During his primary campaign, Obama played the role of the underdog, the ‘‘skinny guy from the South Side with a funny name.’’ Indeed, there is no doubt that he faced an uphill battle against better known and better-funded opponents. This chapter will show how Obama beat the odds with his remarkable charisma, an effective campaign strategy, and some luck to move from obscure state senator to victor in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. After providing some background on Illinois politics, we will look at the major primary candidates. Next, we will examine how the race played out and explore the factors that accounted for Obama’s victory.
Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate victory occurred in a state with a tradition of pragmatic, individualistic, even corrupt politics. Illinois politicians are often ‘‘professionals,’’ who engage in politics for personal gain, rather than to pursue an abstract public interest, as is true in some other midwestern states, such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, or Iowa. Kent Redfield, an expert on the state’s political culture, said during the campaign, ‘‘Our politics tend to be pretty pragmatic. We’d rather fight about roads and bridges … than whether we should have gay marriage.’’ This pragmatism sometimes edges into malfeasance. Of the last six elected governors, excluding the current incumbent, half faced criminal punishments after leaving office. Most recently George Ryan (1999–2003) was convicted in 2006 on various corruption charges stemming from trading state contracts for vacations and other perks.
There is a strong tradition of regionalism in Illinois politics. In the past, this dynamic has pitted Chicago against the more rural ‘‘down-state’’ region. Culturally and geographically, far southern Illinois is closer to the South than to the city. In recent years, the Chicago suburbs have emerged as a major power base as well. This area accounts for between 42 percent and 44 percent of Illinois’ population, depending on how one defines suburban, while roughly one-third of Illinoisans live downstate. Moreover, surveys show that residents of one region generally distrust politicians representing the others. These geographical divisions make it a challenge to develop a style and issue repertoire that works in these vastly different venues. It is a rare politician who can appeal to a majority of voters in all parts of the state.
Over 40 percent of Illinois’ population lives in Cook County, with the city of Chicago accounting for slightly over half of that total. The city has a colorful political history, due in large part to the operation of the Chicago political machine, often considered the last of its kind in a major U.S. city. By trading jobs and other favors for votes, the Democratic Party largely controlled city elections and often exerted great influence in statewide contests as well, especially in its heyday under Mayor Richard J. Daley, who served from 1955 to 1976. The machine’s electoral advantage stemmed from its ability to slate candidates in Democratic primaries and then delivers enough votes for them on election day that they usually won.
The relationship between the machine and African Americans has been somewhat uneasy, however. Its vaunted ability to provide public services often fell short in black neighborhoods. Although black precincts turned out some of the highest vote totals for Democratic candidates, African American politicians were allowed to ascend only so far.
When Harold Washington (1983–1987) ran to become the city’s first black mayor, the machine not only opposed him in the primary, but supported his Republican opponent in the general election.
Today, under Mayor Richard M. Daley, the machine’s power is weaker due to limits on the use of patronage, as well as Daley’s reluctance to get directly involved in many primary contests. Nevertheless, it still can turn out voters, especially in white and Hispanic areas of the city. Thus, the machine still carries some freight in Democratic primaries, where Chicago typically accounts for more than one-third of the statewide vote.
In this milieu, Illinois has a somewhat surprising history of electing idealistic liberals to the Senate, such as Paul Douglas (1949–1967) and Paul Simon (1985–1997). Both struggled to balance their ideals with the compromises often necessary to legislate successfully. Douglas was described as ‘‘long on principle, short on votes,’’ and ‘‘an idealist who followed no one and led only a few liberals.’’ Simon was somewhat less rigid, but he, too, was never considered a power in the Senate. Still, the latter is sometimes viewed as a forerunner for Obama, given their similar abilities to engender trust in voters, even those who were considerably more conservative. As discussed more fully in chapter 6, the state has elected several blacks to statewide office, including Carol Moseley-Braun to the U.S. Senate in 1992, Roland Burris as Attorney General and State Comptroller, and Jesse White as Secretary of State.
According to David Bositis, an expert on black politics, ‘‘Illinois has probably elected more black statewide officials than any state in the country.’’
