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Joe Biden Has Probably Got Illinois

In the last 12 Democratic primaries, our state has rocked the boat precisely once — for its own losing Senator.

Image: Emily Johnson

The Illinois primary isn’t for another nine months or so, but based on our state’s history in these sorts of elections, Joe Biden appears to have the edge.

Why? Because in presidential politics, Illinois is not a state that likes outsiders, dark horses, rebels, or radicals. Since primaries began to matter in choosing nominees, in 1972, we have almost always voted for the establishment candidate, or the eventual winner. As the one-time home of the nation’s most influential Democratic machine, we like regulars, not independents. Here’s a list of our choices.

1972: Edmund Muskie. The Maine senator and 1968 VP nominee was the choice of Chicago party bosses. Mayor Richard J. Daley invited Muskie to a meeting of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee, where he compared the candidate to John F. Kennedy. Muskie won Illinois, but lost the nomination to George McGovern.

1976: Jimmy Carter. By the time Illinois voted in March, Carter had driven most of the other serious contenders out of the race. He easily beat George Wallace, 48 percent to 27 percent.

1980: Jimmy Carter. Plenty of northeastern and western states supported Sen. Edward Kennedy’s challenge to Carter. Illinois stuck with the incumbent.

1984: Walter Mondale. Former vice president Mondale actually won fewer states than his younger, more charismatic opponent, Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, but he amassed more delegates. Illinois stuck with the bland but better known candidate.

1988: Paul Simon — the one time Illinois broke the mold. He was, after all, our senator. Illinois was the only state he won.

1992: Bill Clinton, who lost Iowa and New Hampshire, which are supposed to determine the eventual nominee, but won most of the other states.

1996: Clinton, who had no primary opposition.

2000: Al Gore, who won every primary.

2004: John Kerry, who won almost every primary.

2008: Barack Obama. He wasn’t the establishment candidate; that was Hillary Clinton. But he was our favorite son, and he’d won the Iowa caucuses. We didn’t choose him because he had charisma, we chose him because he was from Illinois, the same reason we chose Paul Simon, who had anti-charisma.

2012 Obama, who had no primary opposition.

2016: Hillary Clinton. Bernie Sanders carried our neighboring Upper Midwestern states, Wisconsin and Michigan, an indication of the disaffection with Clinton that would lead both to vote for Trump in November. Illinois went with Clinton 50.5% to 48.7%. She was the choice of the party regulars, and she was born and raised in Park Ridge, two factors Illinois appreciates.

Biden seems to fit the profile of an Illinois Democratic primary winner. He’s certainly part of the establishment, as a former vice president and a six-term senator from Delaware. He’s not from Illinois, but he served under an Illinoisan, Barack Obama, who remains beloved in his home state.

Another factor in Biden’s favor is his standing with black voters: 50 percent support him. The black community is well organized politically in Illinois, one of the few states in which black voter turnout (67%) equals that of the population as a whole.

A little more doubtful is whether Biden fits the profile of a Democratic presidential winner.

He’s a former vice president; so were Hubert Humphrey and Al Gore. He’s also a white Northern Democrat running a race in which the last six nominees who fit that description lost: Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Kerry, and Hillary Clinton. The party’s three winners during that period were Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both white Southerners, and Barack Obama, a black Northerner. They attracted supporters who didn’t typically vote Democratic, or who didn’t vote at all. Biden, on the other hand, would be unlikely to reach beyond the party’s typical constituency.

Biden leads Donald Trump 49% to 39% in early polls, a wider margin than any other Democrat. Still, his victory over Trump shouldn’t be considered a foregone conclusion. Hillary Clinton led Trump in every 2016 poll, and the president has a fanatical following that regards him as the savior of the American way of life. The Democrats may want to nominate someone more exciting than old Uncle Joe, someone who can make their cause feel like as much of a crusade as Trump’s.

Whoever that is, they will probably not win Illinois. We don’t go in for exciting candidates, unless they happen to be from here.

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