Next week, we’re going to get the Illinois primary we always expected: a showdown between an establishment moderate and an insurgent progressive. And it may decide which of those candidates gives the acceptance speech in Milwaukee. Super Tuesday didn’t settle anything. Biden won the most states, but Sanders won the biggest state, California. The delegate count is 670 for Biden, and 574 for Sanders. 

As a microcosm of the nation — America in miniature — Illinois is the ideal battleground for this fight. We’re all the Super Tuesday states rolled into one. Like Alabama, we have a significant black population. Like Texas, a Latino population. We have a big, global city, like those in California, and we have the rural Midwest, like Minnesota. If you can win Illinois, you can win anywhere.

Here’s how we think they stack up.

Joe Biden


Faced with a choice between an establishment candidate and a left-wing challenger, Illinois almost always chooses the former. Edmund Muskie over George McGovern in 1972. Jimmy Carter over Edward Kennedy in 1980. Walter Mondale over Gary Hart in 1984. And most recently, Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in 2016. (We did make exceptions for favorite-son senators Paul Simon and Barack Obama.) In this state that perfected the Democratic Machine, politics is a practical pursuit, not an expression of idealism.

That favors Biden. He is not exciting. He’s the FM lite rock station that everyone at work agrees on, but nobody really likes. He’s the minivan you buy because it’s a safe ride for your kids. Like the state of Illinois, he's never gotten anyone’s blood rushing.

This isn’t California or Hawaii. After Biden won South Carolina, many of the state’s top elected officials jumped on the Biden bandwagon, including Sen. Dick Durbin, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Rep. Robin Kelly, and Rep. Mike Quigley. (Gov. J.B. Pritzker is not making an endorsement.)

As Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden is very popular with black voters, winning more than 60 percent of their votes in many Super Tuesday states. Two of Illinois's majority-black congressional districts send eight delegates to the convention, while another will send seven. Biden will get most of them.

Bernie Sanders


Earlier this month, when Sanders’s Chicago headquarters opened at 606 West Roosevelt, he was still the favorite to win the nomination. The rented storefront was packed, but the composition of the crowd when I visited represented the campaign’s weaknesses: Most were young, and very few were African-American.

No candidate can match the intensity of Sanders’s support. One wall was covered in Bernie fan art: Bernie hugging a baby, Bernie dunking a basketball, a green demon in a studded bra, pointing to a Bernie tattoo on her chest. One supporter wore a sweatshirt depicting Bernie as Obi-wan Kenobi, with the legend, “Help Us Bernie Sanders, You’re Our Only Hope.” It was reminiscent of Barack Obama’s “Hope” posters.

Sanders has the support of Rep. Chuy Garcia, who he endorsed in 2015 for mayor against Rahm Emanuel. But in Illinois, the Latino vote won’t be as valuable as the black vote, since most Latino voters live in a single congressional district.

Sanders is also supported by a host of progressive alderman, including the 10th Ward’s Susan Sadlowski-Garza, who led the room in his campaign’s chant of “Not Me, Us!” The keynote speaker was Rep. Pramiya Jayapal of Washington, who compared Sanders’s grassroots movement to the organizing campaigns of Chicago’s own Saul Alinsky. Campaign staffers signed up volunteers to hand out flyers at literature drops set up to reach every Chicago area congressional district.

Sanders has transcended politics to become a cultural figure, leading a crusade. But ballots don’t register passion. If he wants a shot at Illinois, Sanders has to expand his appeal beyond the third of the electorate that would swim naked across Lake Michigan to get him into the White House. This time around, he may find out that his 2016 popularity was as much about Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity as his own message.


Gabbard finally won a couple delegates on Super Tuesday, in American Samoa. She won’t win another one in Illinois.



Ranking and anlysis as of February 21:

Michael Bloomberg


Bloomberg, who is worth $61 billion, once said he wants to bounce the check to the undertaker. That means he’s willing to spend all his money on a presidential campaign.

Bloomberg has a fraught history with black voters. As mayor of New York, he supported stop-and-frisk policing, which was brought to Chicago by Rahm Emanuel’s police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, formerly a high-ranking officer in Bloomberg’s NYPD.

Nonetheless, Bloomberg is campaigning hard for Chicago's black vote. He opened offices on the South and West sides, where he’s paying staffers $6,000 a month. He’s been endorsed by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush. Former Obama supporters John Rogers and Mellody Hobson held a “briefing” for Bloomberg. (Bloomberg doesn’t hold fundraisers; he funds himself.) He's buying up ads on black radio stations. He’s also texting voters and inserting his ads into Facebook feeds. On the plus side for Bloomberg, he’s a strong proponent of (and donor to) gun control, a popular stance in the black community.

The hard sell could work if black voters believe Bloomberg has the best chance to beat Trump. According to fivethirtyeight, black voters are historically more pragmatic, and less attracted to ideological candidates, than white voters: “In interviews, black voters often suggest they have a lot to lose if a Republican takes office. They don’t necessarily say this explicitly, but the implication is that they have more to lose than white voters, making them more risk-averse.” 

In the 2018 Democratic primary for governor, billionaire J.B. Pritzker won Cook County over North Shore liberal Daniel Biss (who is now, on brand, campaigning for Elizabeth Warren).

Pete Buttigieg


Of all the candidates in this field, Mayor Pete has the strongest connections to Chicago. Sanders and Amy Klobuchar went to the University of Chicago, but Buttigieg grew up 90 miles away, in South Bend, Ind., at the other end of the South Shore Line. He was a summer intern for NBC5, living with reporter Renee Ferguson. As a consultant, he worked out of McKinsey’s Chicago office in the Chase Tower. He attended a church in Logan Square to learn Norwegian. And he met his husband Chasten here. When Buttigieg started looking for love, he wrote in his book Shortest Way Home, he didn’t want his dates to know he was a politician, so “I looked mostly for people in Chicago, near enough to drive but far enough outside the viewing area of our TV stations, where most people had never heard of me.”

Buttigieg did very well among white moderate voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, and he’ll probably do very well among white moderate voters in Illinois. According to a New York Times map of campaign donations, Buttigieg was the number one choice of donors on the Chicago lakefront and the North Shore, where “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” is the political profile. (Unlike Warren and Sanders, Buttigieg opposes Medicare for All.) That’s not as large a constituency here as it was in those early primary states, though.

Amy Klobuchar


Another Midwestern candidate with moderate appeal. Playing on her regional roots, Klobuchar opened a “Midwesterners for Klobuchar” office in Lake View this week.

Indeed, Klobuchar is the most Midwestern candidate in this race. Her campaign sells tea towels with her hot dish recipe. Her grandfather was an iron ore miner. Her campaign’s blue and green colors match the label on a bottle of Hidden Valley Ranch. Her middle-of-the-road health care plan calls for adding a public option to Medicare and Medicaid. 

But in which congressional district can Klobuchar win 15 percent of the vote? Maybe in Rock Island or Peoria.

Elizabeth Warren


Of late, Warren’s campaign has been one of the bigger duds of this race. Sanders, her fellow New England utopian, with whom she shares a platform of Medicare for All, has surged among progressive voters. Klobuchar, her fellow attorney, was more appealing to college-educated women in New Hampshire. Given that she’s polling at around 10 percent nationally (and, with some caveats, six percent in Illinois) it’s hard to see where she gets a delegate in this state. Maybe in the 9th or 10th districts, which cover the North Shore.

Tom Steyer


Will Tom Steyer still be in the race on March 17? Probably. He’s a billionaire. He can afford to keep running his vanity campaign as long as he wants. A candidate who campaigns on a $22-an-hour minimum wage is a candidate who could care less about winning.