Often considered a political bellwether through the 1980s, with two competitive, evenly matched parties, Illinois has trended Democratic in recent years. In part, this trend reflects a divided Republican Party struggling to reconcile conservative and moderate factions. In addition, the scandals surrounding former governor George Ryan have hurt the state GOP. The most notorious controversy occurred when Ryan was
Illinois secretary of state and his office allegedly sold commercial drivers’ licenses to unqualified drivers to generate political contributions. In a highly publicized incident, six children died in an accident involving one such trucker. National Republicans have also fared poorly in Illinois in recent years. Although President Reagan won the state twice and
George H.W. Bush did so in 1992, George W. Bush lost to Al Gore by twelve points in 2000 and to John Kerry by ten in 2004.
Since 1940 most of Illinois’ U.S. Senators have served multiple terms. The open seat in 2004, however, had been occupied by two one-term senators, after Democrat Alan Dixon held it from 1981 to 1993.In 1992, Carol Moseley-Braun, an African American former state legislator and Cook County Recorder of Deeds, mobilized African Americans, white liberals, and some suburban women to upset Dixon in a three-candidate Democratic primary, winning a close race with a plurality of 38 percent. Moseley-Braun got 82 percent of the black vote and benefited from a higher than expected black turnout, but she polled only about 26 percent of the white vote. She benefited from $5 million that candidate Al Hofeld spent on attack ads against incumbent Alan Dixon, spending that seemed to hurt Hofeld too, as well as from a back-lash against Dixon’s vote in favor of Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court appointment. She went on to defeat a relatively weak Republican opponent, Richard Williamson, who had not previously held elective office.
Controversy surrounded Moseley-Braun’s term in office, however, limiting her prospects for reelection. Early in her term, she engaged in heated battles over the Confederate flag, among other things, with conservative icon Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. These highly publicized incidents cast her more as a symbol for African Americans than as a Senator focusing on Illinois’ problems. Her 1996 visit to Nigeria and praise of its dictator, General Sani Abacha, also hurt her credibility with voters. Further, allegations that her sister had used her state job to help fundraising efforts for Moseley-Braun undermined her good government persona. These controversies led to her defeat in 1998 by state senator Peter Fitzgerald.
Despite crusades to clean up Illinois politics and limit the expansion of O’Hare Airport, Fitzgerald never achieved broad support among voters or leaders of his own party. As his reelection year approached, he was viewed as the most vulnerable Republican senator up for reelection in 2004. He was at odds with many prominent Illinois Republicans, including U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who was trying to organize a primary challenge, when Fitzgerald dropped out of the race in April 2003, citing family concerns.
CANDIDATES AND ISSUES
With a weak incumbent, and, later, an open seat in play, both parties attracted a large number of candidates, fifteen in total, including seven millionaires. For the Democrats, five candidates were viewed as having a realistic chance of winning: Dan Hynes, Blair Hull, Maria Pappas, Gery Chico, and Barack Obama. In general, their strategies focused on building coalitions of voters, hoping to put together a plurality, rather than attempting to appeal to all voters statewide. A brief sketch of each candidate appears below.
Dan Hynes, the state comptroller, was the candidate of the Democratic organization and organized labor. A proven vote-getter, he received the most votes of any Democratic statewide candidate in 1998.When elected comptroller that year, at age thirty, he was the youngest person to win a statewide office in Illinois since the 1940s.
For his senate campaign, he garnered the support of many establishment politicians, such as Illinois House Speaker and State Democratic Party chair Michael Madigan, and the remnants of the Chicago Democratic political machine. His father Thomas Hynes was a prominent machine figure, who had been a former Cook County assessor and state senate president. Aldermen or committeemen in twenty-three of Chicago’s fifty wards supported him, primarily those in white and Hispanic areas. Cook County Board President and Eighth Ward boss John Stroger, an African American with strong ties to the machine and to Hynes’s father, also endorsed him. In addition he received the backing of major unions, including the AFL-CIO, the state’s largest, and the vast majority of Democratic county chairs. Supplementing his organizational advantages, Hynes assembled a network of trial lawyers to raise money. Dan Hynes enjoyed a favorable reputation as a competent public official. Nevertheless, he failed to develop a compelling political persona, often appearing plodding and cautious, resembling machine politicians of the past, who believed organization was more important than charisma.
