised by the findings. And the pollster cautioned that the results are a snapshot in time — arguably taken at a time when Emanuel has been taking a beating in local and national media coverage.

But the poll underscores two political realities: Emanuel is vulnerable as he gears up for re-election next year, and voters are assessing the strength of various potential rivals.

The poll results were staggering to Lewis, who was reached by phone while she was attending a teacher’s convention in Los Angeles.

“Wow,” said Lewis when told of the survey’s findings.  “Well, first of all, I’m sitting here stunned.”

The poll found Lewis doing especially well among African-American voters, carrying 51 percent of the black vote against Emanuel’s 33 percent. She also led with Hispanics, while Emanuel led with the Asian and white vote. 

Since late last month, Lewis has flirted with the idea of opposing Emanuel, saying no one else has stepped up.

“I am very, very seriously considering it,” she told the Sun-Times on Friday. She said she planned to make a decision before the date to begin circulating petitions in August.

The poll wasn’t an across-the-board rejection of Emanuel, however. He prevailed in head-to-head matchups against others.

Asked to choose between Emanuel and Robert Shaw, a former alderman and ex-county elected official who is running for mayor, Emanuel won with 47 percent to Shaw’s 29 percent.

In a separate pairing, Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd), who also has expressed an interest in running for mayor, trailed by double digits with 45 percent saying they would back Emanuel and 30 percent going for Fioretti.

Emanuel continues to struggle with the African-American vote.

Like Lewis, Preckwinkle beat Emanuel among black voters surveyed. Preckwinkle got 59 percent of the black vote to Emanuel’s 29 percent.

But the survey suggests the county board president’s popularity crosses racial lines. She also did better than the mayor among white voters, garnering nearly 55 percent of the white vote to Emanuel’s 34 percent.

Emanuel did a bit better than Preckwinkle among Hispanic voters.

The mayor’s support among African-Americans depended on the challenger.

Emanuel led with double-digit margins among black voters in the matchups against Fioretti and Shaw.

The automated poll of 1,037 likely voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.04 percentage points, with 28 percent of those surveys coming over cellphones. The error margin is higher when broken down along racial lines.

The poll was conducted Wednesday, just days after a bloody Fourth of July weekend in which negative news dominated headlines and the airwaves with 71 people shot — 13 of them fatally.

Pollster Gregg Durham said Emanuel shouldn’t raise the white flag yet. He points out that it wasn’t an across-the-board rejection. 

The takeaway from those surveyed?

“I might vote for somebody over Rahm Emanuel — but not anybody,” Durham said.  “Would Preckwinkle be formidable? Absolutely. Look at the numbers, they jump out at you. That doesn’t mean that Toni Preckwinkle would win.”

He cautioned that these are just snapshots in time and far ahead of the February 2015 mayoral election.

And neither Preckwinkle nor Lewis has actually entered the race, meaning scrutiny of them is not as great as it would become once they square off against Emanuel in a rough-and-tumble mayoral contest.

“Automated polls have been more and more reliable. It’s a data point. I’m not sure that it changes Toni’s perspective at all,” said Ken Snyder, Preckwinkle’s campaign strategist. “This was never about whether or not Toni could win or lose. Her decision process doesn’t change based on what any independent poll says.

“What she has said is that she is running for the job that she has and she’s focused on the job that she’s doing," he said. "But she’s pointedly refused to rule out a run.

“Ultimately she will or she won’t, but it won’t be based on poll numbers. She’ll just make the decision based on what’s in her heart,” Snyder said.

Emanuel’s campaign, meanwhile, lambasted the survey results.

“While the Mayor is focused on helping every neighborhood grow stronger, the campaign finds these inaccurate robo polls entirely laughable,” campaign spokesman Pete Giangreco said.

But it’s not the first Early & Often poll to suggest Emanuel’s re-election prospects could be in trouble.

In May, the Sun-Times political portal published a non-automated poll that found only one in five Chicago voters credited Emanuel with doing a better job of running the city than Richard M. Daley did, and only 29 percent were then ready to support Emanuel for re-election.

That telephone poll, conducted by McKeon & Associates, did not pit Emanuel against his challengers in hypothetical one-on-one races, instead asking whom voters supported among a wider field of choices.

If all the candidates were running together, it found the mayor would get 29 percent of the vote to Preckwinkle’s 26 percent. The poll showed Lewis finishing third with 10 percent, followed by Fioretti at 5 percent and Shaw with 3 percent. An estimated 27 percent of voters interviewed were undecided.

Lewis said her interest in running stems from positive results from her own internal polling.

“I think it says a lot about how people in Chicago are completely fed up with this sort of top-down policy that really excludes the majority voices from the Democratic process of governance,” Lewis said.

“I think the people do not feel heard in this city," she said. "I think they feel that Rahm only listens to people he respects, and he only respects people who have money.”

The latest survey came as coverage for both Lewis and Preckwinkle has remained largely positive.

As Emanuel was getting thrashed last week for the city’s violent weekend, media outlets ran photos and video of Preckwinkle marshaling a Fourth of July parade dressed up as the Statue of Liberty.

Still, timing doesn’t explain it all.

“I cannot sit here in a straight face and say Mr. Emanuel would be happy with these numbers,” Durham said. “This would not be a cakewalk, and Toni Preckwinkle would provide one hell of a battle for him.”