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Illinois Is Really Good at Picking Presidents

In 50 elections since becoming a state, we’ve voted for the winning candidate 41 times.

Biden speaks at a campaign event leading up to the Iowa caucus.   John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune

As goes Illinois, so goes the nation.

Illinois is not on this year’s list of battleground states. According to the bettors over at PredictIt, Joe Biden has a 94 percent chance of winning here on Tuesday. Presidential candidates haven’t contested Illinois since 2000, when Al Gore and George W. Bush both held rallies in the Chicago area the week before the election.

We’re not considered a bellwether, like Ohio, which has voted for the winner in every election since 1964. And yet, only two states — New Mexico and Ohio — have a better record of picking presidential winners than Illinois.

In 50 presidential elections since becoming a state, Illinois has voted for the winning candidate 41 times, an 82 percent success rate. Illinois does even better at predicting the popular vote winner. In the last century, we’ve only been wrong there twice: in 1976, when we voted for Gerald Ford, and in 2004, when we voted for John Kerry. Both of those candidates lost the popular vote by around 2 percent, so we were close.

Here’s a chart showing the five states with the best and worst records of choosing presidential winners.

Number Best W L Pct.
1 New Mexico 24 3 88.9
2 Ohio 45 9 83.3
3 Illinois 41 9 82
4 New York 46 11 80.7
5 Pennsylvania 46 11 80.7

And the worst:

Number Worst W L Pct.
1 Alabama 26 23 53.1
2 South Dakota 18 14 56.2
3 South Carolina 33 24 57.9
4 Mississippi 28 20 58.3
5 Alaska (tie) 9 6 60
5 Hawaii (tie) 9 6 60

Why is Illinois so successful at predicting how the nation will vote? Because, as this magazine has argued before, Illinois is America’s most average state. On every factor that influences voting patterns — race, education, income — Illinois’s demographics are mostly in line with to the nation’s, as this chart demonstrates.

Demographics Illinois U.S.
White 76.8 76.3
Black 14.6 13.4
Latino 17.5 18.5
Bachelor’s degree 34.1 31.5
Median household income $63,575 $60,293

To once again quote Brookings Institution demographer William Frey, who spoke to NPR for a piece entitled “The Perfect State Index,” Illinois “may not be a swing state, but in terms of its demographics, I think people would do well to look at how the voting goes there to get a better understanding of what’s going on in the country as a whole.”

The odds are that Illinois will be correct, as usual, this Tuesday. According to the political forecasting website FiveThirtyEight, Biden has an 89 percent chance of winning the election. If we’re right and Ohio’s wrong — which is very possible, since Ohio voted for Donald Trump in 2016 — we’ll move up to second place on the list, at 82.4 percent correct, compared to Ohio’s 81.8. Take that, bellwether state.


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