Are Democrats Paying Attention to Trends in Illinois?

Laura Hollis

11/5/2012 11:15:00 AM - Laura Hollis
I had the opportunity to be in the western Cook County suburbs of Chicago late last week. I have never seen so many political signs in my life. Signs EVERYWHERE: homes, businesses, parking lots, churches, farms. That stunned me.

What stunned me more? I saw not one sign for Obama.

That originally inspired me to write a column positing the possibility of a Romney victory in Illinois, but given that virtually every poll shows President Obama carrying his home state of Illinois again this year by a wide margin, my sage and sensible editors recommended against it. So here are some related thoughts about what this year’s presidential election might presage in Illinois more generally.

Conventional wisdom considers Illinois to be reliably Democrat. Recent history is certainly on the side of that interpretation: Illinois’ electoral votes have gone to the Democrat presidential candidate every year since 1992. But Illinois’ electorate has switched back and forth, voting for Democrat candidates for presidents 22 times since 1828, and Republican candidates 24 times. And from 1860 to 1988, Illinois voted more reliably Republican for president than Democrat.

Thus, the pendulum can swing. And a review of the past five presidential elections – as well as activity within the state this year – reveal some very interesting trends that Illinois (and national) Democrats ignore at their peril.

In 1992, Illinois went BIG for Clinton. A county-by-county review shows the state overwhelmingly blue. Out of slightly more than 5M votes cast, Clinton won a plurality of 2.4M votes. (Ross Perot pulled votes away from incumbent Republican President George H. W. Bush.) Clinton won Cook County by 58.2%, and these 1.2M votes represented 50.9% of the total votes Clinton received in Illinois.

In 1996, Illinois was distinctly less blue. Running as an incumbent against the soporific Bob Dole, Clinton received 2.3M out of 4.3M votes. 1.1M of these came from Cook County, where he got 66% of the total vote. Cook County represented 49.2% of the total votes Clinton received in Illinois.

In 2000, Illinois was now definitely trending red, with only 23 “blue” counties of 102 total. Al Gore won Illinois with 2.5M of 4.7M votes cast. Gore took 68.6% of the votes in Cook County - slightly less than 1.3M – and these accounted for 49.4% of the all the votes Gore received in Illinois.

In 2004, Democrat John Kerry also won Illinois. But by 2004, Illinois looked like a very different state. Only 14 counties were any shade of blue. Of those, only 7 went for Kerry by a margin of greater than 2 – 3%. Kerry got only 54.8% of the total vote – about 2.9M – to George Bush’s 44.5% (2.3M). But Kerry received fully 70.2% of the votes from Cook County – 1.4M – higher than any Democrat in the past 20 years, other than Barack Obama. Cook County represented 49.7% of the total votes Kerry received in Illinois.

Obama won Illinois handily in 2008, receiving 61.8% of the vote. But only 48.4% of Obama’s votes came from Cook County. Though he won in fewer counties than Bill Clinton in 1992, and did not do particularly well downstate, Obama took all of northern Illinois, and most of western Illinois.

So, for tomorrow and thereafter, there are some discernible trends worth noting:

1. It’s clear that winning Cook County has historically been the key to winning Illinois. But as my foray into the western suburbs showed, Cook County is not monolithic. It has also seen a sharp decline in population over the past decade. Thus, Cook County’s percentage of the total votes cast in Illinois is also declining.

In 1992, Cook County represented 42.5% of the total votes cast in Illinois.

In 1996: 40%

In 2000: 39.3%

In 2004: 38.8%

In 2008, it ticked up slightly to 39.3%. But this does not negate the general trend, as Chicago is Obama’s adopted hometown, and he had staggering local (as well as national) popularity.

All signs point to a continuing decline in Cook County’s impact on Illinois electoral votes. When all the Illinois votes are tallied, expect Cook County’s percentage to slip lower again this year.

2. This means the impact of northern Illinois, western Illinois, and downstate Illinois votes in statewide and national elections is that much greater. Those regions have been trending red for two decades. By way of example, while many of these counties went for Obama in 2008, it is highly likely they will not this year. A number of downstate Illinois newspapers have endorsed Romney. Romney was much more popular in Illinois in 2008 than was John McCain, and his supporters are much more motivated to vote than they were in 2008. Even with Obama winning Illinois’ 20 electoral votes, it will be interesting to see how the county-by-county votes shake out, relative to 2008.

3. More important to Illinoisans’ than the presidential election (believe it or not) are the state’s fiscal woes, which are the worst in the nation. This cannot be laid at the feet of any president, to be sure. But Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Pat Quinn are both Democrats, and the legislature is controlled by Chicago, via long-time Speaker of the House Michael Madigan. Illinois has seen two consecutive governors convicted of and imprisoned for corruption: Democrat Rod Blagojevich and Republican (from Chicago – same thing) George Ryan, a collapsed state pension system, a credit downgrade, and a very public defeat of Mayor Emanuel by the teachers’ union. Going forward, it seems likely that the voting population of Illinois is going to be much more inclined to fault Democrat policies than Republican ones, with corresponding effects at the polls.

4. Just as “RINO” Republicans did until the Tea Party emerged, Democrat leadership tends to take the party loyalty of Democrat voters for granted. But increasingly (if the Democrat National Convention is any indication), the national leadership of the Democrat Party is leaving the traditional Democratic voters behind, and they see it. The AmVets guy who owned his own small business, and who has always voted D because his father and grandfather voted D is not happy about a party whose leadership sounds, frankly, anti-business, anti-America, and anti-American values. The most pressing issue facing the Democrat Party today is making Catholics pay for some woman’s birth control pills? It’s hard to square a party which once stood for patriotism, strong families, and a stalwart work ethic with the modern-day Democrat Party that seems to exist for the benefit of Sandra Fluke and the Vagina Monotones, Occupy-and-Defecate-Wherever, and Leaving Our People Behind in Benghazi.

Illinois Republicans, conservatives, independents, Libertarians, and moderate Democrats tend to conclude their votes don’t matter. But – as is being observed in other reliably “blue” states like Pennsylvania -- the electoral dynamics in Illinois are changing.

Obama will probably take Illinois’ electoral votes tomorrow, as all the pundits predict. But I think Romney is going to win the overall election, and by a significant margin. Either way, after the dust from presidential politics settles, Illinois Democrats may be assuring themselves that Obama’s pickup of Illinois’ electoral votes signals their ongoing dominance in Illinois politics.

I’m not so sure.