Illinois is a big state covering all or part of ten media markets but in a Democratic primary anywhere from 70% - 80% of the vote is in the Chicago media market making it the main focus of most statewide Democratic primary campaigns. However as we discussed yesterday a small plurality may be enough to win the Democratic nomination for Governor in 2018 and roughly about a quarter of the vote in the Democratic primary will come from the other nine media markets which means you can't overlook the downstate vote.

In some past competitive statewide primaries we've had a downstate candidate who was able to rally and consolidate that vote. For example take a look at Glenn Poshard's vote map in the 1998 Democratic primary for Governor, prior to running for Governor he was a congressman in a district that ran roughly from Decatur to the Kentucky border and you can see on the map how he had almost monolithic support in his old district, ran strong in western Illinois and did around 50% in most of the counties in northwestern Illinois, the downstate vote belonged to him.

But in this cycle's primary the only downstate candidate is Bob Daiber, the Madison County regional superintendent of schools, and that vote is potentially up for grabs so let's look at some other similar races. Typically in competitive Democratic primaries the candidate with the financial advantage is the one that does best downstate. In the 2002 Democratic primary for Governor Rod Blagojevich was the first candidate on TV, had enough money to run ads statewide and he built up an early lead and held on to that lead after his opponents got on the air, he won 57% of the vote in the 90 counties outside the Chicago media market. In the 2010 Democratic primary for US Senate Alexi Giannoulias was the first candidate on TV, had enough money to run ads statewide and he built up an early lead and held on to that lead after his opponents got on the air, he won 44% of the vote in the 90 counties outside the Chicago media market.

Which brings us to 2004. The 2004 Democratic primary for US Senate was made famous because it launched the federal electoral career of Barack Obama, he won the nomination comfortably with 53% of the vote and his next closest competitor was Comptroller Dan Hynes at 24%. The end of the primary may have been anti-climactic but the race was fascinating and had some interesting features that may be relevant to the upcoming Democratic primary for Governor.

Blair Hull entered the race promising to spend up to $40 million, he actually wound up spending $29 million on the losing effort and he finished with 11% of the vote. Late in the campaign Hull's divorce file was unsealed and the ugly revelations coincided with a significant drop in his support resulting in a distant third place finish.

The simple takeaway from the Hull candidacy is even incredible personal wealth can't shield a candidate with skeletons in his oppo file but beyond that obvious observation there are a few more which I find interesting.

Prior to the release of Hull's divorce file in late February 2004 he was leading in the polls. A Tribune/WGN poll conducted in mid-February, about a month before the election, had him up 9 points on Obama and 13 points on Hynes who at the time was the only statewide elected official in the field.

CandidateFeb 04 Tribune PollFinal Statewide Total

Hull not only had a lot of money but he spent it early on statewide television and had much of the airwaves to himself. During the 2002 gubernatorial campaign Hull sat in on some strategy meetings at Blagojevich campaign headquarters and Hull's primary followed a similar playbook to Blagojevich's the cycle before. Both were the first candidate on TV, both spent enough throughout the state to build up an early polling advantage, especially downstate, and both tried to hang on to that early lead as their opponents got on the air late in the campaign. Blagojevich's early lead was enough to carry him to the nomination, Hull's lead wasn't sustainable against the combined factors of Obama's substantial political appeal and Hull's ugly divorce revelations.

At the time that Tribune/WGN poll was taken in mid-February Hull was polling at 30% downstate, ahead of Hynes who was at 20%. Hull was a relative newcomer and virtual unknown while Hynes had already been elected statewide twice, winning the Comptroller's office in 1998 and 2002, yet thanks to his unmatched TV spending Hull was 10 points ahead of Hynes at the time. Even when the race was over, when Hull finished with just 11% of the statewide vote he still won 24% of the vote in the 90 counties outside of the Chicago media market, due in large part to that early unmatched TV spending. Being the only candidate on the air is a powerful advantage in Illinois statewide races.

In our current Democratic gubernatorial race J.B. Pritzker is already up on TV with eight months still left before the primary (yes, that's crazy). Like Hull Pritzker entered the race largely as an unknown to most voters and again like Hull he has almost unlimited personal wealth that he's pledged to use for the upcoming campaign. Pritzker's unmatched TV spending will go head to head with Kennedy's name recognition for early support among downstate primary voters while rivals hope to play catch up at the end. Six of the nine downstate media markets are only partially in Illinois and partially lie in other states (Quad Cities, Quincy, St. Louis, Paducah, Evansville, Terre Haute) making them inefficient and expensive for advertising so the challengers going on the air later in the cycle will still need to be well funded to compete here. The downstate vote may only be a quarter of the statewide vote but traditionally the candidate with a significant financial advantage has been the beneficiary, a dynamic that we may see play out again in 2018.


Correction: an early version of this post failed to note that Bob Daiber is a downstate Democratic gubernatorial candidate.


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