Back in April Laura Washington wrote a column titled Message to Dems in governor's race: Listen to black community with the following premise:
The lineup for Illinois' 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary is firming up fast. So far, the six-candidate field is mostly white, and all male.
To win, one of them must energize and capture the party's crucial base. African-American voters should be asking: What have you done for me? What will you do for me?
Since then the Democratic primary candidates haven't really taken her advice but we're starting to see some movement. Over the weekend Chris Kennedy, son of Robert Kennedy, gave a lengthy speech at a south side church on the devastating impact of gun violence relating how it affected his childhood. Today Ameya Pawar is scheduled to give a speech in Bronzeville outlining his plan for criminal justice reform. To kick off his campaign Prizker announced his candidacy at a south side park district field house and featured a number of prominent community supporters. Prizker also made a $1 million deposit into Illinois Service Federal Savings, Chicago's last black-owned bank, which drew comparisons to Bruce Rauner who did something similar in 2014.
Kennedy has had the early support of black voters according to what little polling data has been publicly available. In a midterm primary, which typically skews towards older voters, the Kennedy name and family history will likely be an asset, as well as key endorsers like Rep. Bobby Rush.
In a field with so many candidates and a significant number in the top tier, any of whom are capable of making a strong showing, a relatively modest plurality may be enough to win the nomination. In the 2010 primary for US Senate Alexi Giannoulias won a three-way statewdie race with just 39% of the vote, in the 1998 gubernatorial primary Glenn Poshard won a six-way race with just 38% of the vote, in the 2002 gubernatorial primary Rod Blagojevich won a three-way race with 37% of the vote. Heck, in the 2008 Democratic primary for Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez won a six-way race with just 27% of the vote. In a primary with a large and well contested field it often doesn't require a majority or even a large plurality to win the nomination so winning over any sizable bloc of voters can be enough to secure the nomination.
Which brings me to Roland Burris. In 1990 Burris was elected Attorney General and in 1994 he ran for Governor, the first of three unsuccessful attempts. In the 1994 Democratic gubernatorial primary Burris got 36.5% of the statewide vote but came in 2nd to Dawn Clark Netsch's 44.4%. He tried again in 1998 earning 30.5% of the statewide vote but again finishing 2nd to Glenn Poshard who won with 37.6%. In 2002 he tried one last time earning 29.0% of the statewide vote but finishing 3rd behind Blagojevich's 36.5%. In each race his support fell a little bit from the previous cycle but even after his 3rd attempt he held together a statewide coalition of supporters that was still good enough for 29% of the statewide vote. The candidate field for the upcoming Democratic primary has a number of strong attributes but none began the race with a base as big as the former Burris coalition. Burris was an accomplished statewide elected official, he certainly assembled a coalition that included more than just black votes, but the black vote was a key component of that coalition and with the black vote uncertain in this upcoming Democratic primary a potentially very large voting bloc is up for grabs.
Can any one candidate win a majority of the black vote? That is difficult to say for sure but some recent voting trends suggest that it is certainly possible. It's impossible to isolate and calculate just the black vote for historical statewide races but we can look at a subset of the data and use it as a proxy. Below is a chart of the vote in Chicago's majority black wards, it does not include voters in the suburbs or downstate so it is an imperfect proxy but revealing nonetheless.
|Race||AA Leader||AA Ward %||Statewide Total||Finish|
|2004 US Sen||Obama||88.69%||52.77%||1st|
|2010 US Sen||Jackson||55.44%||19.86%||3rd|
The leading candidate of voters in these black majority wards has had a mixed success rate, some of them won the primary while others didn't, still in each of them the preferred candidate not only won these wards but won them with a majority and not just a plurality which suggests that the candidate that is best able to appeal to this bloc of voters could potentially unite them in that support. In the case of the 2006, 2010 and 2014 gubernatorial primaries there were only two Democratic candidates so the leading candidate was guaranteed a majority, nonetheless the observation still holds.
Can any candidate in this field reassemble and build on the Burris coalition? Maybe, maybe not. Barack Obama was able to in 2004 when he won the US Senate primary with 53% of the statewide vote against a strong field, however Cheryle Jackson was unable to find the same success in the 2010 US Senate primary finishing 3rd with just 20% of the statewide vote.
There isn't a guaranteed path to the Democratic nomination through the black vote in Illinois, other paths have proven just as successful in recent statewide primaries, but there is an awful lot of votes here and it's not yet clear which of the 2018 candidates is going to win their support. It's only a matter of time before the campaigns recognize the math and start to vigorously compete for these votes. This part of the campaign has been surprisingly quiet so far, it won't stay that way.