Those who expected a blue wave in Tuesday's election had a grave disappointment. Those who hoped for a ratification of the Trump presidency and for Republican gains likewise ended up unsatisfied.
Illinois State University political scientist Lane Crothers said Wednesday the only clear signal is there is no clear signal from any level of society.
Crothers also cautioned against leaping to lessons when this election is not yet over. He said the circumstances of this election are so odd with a pandemic and a celebrity president that they are not likely to recur.
“This election feels so bound up in passion that it’s hard to generalize about other elections. Now, if it sustains itself over time, we’re having a different conversation,” said Crothers.
He said that passion for President Trump may help explain why Republicans picked up several Statehouse seats in Illinois. He said Trump supporters may have been less vocal before the election, but came out during it.
“Whether it is a negative reaction to what they perceive as unfair Democratic criticisms, it is certainly the case that once you are a Republican in a district you might not have participated in and came out in this particular election, you are going to vote for a Republican for the other seats as well,” said Crothers. “So, I really do think this is a remarkably high turnout election and where lots of Democrats assumed it was only Democrats who were going to turn out in high numbers. That turned out to be false.”
He said GOP engagement probably added to the larger margin of victory that U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis racked up over challenger Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, compared to two years ago.
Turnout in Republican areas of McLean County was marginally higher than in Democratic strongholds. Turnout at precincts associated with Illinois State University also was lower than it was two years ago, and lower than the average, though not dramatically so. Crothers said that does not show Democrats failed to get out the vote. He said turnout was high in both blue and red areas even compared to other presidential years.
Conventional wisdom in politics is that it is a game of addition. President Trump cut against that (in) the closing weeks of the campaign. He spoke only to his base yet remained quite competitive. Crothers said he is not sure that should be a lesson for Illinois Republicans.
“I don’t know that there are enough mobilizable Republicans to make that strategy effective in Illinois,” said Crothers.
If Trump, with all the unusual pandemic and economic factors, did as well as he did in Illinois does it portend trouble for Democrats if a more conventional Republican runs statewide and have more appeal in the Chicago suburbs?
“There’s no inherent reason that any particular ideological organization or distribution has to sustain itself. It does not follow that just because Illinois has been Democratic that it will continue being Democratic,” said Crothers.
For instance, he said context of the rise of former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner had as much to do with the failures of the Democratic party as it had to do with the competitiveness of the Republicans.
Many attack ads tried to link Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan to candidates such as State Supreme Court Justice Tom Kilbride and issues like the graduated tax proposal. Crothers said he’s not sure that mattered so much in Illinois results.
“The particular concerns about Mike Madigan of course have been a central issue in many campaigns. For Republicans, they were a central campaign issue in the last gubernatorial race and they didn’t seem to have a determinative effect there,” said Crothers.
He said the Madigan and Commonwealth Edison scandal issue will motivate some voters. He also noted the Fair Tax campaign issue motivated many GOP interests and on balance probably helped Republican turnout more than it did Democratic votes.
The main takeaway from Tuesday, Crothers said, is that people are clearly motivated to vote by more than just economic interests.
“There’s a sense of identity, a sense of connection, a sense of moral passion behind their votes and I think that came through,” said Crothers.
He said the willingness of people to declare their identities suggests an "intensity of politics that will not go away any time soon."
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