Blair Hull was a multimillionaire newcomer to politics with a back-ground in computerized options training. He garnered criticism for his sporadic voting record, including failure to vote in the 2000 presidential election. His wealth allowed him to far outspend his competitors, and he ultimately devoted about $29 million of his own money to his campaign. With no natural base, and all the Democratic candidates from the
Chicago area, Hull sought votes by saturating downstate TV markets with commercials and spending a great deal of money on organizing the region. This strategy was inspired by the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary, which Rod Blagojevich was able to win with a strong downstate showing, while losing in the Chicago area. Hull also courted women and black voters. To appeal to the former, he emphasized his membership on the boards of pro-choice political organizations, such as the National
Abortion Rights Action League, and his support for Title IX, which promotes varsity sports opportunities for girls and women at the high school and college levels. Challenging Obama’s perceived base, Hull attracted the support of some prominent African American politicians, most notably Congressman Bobby Rush, who endorsed him in ads on black radio stations.
Hull advocated a national health-care program as a central campaign issue and funded several trips to Canada with senior citizens to buy cheaper prescription drugs. In a populist vein, he promised to eschew contributions from political action committees or ‘‘special interests’’ and not draw a senate salary if elected. He had difficulty connecting to average voters on the stump, however, and perceived political strategy in largely quantitative terms. He described his approach to a reporter as follows: ‘‘You’d create a persuasion model based on canvassing that says ‘the probability of voting for Hull is …’ plus some variable on ethnicity … with a positive coefficient on age, a negative coefficient on wealth, and that gives us an equation.’’
Maria Pappas, one of three female candidates running for the Democratic nomination, was the only one considered to have a realistic shot at winning. A psychologist and lawyer, she entered politics when she won a seat on the Cook County board in 1990. Later she served as
Cook County treasurer. Her political base included ethnic whites in Chicago and residents of suburban Cook County. Her popularity stemmed in part from her reputation as a watchdog on spending while on the Cook County board, as well as from reforms she initiated as county treasurer, such as allowing people to pay property tax bills at some bank branches.
Known as somewhat quirky, she had campaigned in the past with her dog in her purse and reportedly decided which constituent mail to answer on the basis of handwriting analysis. Her campaign style reflected a fluid schedule focused on person-to-person contact and stunts, such as appearing with a Hummer sports utility vehicle in front of a Hooters restaurant to protest congressional pork barrel policies.
Like Obama and Gery Chico, she had little name recognition downstate and lacked the funds to match Blair Hull’s advertising efforts. She was never able to recover from a late-starting campaign, and her support in the polls generally declined throughout the contest. Gery Chico, although mired in single digits in the polls throughout most of the campaign, was the first candidate to enter the race. He had served as Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s chief of staff and later president of the city’s school board, overseeing school reforms supported by the mayor. As the son of a Mexican American father and grandson of
Mexican immigrants, he tried to appeal to Hispanic voters with Spanish- language speeches at some rallies. He was backed by the bosses of a few Chicago wards with heavily Hispanic populations. His issue-oriented campaign emphasized education concerns, such as reforming the No Child Left Behind law and providing free college tuition for future teachers. He was also the only candidate to back gay marriage. Despite his widely acknowledged command of the issues and strengths as a debater, he was not viewed as a charismatic candidate. Questions about his role in the collapse and bankruptcy of his former law firm also dogged Chico’s campaign.
Barack Obama was the second candidate to enter the race. Initially, his strategy consciously reflected an attempt to rebuild the coalition that led to Carol Moseley-Braun’s 1992 senate primary victory, as the race shaped up with somewhat similar dynamics. Admittedly, there were only three candidates in the 1992 race, instead of the seven in 2004. Nevertheless, Moseley-Braun faced one opponent, incumbent Senator Alan Dixon, who had strong support from the Democratic Party organization, and another, Al Hofeld, who ran as a wealthy self-funded ‘‘outsider.’’ About a month before the primary, one observer drew an explicit connection between the two races. ‘‘There are distinct parallels, with Blair Hull being Al Hofeld and Dan Hynes being Dixon and Obama being Carol. The difference is Carol was not a serious candidate and thought this would be an interesting thing to do. I don’t think it ever entered her head that she would win.’’ Dixon and Hofeld ended up spending much of the campaign attacking each other, allowing Moseley-Braun to eke out a narrow victory.
