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Chicago Latinos tilting toward Paul Vallas in mayor's race, poll shows

Latinos are less likely than white voters to back progressive Brandon Johnson, but more than a quarter remain undecided, according to the poll.
Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas at a mayoral debate in Chicago on March 18, 2023.
Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas at a mayoral debate in Chicago on March 18. Mustafa Hussain for NBC News

Latino voters are more likely than Black voters to vote for moderate Democrat Paul Vallas in the Chicago mayoral race and less likely than white voters to support progressive Democrat Brandon Johnson, helping to keep the race neck and neck, according to a poll released Tuesday.

The poll of registered voters that was provided early to NBC News showed that 42% of Latinos who have decided how they’ll vote in the April 4 runoff support Vallas, who is white and is not Latino, compared to 24% of Black voters.

Meanwhile 31% of Latinos said they’d vote for Johnson, a progressive Democrat who is Black, compared to 40% of white voters, according to the poll conducted by BSP Research for a coalition of Latino and Black nonprofit groups and Northwestern University’s Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy. More than a quarter of Latinos are undecided.

Most of Vallas' support is from white voters, at 49%, while 48% of Black voters said they plan to vote for Johnson.

“The wild card on April 4th is the Latino vote,” Jaime Domínguez, an associate professor of instruction at Northwestern, said in a statement. “And neither candidate appears to have a lock on this electorate. Yet, turnout will be critical given the Latino share of undecideds.”

Overall, the poll showed the runoff is tied, with each candidate getting 40% of the vote; some 20% of all voters are undecided.

When undecided voters were asked who they are leaning toward supporting, the race remained tied at 44%, with the biggest increase in votes coming from voters in the "all other" racial category.

Johnson saw the biggest increases when undecided voters with a preference were combined, gaining 7 percentage points with Black voters and 12 percentage points with voters in the "all other" race category.

Brandon Johnson, left, and Paul Vallas shake hands after their debate in Chicago on March 18, 2023.
Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas shake hands after their debate on March 18.Mustafa Hussain for NBC News

'Still outreach to do'

“We can see from the results, as far as low-income voters and minorities, there’s still outreach to do to those communities that can swing the election,” said Stephen Nuño-Perez, an analyst and pollster with BSP Research.

Nearly half of the Latinos and half of the Black voters who were polled said they had not been contacted about getting out to vote.

The issue of race is a defining factor in the tight runoff election in one of the nation's most segregated cities.

The city saw racial division in the primary, with Johnson faring poorly in Latino districts carried by Rep. Chuy García, D-Ill., while Vallas racked up big wins in working and middle-class white communities, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank. Johnson did well in parts of the city where there is a mix of ethnic groups and white progressives.

The runoff follows a nine-way primary in which the lead traded several times before Vallas and Johnson finished as the top two vote-getters. But since neither got a majority in the February primary, the race is to be decided in a runoff.

García, the primary's only Latino candidate, was a favorite early on, but finished fourth. Chicago has never had a Latino mayor.

According to the poll results, one factor in the runoff is confusion about Vallas' ethnic roots. More than a third of Latinos said in the poll that they thought Vallas, a grandson of Greek immigrants, was Latino. In Spanish, with the double "l" pronounced as a "y," vallas can mean fences or hurdles.

In the poll, more than 3 in 4 Latinos, 76%, said they are more likely to vote for a Latino candidate than a non-Latino running for the same office if they have the same qualifications.

However, nearly three-quarters of Latinos and 71% of Black voters said their community is better off if Black people and Latino people work more closely together.

Similar majorities of Black voters and Latinos thought they had a great deal or fair amount in common with each other when it comes to government, elections and politics.

But while about 68% of white voters thought they and Latinos had a great deal or fair amount in common in those categories, just 54% of Latinos thought so.

The poll of 1,500 people conducted March 15-23 has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8%, although the error margins are larger for each specific racial or ethnic group.

Black and Latino leaders clashed in 2020 over redistricting. That could open a door for Vallas with Latino voters, but Latinos who supported García may want to stick with a progressive in the race, which is Johnson.

"With such a tight race, we needed to come in and do the work on the ground and move Latino voters, especially in the southwest (of Chicago) where Chuy got his support," said Mayra Lopez-Zuniga, political strategist for Mijente PAC, which is backing Johnson in the race.

In the primary, García was the only candidate to spend any campaign money on Spanish-language advertising, at least $118,000. While many Latino voters speak English, the latest census data showed that about 35% of Chicago families do not speak English at home. Spanish is the second most common language spoken in Chicago.

Vallas has spent $158,557 on Spanish-language advertising, or 3.1% of the $5.1 million he’s spent on ads since the start of the runoff. Johnson has spent $73,930 of $2.75 million, about 2.7%. That includes spending on television, radio and digital communication.   

In southwest Chicago, the organization La Casa Norte is working with Hispanic Federation to turn out Latino voters and get younger voters registered.

The group also launched public service announcements with Illinois Latino Agenda to promote its VotaYaChicago campaign, said Jose Muñoz, La Casa Norte's executive director and CEO.

The poll was funded by Hispanic FederationIllinois Black Advocacy InitiativeLatino Policy Forum and Latino Victory Project.

CORRECTION: (MARCH 28, 2023, 1:49 pm ET) A previous version of this article misattributed a quote about La Casa Norte’s public service announcements. It was made by Jose Muñoz, CEO and executive director of La Casa Norte, not Luis Gutierrez.