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Rahm Emanuel's support plummeted in parts of Chicago where he closed lots of schools

Rahm Emanuel hoped to win re-election in Chicago on Tuesday, but the election is going to a runoff.
Rahm Emanuel hoped to win re-election in Chicago on Tuesday, but the election is going to a runoff.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Two years ago, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was being touted as a possible presidential candidate. This week, however, Emanuel failed to lock down 50 percent of the vote in the Chicago mayoral race — which means he's headed to a runoff.

How did Emanuel fall so far, so fast? In part because of education.

Since taking office, Emanuel fought a ballot initiative to make the school board elected (currently, they're appointed by the mayor), went to war with the teacher's unions, and closed 49 schools.

The school closures were widely unpopular when they were announced in 2013. And while Emanuel had his reasons — the district faced a budget shortfall and the schools targeted for closing had low test scores and were in areas where the number of school-aged children were dropping — the closings infuriated parents whose communities were losing their schools. Emanuel's chief opponent, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, emphasized these closures throughout his campaign.

It worked. Citywide, in a race with nearly record low turnout, Emanuel got a smaller percentage of the vote than in 2011. (In 2011, he ran against five opponents; this year, there were four.) And when you look at the 10 wards where his share of the vote dropped most precipitously, seven went through school closures.

The data there doesn't prove cause and effect. And it's complicated by the fact that ward boundaries were redrawn somewhat after Emanuel was elected in 2011. But it does suggest that support for Emanuel tended to fall in areas where schools closed.

Emanuel had other problems: like a weak economy and gun crime that fed into a larger narrative that Emanuel didn't care about poor and disadvantaged neighborhoods.

And citywide, the results indicate broad dissatisfaction with Emanuel's education policies specifically. Huge majorities in nearly every ward said they'd prefer an elected school board to the current board, which the mayor appoints.

How education matters in politics

On the national level, voters say they care about education, but it rarely is important enough to change how people vote. That could be because people view their local schools differently from schools in the US: in polls, voters generally say that education as a whole could be better, but they strongly approve of their neighborhood schools.

But when you can draw a direct line from elected officials' actions to something actually happening in the local school, voters suddenly care a lot. At the national level, this doesn't happen often, but it's how Common Core became an issue in the New York gubernatorial race. And it's why No Child Left Behind is singled out as a particularly reviled law. Among parents it's become synonymous with standardized testing.

If a candidates' education proposals seem abstract, they might not change many minds. But that doesn't mean voters don't really care about education. As Emanuel has learned, they definitely do.