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Thursday, May 6, 2004 05:37 am

This isn’t Dixie

The concept of "racial slippage" is back, and it's being misapplied to Illinois.

The term describes a situation of minority candidates' doing worse on Election Day than the polls predict. According to the theory, some white voters lie to pollsters and tell them they support a black candidate because they are embarrassed to admit that they aren't going to vote for an African-American. Only in the privacy of the voting booth do they allow their prejudices to take over and vote their race.

Political analyst Charlie Cook brought up the subject in a recent National Review story about the U.S. Senate race between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Jack Ryan. Cook is the publisher of the Cook Report, a respected newsletter that tracks national politics. After acknowledging that most pundits believe Obama is the heavy favorite, Cook tossed in a caveat: "Nationwide, minority candidates in major statewide races have tended to do less well at the ballot box than final polls had predicted."

Cook cited several examples, including Harvey Gantt's failure to unseat U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., in 1990 and 1996; Ron Kirk's failure to win Texas' open Senate seat in 2002; and Bobby Jindal's loss last year in the Louisiana gubernatorial contest. The lesson? Cook writes: "Obama may need to have a strong -- although no one knows how strong -- lead in the polls to actually pull off a win."

Cook usually knows his stuff, but he should have looked at Illinois history before predicting that Obama would need a big lead in the polls to win.

Unlike those Southern states Cook described, Illinois has a history of electing African-Americans in statewide races.

• Roland Burris was elected to three terms as state comptroller, beginning in 1978. In 1990, Burris was elected the state's attorney general.

• In 1992, Carol Moseley Braun won the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, beating all the polls, confounding the pundits, and upsetting incumbent Alan Dixon. In November of that year, Moseley Braun again beat the polls in her win against Republican Rich Williamson. Though she lost her seat to Peter Fitzgerald in 1998, she did better than all but one of the polls predicted.

• In 2002, Secretary of State Jesse White won all of the state's 102 counties in his re-election bid, outperforming every prediction.

This spring, Obama took on six opponents, including two-term Comptroller Dan Hynes and multimillionaire Blair Hull, and won with an astounding 53 percent of the vote. No published poll even came close to predicting Obama's final result.

Another problem with applying the racial-slippage theory to Illinois is that it is based on just a few high-profile races in Republican-leaning states.

Illinois is trending more Democratic every year. Whereas Republicans have scored major victories in Virginia and North Carolina and practically own Texas, Illinois is dominated by the Democrats. All but one statewide constitutional officer is a Democrat. Both chambers of the General Assembly are controlled by Democrats, and the Supreme Court has a solid Democratic majority.

Our Congressional delegation has more Republicans than Democrats, but that was by design. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert is a Republican, and keeping him happy (and therefore making sure the pork projects kept coming our way) was a priority. A Democratic congressional map could have easily been drawn.

I'm not suggesting here that Obama is a sure thing in November, although he does look pretty good on paper. Still, there's a long way to go until the general election. Plenty of things could happen. And he does have that unusual name.

Then again, Jack Ryan's last name has become political death in Illinois, thanks to indicted ex-Gov. George Ryan. If there's any last-second slippage, it could occur when a small handful of uninformed voters are faced with the decision of casting their ballots for yet another Ryan and decide to take a pass.

All I'm saying is that applying a theory based on the apparent behavior of Southern bigots and applying it to this campaign not only denigrates Illinois voters but also ignores the past.

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