Initially, Obama focused on building a base coalition of African Americans and liberal suburban whites, especially in Chicago’s northern suburbs and in downstate university communities. Early in the campaign, he worked to line up endorsements from leading black Chicago aldermen, Toni Preckwinkle and Leslie Hairston, and built strong support among African American clergy in the city. Antiwar activists rallied around Obama due to compelling speeches he had given in 2002 and 2003 opposing intervention in Iraq. Although Hynes had the support of ‘‘organization’’ Democrats, Obama built his own network among some African American office holders, as well as those in the more liberal suburban wing of the party, including some he had supported in previous campaigns. He was also endorsed by four Illinois members of Congress— Jesse Jackson, Jr., Danny Davis, Lane Evans, and Jan Schakowsky—the most of any candidate. The Evans endorsement was particularly important in giving Obama credibility with downstate voters.
As the campaign progressed, he widened his appeal beyond this initial base of African Americans and liberals to make significant inroads with more moderate white Democrats. In addition, he picked up most of the labor union support that didn’t go to Dan Hynes. He was especially successful with public service unions, earning the endorsements of groups such as the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees and the Illinois Federation of Teachers. Major environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, also endorsed him.
Like other candidates, Obama brought strengths and weaknesses to the race. On the negative side, he was unproven as a candidate for higher office, as his failed challenge to Congressman Bobby Rush, discussed in chapter 1, showed. Also, there was some doubt whether he was ‘‘black’’ enough to appeal to African Americans. A columnist for the
Chicago Sun-Times explained the challenge facing Obama six months before the primary:
Low income and working class blacks don’t think Obama is ‘‘down enough.’’ It’s a cultural phenomenon, and it’s rooted in an unfortunate strain of anti-intellectualism and distrust of those with close association with the white power structure.… Some of the black nationalists are whispering that ‘‘Barack is not black enough.’’ He’s of mixed race. He hangs out in Hyde Park, and is the darling of white progressives: he’s not to be trusted. And there are the black Machine Democrats. They’re all crabs in a barrel, trying to get to the top. And they don’t want Obama to get there first.
In addition, his name appeared to be a disadvantage. Both first and last were unusual, and his surname differed by one letter from the moniker of 9/11, mastermind Osama bin Laden. For a brief period, a Republican political operative created a website that superimposed Obama’s face over Osama bin Laden’s, although he later apologized and took it down. In a widely reported incident, President Bush appeared briefly to mistake an Obama campaign button that U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky wore to a meeting as an endorsement of the terrorist leader.
Obama came into the race with several advantages, as well. Following the advice of political commentator Chris Matthews to ‘‘hang a lantern on your problem,’’ or turn perceived weaknesses into strengths, Obama turned his name into a positive. On the stump, he joked about it, jesting that people called him ‘‘Alabama’’ or ‘‘Yo Mama.’’ In a more serious vein, he used his name to mark his authenticity, pointing out that he resisted attempts by his political consultants to use something more ‘‘mainstream,’’ such as Barry, as he was sometimes called growing up.
Moreover, his name may ultimately have helped attract some white voters, who tend to view African immigrants more favorably than native-born African Americans. Combined with a campaign image that emphasized a record of accomplishment, such as being the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, Obama was able to bridge a gap bedeviling many African American candidates who find it difficult to appeal to both blacks and moderate and working class whites. As Noam Scheiber put it in an article in the New Republic magazine, ‘‘Free of the burden of reassuring culturally moderate whites that he wasn’t threatening, Obama could appeal to their economic self-interest while also exciting his African American and progressive white base.’’
If Hull had money and Hynes had the support of much of the Democratic organization, Obama’s personal charisma and speaking ability played to his advantage. A reporter for the Chicago Tribune captured his appeal as follows:
His clear voice resonating through the auditorium, state Sen. Barack Obama was reciting his mantra about how Americans are intrinsically good people linked by decency and hope when an aide to another political candidate shrugged his shoulders. ‘‘He is without a doubt the most dynamic speaker up there,’’ the aide said, referring to Obama amid the six Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate on hand for a joint appearance.
‘‘I wish my candidate had half of that.’’ After the forum, a small gaggle of fawning supporters surrounded Obama, shoving campaign literature at him to be autographed. Meanwhile, several other candidates looked almost lonely, searching the crowd for someone to chat up.
His personal magnetism helped him recruit many supporters who normally paid little attention to politics.
