Political strategist and pollster ”Mike” McKeon saw things coming from a mile away.
Even if everyone else didn’t.
From Donald Trump’s presidential primary victory in March, to the prediction that Mayor Rahm Emanuel might not sail smoothly to re-election, Mr. McKeon had a unique way of looking at elections.
“He was brilliant. He was a statistical genius, and he just listened,” said one of his two daughters, Meghan Moreno. “Most of all he was a wonderful father and a wonderful grandfather, loyal to a fault.”
The political strategist, pollster and analyst died Thursday at age 73 after a “brave long battle” with vasculitis, his family said.
His decades of work at McKeon & Associates, the opinion research and marketing firm he created in 1973, garnered him decades of memories, and an eccentric cast of friends and colleagues, many of whom described him with the same word: “loyal.”
“Mike had the craziest collection of friends: politicians, gangsters, con-men and cops, writers, reporters, billionaires and beggars. He loved them. They loved him back,” longtime friend and Chicago journalist Carol Marin said.
Mr. McKeon was constantly enmeshed in politics, even as his health failed. He had a knack for both predicting election races and trends. He wrote a Washington Post column in 1994 in which he outlined the evolving media landscape and the way digital technology was changing the way the world communicates.
Back in 1982, when every published poll in the state showed that Gov. James Thompson was headed for a landslide victory over Adlai Stevenson, Mr. McKeon’s tracking showed a dead heat. It became one of the closest gubernatorial elections in the state.
“It was Mike who spotted the LaRouchies before Adlai Stevenson and the Democrats did in 1986. It was Mike who predicted David Duke was rising in voter approval in a run for Congress years ago. And it was Mike who saw the tribal power of social media a long time before the rest of the so-called political geniuses figured it out,” Marin said.
His knack for polls and political expertise even got his foot a bit into the entertainment world via another Joliet native, longtime “Saturday Night Live” writer Jim Downey, known for his memorable political satire during elections.
The two collaborated on political skits — Mr. McKeon providing analysis and expertise that Downey in turn used in his writing.
“I loved talking politics with him, and I would send him drafts of my sketches for the show to get his response,” Downey said. “Having his approval was always a nice thing.”
Downey said he sent him “pretty much everything” he wrote to get his reaction and to make sure the political skits were not just funny, but also accurate.
Downey recalled Mr. McKeon’s help on a series of pieces he wrote during the 2008 election about the rivalry between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and what Downey called the “obvious preference” by the media for Obama: “He gave me an opportunity to hear through back channels the campaigns’ reactions,” Downey said, adding Mr. McKeon was friendly with both the Obama and Clinton campaigns at the time.
Mr. McKeon, or “Beaver” as many of his friends called him, was known as an everyman, someone who can relate to all walks of life. That’s something that helped his line of political thinking, Downey said.
“He was like a street guy and the problem is, people who write about politics for the most part only talk to each other. And it’s usually people exactly like them and almost the same background, the same outlook, and they miss huge areas of life,” Downey said. “And Beaver just could move in all kinds of worlds. He just had a really good sense of what the people who only think about politics occasionally when it comes to vote, what they think about things.”
Political pollster and commentator Pat Caddell said Mr. McKeon’s great grasp of history led to his very accurate insights.
“He had a better understanding in his little finger about politics in Illinois than most politicians and so called experts about Illinois politics have in their whole bodies,” Caddell said.
“He was the first person to tell me — and he was right — about how much trouble Rahm Emanuel was in before his re-election,” Caddell said, also crediting Mr. McKeon for predicting that Bruce Rauner had a real chance to win as a Republican governor.
Thom Serafin, a longtime friend and CEO of communications firm Serafin & Associates, said Mr. McKeon “had a way of reading the tea leaves.”
Serafin said Mr. McKeon met frequently with a group of longtime political insiders, including reporters, politicians and consultants.
“We all stayed in touch and Mike was part of that crew. … Mike was the guy who made all of us think. Every time we thought we had figured out, he’d say, ‘There’s another bend in the road here that you hadn’t planned on.’ And invariably if you didn’t take him seriously you end up running off the road,” Serafin said.
Mr. McKeon worked for several political campaigns on both sides of the aisle, including Democrat Paul Vallas and Republican Bill Brady’s campaigns for governor, as well as Democrat Gery Chico’s campaign for mayor.
Besides his political expertise, Mr. McKeon was a proud veteran of the U.S. Navy, where he served as an intelligence officer aboard the U.S.S Wasp during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“He took most pride in serving his country and being in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” his daughter Meghan Moreno said. “He loved telling people ‘I was right there during it all,’” she recalled.
A descendant of Irish immigrants, Joseph Michael “Mike” McKeon was born and raised in Joliet alongside four siblings. It’s a town he’d call home his entire life.
Mr. McKeon is survived by daughters Moreno and Zora Baron; four grandchildren, his brothers and sisters Linda Joslin, Lynn Masters, Robert Conrad and Cary. J. Conrad, and numerous nieces and nephews.
Visitation will be held on Sept. 23 from 2 to 7 p.m. at Fred C. Dames Funeral Home, 3200 Black Road in Joliet, with a memorial prayer service to follow at 7:30 p.m.