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The Last Time Illinois Was a Battleground State

You didn’t see Hillary Clinton in Daley Plaze ahead of Election Day 2016, and you won’t see next year’s nominee there either. But that wasn’t always the case.

Al Gore and Richard M. Daley in Chicago the week of Election Day 2000.   Photo: Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune

It was an event that would never happen in a modern presidential race: On the Thursday before Election Day 2000, Al Gore, a Democrat, held a rally in Daley Plaza for 50,000 followers. Stevie Wonder was the musical entertainment, singing a jingle he’d written for the campaign. Gore delivered a fire-breathing speech, telling the crowd that “prosperity itself is on the ballot” and “you don’t want to see the Chicago skyline look like Houston’s skyline.” Every few sentences, he bellowed “I will fight for you” into his microphone.

You didn’t see Hillary Clinton in Daley Plaza before Election Day 2016, and you won’t see next year’s Democratic nominee there either. Illinois is now a Blue State, a free spot on the electoral bingo card for the Democrats.

But during the 2000 campaign, there were no Blue States or Red States; those partisan and geographic divisions didn’t become evident until Election Night. Sure, Illinois had voted twice for Bill Clinton, but before Clinton, we’d gone Republican for president six times in a row. Plus, there was a third-party candidate in the race, Ralph Nader, who threatened to siphon just enough liberal votes to deliver Illinois — and the presidency — to George W. Bush.

2000 was the only year I ever got involved in a presidential election. Having graduated from college during the first Bush presidency, I was afraid his son would also get us into a war and crash the economy. So that fall, I signed on as a 49th Ward precinct captain, working a few blocks around Pottawattomie Park.

Gore wasn’t a hard sell in Rogers Park, but it wasn’t my job to sell the candidate. My job was to find Democrats and encourage them to vote, even if that meant driving them to the polls. Some people I called two or three times to remind them of their polling places.

“If someone tells you they’re voting for Bush or Nader, don’t argue with them,” my committeeman, the late David Fagus, told us. “Oh, and don’t bother registering Loyola students. They vote Republican, or they vote goofy.”

That’s still the best political advice I’ve ever heard. Politics is not about persuasion, but about motivating like-minded people. The Tribune, which endorsed Bush, ran a story saying there was so little enthusiasm for Gore in Chicago that committeemen were having to “whip” their precinct captains to work for him. But a few days before the election, the paper published the results of its student mock election: Gore 51 percent, Bush 49 percent. If the children of Tribune readers were going for Gore, maybe he was about to win this state.

On Election Day, the precinct I worked at delivered 326 votes for Gore, compared to 29 for Bush and 10 for Nader. But what about the rest of the country? At my polling place, we listened to the election results on the radio while the judges broke down the booths. I cheered when Gore took Illinois 55 to 43; I cheered even more loudly when they announced he’d won Florida.

By the time I got to Gore’s headquarters on Broadway, for a victory party, Florida was colored gray again. Later, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, I was in the Red Line Tap on Glenwood when NBC declared George W. Bush the 43rd President of the United States. I stormed out, tearing down a Nader flier on my way.

Most Americans had an easier time accepting the results than a precinct captain who’d seen his hard work go for naught because of a poorly designed ballot in Palm Beach County. At the time, the stakes didn’t seem so high. As the millenium began, the nation was more prosperous than at any time since the 1960s. The biggest point of contention between Gore and Bush was whether to place Social Security funds in a “lockbox,” to use Gore’s phrase, or allow people to invest their retirement benefits, as Bush wanted to do. The Naderites called the candidates “Gush and Bore” — indistinguishable representatives of a corporate duopoly.

But oh how different the last two decades might’ve been had Florida gone the other way. Every four years, presidential candidates tell us this is the most important election of our lifetime. Having lived through 13 of them, I firmly believe 2000 was the most important of mine. Had Gore won, he might’ve made slowing down global warming the central mission of his administration. CNN wouldn’t have held a “Climate Change Town Hall” last week because there would no longer be a serious debate about the importance of the issue. Instead, we’ve lost 20 years on climate change — 20 years of increasingly severe hurricanes, floods, polar vortices, and droughts. Of course, the Iraq War would never have happened, and a president more focused on domestic concerns might have at least softened the financial crisis and Great Recession.

The 2000 election was also the beginning of the Red vs. Blue era, during which Americans have divided themselves into irreconcilable political camps. Today, Americans are far more likely to object to their children marrying someone of a different political party than of a different race. 

The 2000 election was more a symptom of that trend than a cause. The parties have become ideologically consistent, with all the conservatives joining the Republicans and all the liberals joining the Democrats. Americans have migrated to communities which match their partisan leanings, getting their news from partisan cable channels and political blogs. In the 21st Century, we are increasingly associating with (and listening to) people whose political views match our own. It’s another indication that November 7, 2000, when those divisions appeared on the map in primary colors, was a watershed day for modern America.

Illinois fell on the Blue side in that dichotomy, having voted Democratic in seven consecutive elections. Next year, we’ll make it eight, given that 59 percent of Illinois voters disapprove of Trump. Urbanized and highly educated, Illinois fits the profile of a Blue state perfectly. (In the last presidential election, the 15 states with the highest percentage of college graduates voted for Clinton, while the 15 states with the lowest rate voted for Trump. Illinois is 13th. We’re also the fifth most urbanized state, with 88.5 percent of our population living in urban areas.)

For now, then, the most we can do is hope for another election in which Illinois matters — not just because the candidates will finally visit here again, but because it will mean our nation is no longer so divided that most states have made up their minds before the campaign even begins.

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