Campaign notebook: Simon Paper examines geographic shift and polarization in state politics

Election 2024
Vote 2022 logo for Sauk Valley election stories

The refinement of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin’s geographic base is an instructive lens by which to view political polarization in the state – according to a recent paper published by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

Durbin, an East St. Louis Democrat, made his first run for the seat in 1996. He won 51 counties and secured 56% of the popular vote.

The 2002 and 2008 races were landslides for Durbin, who secured more than 60% of the vote both times.

By 2014, however, the landscape had changed. Durbin won just 14 counties, yet still carried 53% of the vote. In 2020, Durbin again carried 14 counties and had almost 55% of the vote.

This illustrates the shift taking place between Democrats and Republicans, according to a paper published by John S. Jackson, a visiting professor at SIU, and John Foster, professor emeritus at SIU.

“The only salient difference between Illinois and much of the rest of the nation is that our party realignment lagged somewhat the realignment that was taking place in the rest of the nation, and especially in the South,” according to the paper.

Democrats have secured a firm foothold in the cities and have given up almost all the rural ground to the Republicans.

“This geographical party realignment is one of the key causal factors that explains the deep-seated overall polarization the nation had experienced over the past three decades,” according to the the paper’s conclusion.

The shift has been evident in the Sauk Valley. Durbin carried Whiteside County in 1996 and 2014. But by 2020, the shift was complete, with Mark Curran taking the county.

What does that portend for this year’s general election? In the most recent Capitol News Illinois’ CapitolCast podcast, Jackson and Foster were interviewed on their findings.

As a midterm election, conventional wisdom and poll data shows that the Republicans are expected to make gains in the U.S. House. One of the marginal seats is the 17th, which includes Whiteside County and is being vacated by Durbin ally Cheri Bustos.

“Bustos seat is probably gone if it’s a Republican wave election,” Jackson said.

But while the midterms could show a GOP comeback, the overall national trend of Republicans taking territory while ceding cities to Democrats “doesn’t work to their advantage in Illinois,” according to the research.

Republicans have taken traditional Democratic strongholds in southern Illinois and the Metro East but have given up economically robust and vote-rich collar counties around Chicago.

Durbin’s 14 counties – Champaign, Cook, DeKalb, DuPage, Jackson, Kane, Kendall, Lake, McLean, Peoria, Rock Island, St. Clair, Will and Winnebago – account for three quarters of Illinois’ population.

Other advantages:

The people in Durbin’s 14 are richer. Per capita income is $36,064, compared with the $29,670 for those in the 88 other counties.

Those in Durbin’s 14 are younger. Only 14.6% of the population is older than 65, compared with 18.8%.

The Durbin 14 counties are growing. From 2010 to 2020, the population grew 1.18%, compared with a population loss of 3.9%. (Incidentally, Carroll is one of only six counties that went for Curran that actually gained population).

Not unexpectedly, the Durbin 14 counties pay more in tax revenue. But when it comes to state aid from Springfield, the 88 Republican counties are far dependent for assistance.

“In summary, this means the red counties in the aggregate are getting back between $1.69 and $1.88 for each $1 sent to Springfield in taxes, while the blue counties are getting back well under $1,” according to the paper.

The advantages in wealth, population and industry held by the Durbin 14 have not been a guarantor of Democratic dominance on all political issues, according to the paper.

In 2020, Gov. JB Pritzker pushed a constitutional amendment for the state to adopt a graduated income tax rate as a means of resolving the deficit. At the outset, polls showed Illinoisans favoring it by a 2-to-1 margin. In the end, only Cook and Champaign counties voted for it, a 20-percentage-point swing, largely the result of a Republican opposition campaign that “tapped all the long-standing mistrust, skepticism and downright cynicism routinely directed toward Illinois state government.”

The paper draws no conclusions on the future of statehouse politics. “What this defeat will do to Governor Pritzker’s reelection prospects in 2022, as well as Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, remains to be seen,” the authors wrote.

Perhaps, but the “land for cities” change has only firmed up Democratic control of the statehouse. The 1996 election cycle, which is when the authors started looking at this polarization process, resulted in a power-sharing assembly with a 31-28 Republican majority in the Senate and a 60-58 Democratic majority in the House.

Since 2003, the Democrats have had majorities in both chambers. Heading into this election, those majorities were among the most secure since the 1970 constitution: 41-18 in the Senate and 73-45 in the House