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ISU political scientist dismisses idea that primaries presage outcome of general elections

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks alongside supporters, campaign staff and family members during his primary night rally at the Sheraton on Jan. 23, 2024 in Nashua, New Hampshire. Trump was joined by Vivek Ramaswamy, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-SC, and Eric Trump.
Ryan Denham
An Illinois State University professor cautions against thinking results from Tuesday's primary are a harbinger of the outcome in November.

A lot of pundits are looking at primary election results and suggesting the data show President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have weaknesses in their core support that could haunt them in the fall.

But an Illinois State University political scientist cautions against thinking the numbers are a harbinger of the results in November.

In Chicago and suburban Cook County, nearly 100,000 voters who took Democratic ballots didn’t choose Biden. And in DuPage County, nearly 30% of Republican voters didn’t make a pick for president or chose someone not named Trump.

In the City of Bloomington, Trump garnered support from just 67% of GOP voters. That improved to 76% in the rest of the county. Biden received nearly 90% of Democratic ballot choices in the city, and 88% in the rest of McLean County.

There are similar under-votes for Trump and Biden in some swing states that will decide the electoral college contest and thus the presidency. Illinois is not a swing state and is projected to go for Biden with little drama.

ISU professor Lane Crothers dismissed the significance of such early reads of the data.

“The connections between primary turnout and general elections are fudgy,” he said.

Several things play into the lack of confidence in such results, including the potential for crossover votes in Illinois [and Ohio] where voters can choose the ballot of the party for which they wish to cast their votes.

“Given that central Illinois, in particular, rarely has meaningful Democratic primary elections, I wouldn't be at all surprised if there weren't a certain number of Democrats who voted in the Republican primary, not for any deep, profound strategic purpose, but because that's where, if there was any action, that's where it was,” said Crothers.

Other voters may not have picked Trump or Biden because the nominating contests already were over by Tuesday.

“I think the more interesting question and the bigger question that some of the polling data has suggested, is there seems to be, in a self-reported basis, a population of Republicans who won't vote for Trump again, about 15-ish %,” said Crothers.

That could be quite significant, though Crothers questioned whether they would live up to that commitment in November and whether critical numbers of that type of Republican live in those swing states.

“People are really good at rationalization, particularly in partisan contexts. At some point in time, you're like, ‘sure, I have all these issues with Trump, but I can't possibly let Biden win.’ And suddenly, people who swore up and down that they'd never vote for Donald Trump vote for him,” said Crothers.

A national trend of a shrinking number of truly uncommitted voters has existed for a couple of decades as politics have become more polarized. That suggests that most of those who did not vote their party for Biden or Trump in the primary will come back to the fold in the general contest.

Crothers acknowledged there are some things that are distinctive this year that could alter that pattern.

The last time a president ran for a second term, lost, and then ran again was in the 19th century. It was Grover Cleveland. Cleveland did win a 2nd term after the hiatus.

“And then we haven't really had a situation where we have a president of a major party, who has campaigned on quite so much of a personal grievance agenda," added Crothers, referring to Trump. "If you just listen to what he says, there's very little policy. It's mostly about 'what was done wrong to me,' and how we are going to get our vengeance against the people who have screwed us over.' That's completely unprecedented. Yeah, I think this year is quite distinctive.”

In 2020, Crothers noted, Trump received more votes than anyone in U.S. history — except for Joe Biden. That was after four years of his presidency. Crothers said the fall election is likely to be about turnout, not what happened in the primary.

“If you see the turnout that happened in 2016, [Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump], it's ‘gonna be a competitive, tight race. If you see turnout, that looks like 2020, it's a much harder race for Republicans to win, as a practical matter,” said Crothers.

And as a final observation about the relevance of primary votes — with a 17% turnout [in McLean County] to the main event in November — Crothers noted that as hard as it might be to believe for people who pay attention to politics, most people just aren’t.

“As a practical matter, large numbers of Americans still don't believe that Donald Trump and Joe Biden are going to be the nominees this year. They just have convinced themselves that they can't possibly be,” said Crothers.

He said that lack of attention won’t change until sometime after the conventions in the summer.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.