By Jamey Dunn
While the presidential election has captured the nation’s attention, Illinois political scientists say that the shifting regional demographics and the state’s new electoral maps will have a much larger impact on down-ticket legislative races in Illinois than the candidates at the top of the ballot.
“[President Barack] Obama will carry Illinois comfortably,” said John Jackson, a visiting professor with the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at the Southern Illinois University. The president won the state with about 62 percent of the vote in 2008. Recent polling suggests that his popularity in Illinois has slipped since but still shows him leading Republican challenger Mitt Romney by a strong margin.
Even many Illinois Republicans admit that it is likely Obama will win his home state in the upcoming general election. "Let's face it: If Mitt Romney would win Illinois, he'd win by a biblical landslide nationwide. But I think Mitt Romney is going to run much better in Illinois than John McCain ran because I don't think Barack Obama is going to do that well in Illinois," former Gov. Jim Edgar told reporters at the Republican National Convention.
Edgar said unpopular Democratic leaders such as Obama and Gov. Pat Quinn do not seem to be assets for Illinois Democrats running for state legislative seats.
“Where Obama’s numbers are not good downstate, and where Quinn’s numbers are not good, the Democrats are going to try to make the elections as local as possible,” said Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield. “You’re going to see Democrats downstate running away from the national ticket, away from Gov. Quinn.”
In 2008, Obama carried 30 counties that previous Democratic presidential candidates John Kerry and Al Gore lost. Jackson — who looked at the 2008 results in his 2009 paper entitled, "The Anatomy of President Barack Obama’s General Election Victory in Illinois" — said it is likely that Obama will lose some of that ground this time around. He said an Obama win would likely look more like Quinn’s 2010 gubernatorial victory, with the president taking Democratic strongholds, such as Cook County and other northern counties. Jackson said Obama would also likely pick up a few downstate Democratic-leaning counties, such St. Clair County in the Metro East area near St. Louis.
Republicans predict a similar outcome. “I think you’re going to see a different election in Illinois, and I think you’re going to see a pretty good showing by Romney. Look, [Obama] is going to do very well in the city. We know that. But I don’t think you’re going to see the type of results in the collar counties and downstate that you saw the last time,” Illinois House Minority Leader Tom Cross said earlier this summer.
However, Jackson said that Romney is unlikely to give other Republican candidates much of a boost, either. “I think symbolically, the Republicans will run with Romney. I am not sure he will make that much difference.”
Jackson said Illinois Democrats are in danger of their base not feeling pressured to get to the polls because they feel that Obama will have no trouble winning the state. “The Democrats need to guard against that. The need to work pretty hard, not because of Obama but because of the other races [on the ticket].”
Jackson said that the so-called coattail effect of a presidential race is often overestimated in the lead up to the election. “The president rarely has much by way of coattails. I don’t expect strong coattails except on the issue of get-out-the vote drives.”
In his 2009 paper, Jackson wrote that Republican might have overestimated the power of Obama’s coattails in 2008. “The Republicans especially fretted publicly over a potential ‘coattail’ effect from the Obama campaign harming the down-ballot Republican candidates’ races. There were predictions of further Republican losses in the Illinois congressional delegation and in the Illinois House and Senate because of the feared Obama electoral tide. Most of that fear proved to be unfounded or at least exaggerated in the end.”
Redfield said that the new legislative districts, which were drawn by Democrats, and changes in demographics will play a much larger role in state legislative races.
However, he pointed out that the general election is still a ways off, and the presidential race could end up being more of a factor than expected. “Clearly, we don’t know what things are going to look like two months from now,” he said. “If it’s highly competitive, or even if Romney is pulling ahead [nationally], that’s going to generate enthusiasm.”
Redfield said Democrats drew districts with an eye toward protecting the downstate incumbents while carving out new districts in the suburbs. “I think the map is defensive downstate and aggressive in the suburbs.”
He added: “You could end up with a Democratic majority in the House and the Senate with a smaller percentage of downstate members in the caucus. In fact, I think that’s likely that there will be fewer downstate Democrats after this race.”
Redfield said downstate Democrats face tough races, and when they do leave their seats, be it through losses at the polls or retirement, voters would likely replace some of them with Republicans. “Downstate is a problem for Democrats. I mean, there’s absolutely no questions about that.”
He said the potential for fewer downstate Democrats and fewer suburban Republicans could lead to more regional conflicts in the future. “Any time Chicago and the suburbs agree on an issue, downstate [would be] in trouble.”
Jackson said his biggest concern about the results of the presidential election is whether the winner can be effective. If Obama wins, he faces the possibility of pitching his policy ideas to a Republican majority in the U.S. House and maybe a Republican-controlled Senate. Jackson predicts that the national struggle for control of the U.S. Senate will be a nail biter. “I think that is the question. I think it’s so close in so many of the races it kind of depends on who’s got the best ground game.” If Romney wins, he could face a Democrat-controlled Senate. Or if Republicans gain a slim majority in the Senate, they may get a taste of their own medicine if Democrats use the same procedural moves that Republicans have during Obama’s first term to freeze big votes in the chamber.
Jackson says he is “cautiously pessimistic” about the potential for either candidate to achieve much in the way of policy changes after he is sworn in. “I’m looking for gridlock being the most likely outcome again.”