While there were some differences in emphasis discussed above, in general, there weren’t big issue differences among the candidates. One reporter compared the issue content of the campaign to ‘‘a political version of a ‘Seinfeld’ episode,’’ in the sense that it was about nothing. In most of the multitude of campaign debates, especially the early ones, the candidates largely avoided attacking each other, instead focusing their ire on Bush administration policies. All five major candidates, for example, criticized the president’s tax cuts and advocated tax relief for middle income workers. All also slammed the administration for underfunding the No Child Left Behind law. Obama took a slightly more pro-gun control stance than the other candidates and staked out a somewhat more forceful position against the Iraq War. While all candidates spoke against it, only Obama and Chico opposed the $87 billion funding request to rebuild Iraq. In downstate appearances, Obama often emphasized bread-and-butter issues, such as protecting American jobs. He also specialized in one-liners attacking the Bush administration, such as ‘‘The problem with No Child Left Behind is Bush left all the money behind,’’ or ‘‘The president says the economy is in a jobless recovery, but there is no recovery without jobs.’’
THE PRIMARY RACE
The senate race played out in three distinct phases, with Hynes leading the first, Hull the second, and Obama the third. In the first phase, which ran through mid-January of 2004, Hynes led in the polls, in part because of his name recognition and organization. Obama entered the race in January 2003, before Hynes, Hull, or Pappas had officially announced. Aware that achieving about a third of the vote might be enough to win a multi candidate race, his campaign kickoff showed that he was following Carol Moseley-Braun’s strategy, discussed above, of putting together a coalition of African Americans and white liberals.
Many of the figures spotlighted in Obama’s announcement were leading African American politicians, such as Illinois Senate President Emil Jones and Congressmen Jesse Jackson, Jr., and Danny Davis. He also cited Moseley-Braun’s decision to forgo the race as a factor in his own decision to enter. In his primary campaign kickoff speech, he repeatedly claimed the mantle of Dr. Martin Luther King. He also touched on themes appealing to liberals, such as criticizing tax cuts for the wealthy as a violation of the fundamental American value of fairness.
During this phase of the race, Obama worked to build name recognition. After his announcement, he made the usual rounds of county Democratic Party dinners and other speaking engagements and traveled the state with luminaries who had endorsed him, such as downstate congressman Lane Evans. He spent much of his time working the Chicago area, however, recognizing that there were more Democratic votes available there. Foreshadowing his strengths, Obama had a strong showing in the first televised debate in October 2003, showing ‘‘presence’’ and ‘‘command.’’
By the summer of 2003, he had pulled into a second place tie with Pappas at 14 percent with Hynes, the leader at 21 percent, with 41 percent undecided. This poll revealed that Obama trailed Hynes and Pappas in name recognition, at one-third, compared to over 50 percent for the other two candidates. However, he also had the highest favorable rating at 10 to 1 in favor and did the best among the most well-informed voters. He surprised some with his success at raising money during this period, falling just short of Hynes’s totals.
The campaign entered a second stage in mid-January 2004, as Blair Hull’s $19 million spending spree on campaign commercials began to pay off and he emerged as the frontrunner. A Chicago Tribune/WGN news poll conducted February 11–17 showed Hull in the lead with percent, followed by Obama at 15 percent, Hynes at 11 percent, Pappas at 9 percent, and Chico at 5 percent. Hull’s fourteen-point boost from a poll conducted the previous month was due to TV ads shown both in Chicago and downstate. Hull’s support increased at the expense of every candidate except Obama. His backing was shaky, however, as 40 per- cent of likely Democratic primary voters surveyed thought that Hull’s advantage over his opponents in resources was unfair.
During this stage, Obama continued to struggle to get people to know who he was and to solidify his position with black voters. With respect to name recognition, the poll showed him in last place of the five major candidates among likely primary voters at slightly under a third, compared to 60 percent for Hull and over 50 percent for Hynes and Pappas. Although Obama ran strongly among black voters compared to other candidates, he was favored by less than a majority at 38 percent. Obama’s relatively weak showing in previous polls worked to his advantage at this stage of the campaign in one sense, just as Moseley-Braun’s similar position had in 1992. Anticipating that Dan Hynes would be his main rival, Hull attacked the state comptroller, who responded in kind, allowing Obama to build support relatively unscathed.
Hull’s lead turned out to be short-lived, however. His campaign began to self-destruct, just as his poll numbers surged, allowing Obama to emerge as the frontrunner, a position he would hold until election day and his dramatic win. In mid-February the Chicago Tribune reported that Hull’s ex-wife had taken out an order of protection against him in 1998. Hull initially refused to explain the incident, arguing that it was irrelevant to his ability to perform as a senator. This stance undermined his ability to appeal to women voters, however, as the head of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for Women publicly condemned his silence.
