Now that Rahm Emanuel is back on the ballot, pundits are busy trying to parse the political fallout of his residency controversy. Has the distraction hurt his front-runner status and given his opponents an opportunity to make up ground? Or did all the backlash against the Appellate Court ruling garner sympathy for Emanuel and strengthen his base of support?
Despite the hoopla, when all is said and done, it is unlikely that the legal battles surrounding Emanuel's candidacy will have much of an affect on the campaign's outcome. The largest impact will be felt in early voting, which begins Monday. After being saturated with media coverage of the court rulings, voters who make it to the polls in the coming weeks will inevitably have the residency issue still in mind. Some of these votes may swing for or against Emanuel based solely on his recent difficulties.
Yet it's safe to say that early voting won't decide the mayoral race. Roughly 85,000 Chicagoans voted early this past Fall - a significant number, but still only a small fraction of the over 700,000 ballots cast overall. Early voters also tend to be more informed and more opinionated: they feel they know enough about the candidates to make up their minds a full three weeks before Election Day. Many of these voters have been committed to one candidate for some time - for them, the events of the past week have only solidified what was already a pretty strong preference for a given electoral outcome.
The real goal will be for candidates to capture the votes of undecideds and "weak leans" - those who are leaning toward one candidate but don't have a strong preference. Since their opinions are still fluid, these voters are in theory far more likely to be influenced by recent goings-on. Yet these voters are also more likely to wait until February 22 to cement their preferences and cast their votes. How much staying power will the captivating but ultimately anti-climactic residency saga of this past week have one month from now?
In politics - and especially in Illinois politics - a month is a long time. Fortunes and conventional wisdom can change in an instant. Consider that on February 14, 2004, Blair Hull sat poised to win the Democratic primary for Illinois' open Senate seat. In a four-way race, Hull was far ahead of the field, which included a little-known state senator polling at 19 percent. Hull meanwhile enjoyed an impressive fundraising advantage and widespread name recognition. His election seemed predetermined.
One month later, it was the (formerly) little-known state senator who won the primary, with a whopping 53 percent of the vote. What happened?
In the final four weeks of the race, Barack Obama raised a ton of money, worked hard to receive the endorsements of both major daily papers (which dramatically improved his name recognition), and build a powerful Get-Out-the-Vote (GOTV) apparatus that performed flawlessly on Election Day. He also benefited from the swift and complete collapse of the Hull campaign, which became mired in a scandal surrounding domestic abuse allegations from Blair Hull's past. In just a few short weeks, everything the pundits thought they knew turned out to be wrong.
In hindsight, the legal battles of this past week, and the media frenzy surrounding them, will become a curious footnote in an historic election for the city of Chicago. Had Emanuel lost his bid to remain on the ballot, they surely would have become much more than that. As it stands now, the court rulings have merely brought us back to where we started. And it's important to remember that we started in a place of uncertainty.
The crucial factors in the race remain unchanged: cash on hand; name recognition; and GOTV support. Rahm Emanuel continues to enjoy a sizable advantage in all three.
He still has a month to go.