The media did not let the issue slide, either. Responding to pressure, Hull and his ex-wife agreed to make previously sealed divorce records public. The records revealed that police accused him of hitting his wife in the leg in an argument surrounding their stormy separation. The divorce file also showed Hull using profane and abusive language, issuing death threats, and resorting to fake punches designed to make his ex-wife ‘‘flinch.’’
Of course, Hull’s opponents did all they could to fan the flames of the divorce story. A newspaper columnist speculated that Dan Hynes had a hand in orchestrating the scandal, hoping not only to undermine Hull, but to disgust enough voters to drive down turnout, which was to his advantage. Hynes and Maria Pappas attacked Hull on the issue in a statewide radio debate on February 23. Pappas cited her training as a psychologist to urge Hull to seek further counseling with his ex-wife and children. Hull himself made some strategic miscalculations that kept the story alive longer than it might otherwise have been. He charged that his ex-wife exaggerated the situation described in the divorce files to increase her monetary settlement, guaranteeing another day of coverage after her very public denial. Then, he ran television commercials denouncing the attacks as unfair and pointing out that the domestic battery charge against him was thrown out by a judge. These ads did little to help the situation, but, again, kept the story in the public eye for another few days and distracted the Hull campaign from emphasizing other issues.
By late February, the divorce story had begun to take its toll, and Obama emerged with a lead over Hull. One week before the primary, a Chicago Tribune poll showed that Obama had surged to 33 percent, while Hull had fallen back to 16 percent. Hynes also gained eight points, rising to 19 percent. Obama’s support among black voters rose particularly dramatically, to 63 percent from 38 percent in the mid-February poll discussed above. In the Tribune survey, 50 percent of Democratic voters responding believed that Hull’s divorce would affect his chances of winning ‘‘a lot’’ or ‘‘some.’’ Obama also began to run TV ads in the last three weeks in the campaign, starting in Chicago and moving downstate in the last week. His advertising appealed to both his black-liberal base and to more moderate whites by citing both his race and ‘‘establishment’’ credentials. In one ad, Obama spoke to the camera, saying, ‘‘They said an African American had never led the Harvard Law Review—until I changed that.
Now they say we can’t change Washington, D.C.… I approved this message to say ‘Yes we can.’ ’’ Another ad that he ran downstate featured an endorsement of the popular late Senator Paul Simon’s daughter, who claimed that Obama was ‘‘cut from the same cloth’’ as her father. Other television ads and targeted mailings focused on appealing to women and the elderly by playing up Obama’s accomplishments on issues like health care. In the waning days of the race, Hynes and Hull went on the attack.
Hynes accused Obama of failing to challenge state pork barrel spending under former Governor George Ryan. In the last Democratic primary debate on March 10, Hynes charged, ‘‘When George Ryan was leading our state into a fiscal ditch, I took him on.… Barack Obama took a different course. He stayed silent. He didn’t do anything.’’ Meanwhile,
Hull publicized Obama’s ‘‘present’’ votes on abortion legislation requiring parental notification, arguing that they undermined his pro-choice credentials. A Hull mailing in early March showed an illustration of a duck with the headline ‘‘He ducked,’’ referring to Obama. In response, Obama aides attacked Hull’s admission that he had rarely voted in previous elections. Pro-choice groups also defended Obama, arguing that ‘‘present’’ votes had the same impact as voting ‘‘no’’ and that Hull did not understand the legislative process. Controversy also resurfaced about Obama’s admissions of drug use as a young man. Obama tried to remain above the fray, calling it ‘‘depressing’’ that the campaign focused on ‘‘drugs and divorces.’’
Obama won the primary with nearly 53 percent of the vote. In second place, Dan Hynes received slightly under 24 percent, followed by Hull at 11 percent, Pappas at 6 percent, and Chico at 4 percent.
Although Hynes won eighty-one counties to Obama’s fourteen and Hull’s seven, Obama won the largest Chicago area counties. In Cook County, which accounted for slightly over 60 percent of the statewide Democratic primary vote, he beat Hynes 64 percent to 17 percent.
Hynes failed to do as well as expected in white and Latino areas of Chicago where the machine still holds sway. Of twelve majority white wards with a strong machine presence, Obama won eight, reversing a long-term pattern in areas of the city that had previously been hostile to black candidates. In fact, Hynes won his father’s Nineteenth Ward by less than 2,000 votes. Observers attributed this failure to the machine’s weakness in a less patronage-rich environment, Mayor Daley’s decision to stay on the sidelines, and Obama’s excellence as a candidate. In an interview after the primary election, Dan Hynes mused, ‘‘Three days before the primary, I opened the newspaper and looked at the picture from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade … that’s my day! And there was Barack Obama surrounded by every single Irish politician in town. I’m cropped out of the picture. And I thought to myself ‘That’s not good.’ ’’Obama won all of the Chicago suburban ‘‘collar counties,’’ that is, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will. He also did well in the counties containing state universities, winning Champaign (University of Illinois), DeKalb (Northern Illinois University), Jackson (Southern Illinois University), and McDonough (Western Illinois University) counties.
Sangamon County, which contains the state capital Springfield, went into Obama’s column as well. In most of the downstate counties, he finished third, behind Dan Hynes and Blair Hull, although he managed to come in second in some of the more urban counties of the region, such as Macon and St. Clair. By some estimates, Obama won around 90 percent of the black vote, exceeding Carol Moseley-Braun. In addition, turnout in heavily African American areas of Chicago was up to 30 percent higher than in other recent elections.
Table 2-1 breaks down Obama’s vote in various parts of the state. For the sake of comparison, it also shows vote percentages for prior Democratic primary victors Paul Simon in 1984’s five-candidate race and Carol Moseley-Braun in 1992. The table breaks down the vote in Chicago, suburban Cook County, the five collar counties (DuPage, Kane, Lake,
McHenry, and Will) that traditionally contain Chicago’s other suburban areas, the Illinois portion of the St. Louis suburbs, and seven other metropolitan areas in the state. Votes from four rural counties with state universities—Coles, DeKalb, Jackson, and McDonough—are also compiled, because these areas were among Obama’s few bastions of strength downstate in the primary. The final category includes the rest of the state, loosely characterized as ‘‘rural Illinois.’’ In addition to the vote percentage, the table shows the candidates’ place ranking for each region.
He did better in several key locales, however, especially Chicago and its suburbs, because of his ability to attract more white voters in these areas than Moseley-Braun did. The Paul Simon comparisons notwithstanding, Obama fell short of his predecessor among downstate voters, but far exceeded him in the Chicago area. The table also shows that Obama did relatively well in the more economically vibrant ‘‘post-industrial’’ parts of downstate, such as Bloomington, Champaign, and Springfield, compared to the more industrial regions of Rockford, Peoria, the Quad Cities, and Decatur. Finally, the historical comparison illustrates the magnitude of Obama’s victory, as he was able to get far more of the vote than either Moseley-Braun or Simon in a race with more candidates than either of his predecessors faced.
Of course the question remains whether Obama would have won if it had not been for Hull’s divorce scandal. This event led many people to rethink their preferences and take another look at the candidates.
Clearly Obama benefited, but it is impossible to know what would have happened absent the scandal. Given the magnitude of his victory, we think Obama would have still won, albeit by a narrower margin. To begin with, Hull was clearly a weak candidate with few passionate backers. Other candidates were primed to go negative against him, and if not for the divorce, he would have had to fend off another line of attack, something he appeared unprepared to do effectively. Downstate, an area he targeted and where the divorce issue was covered less extensively, Hull still lost to Hynes. Furthermore, at his peak, his standing in the polls was only 24 percent, with one-third undecided and 55 percent not paying much attention to the race. It’s questionable whether voters would have gone his way with Obama and others running TV commercials at the end of the campaign. Finally, Obama had an effective ‘‘Get
Out the Vote’’ operation, staffed by the public employee unions who had endorsed him, as well as passionate volunteers who came to see his campaign as something akin to a crusade.
In his victory speech, Obama harkened back to the underdog theme, perhaps the last time he could realistically do so. Echoing the themes of the campaign, he said, ‘‘I think it’s fair to say that the conventional wisdom was that we could not win. There’s no way that a skinny guy from the South Side with a name like Barack Obama could ever win a state- wide race. Sixteen months later we are here, and Democrats from all across Illinois … black, white, Hispanic, Asian have declared: Yes we can! Yes we can! Yes we can!’’