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Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010 06:12 pm

Pat Quinn’s amazing comeback

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Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn claimed victory over Comptroller Dan Hynes in the Democratic primary Feb. 2.
PHOTO BY BRIAN CASSELLA/MCT

Every night before an election day, I spend four or five hours on the phone with people I trust asking what they think will happen.
There are always a couple of races that will have them stumped, but I’ve never seen everybody perplexed about so many outcomes until the night before last week’s election.

Take, for instance, the Democratic governor’s primary.

Gov. Pat Quinn had what can only be described as a nightmarish few weeks in January. His job disapproval rating shot skyward, his support tanked everywhere and Dan Hynes pulled even in the polls.

But things started to change eight days before the election when word leaked out that Ford Motor Co. had agreed to add 1,200 jobs to its Chicago assembly plant. Factories are closing all over the country, yet here was a major success. Quinn held the official ceremony on Tuesday, which was attended by Chicago Mayor Mayor Richard M. Daley.

On Wednesday, Quinn announced a $366 million upgrade to Wacker Drive in Chicago and held a ceremony at Northern Illinois University to release millions of dollars to “repurpose” Cole Hall — the site of the tragic campus shooting which left five students dead.

Thursday came a radio debate on WVON — an African-American station — where Quinn cleaned Hynes’ clock, and the announcement of big federal money for high-speed rail, with a subsequent Mayor Daley press conference and a statewide fly-around with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin on Friday. Quinn owned the entire week.

By Friday afternoon, Quinn had put Hynes on the defensive after the governor’s campaign leaked some explosive documents to a Chicago TV station about Burr Oak Cemetery. The cemetery was the object of much controversy in the Chicago area last summer when it was discovered that graves were being resold and bodies were being dug up and cast aside. Quinn’s new information made it look like Hynes should’ve known back in 2003 that there was a serious problem with grave reselling.

After being, um, buried by Quinn’s super-positive announcements all week, Hynes clearly lost the weekend. Both candidates did their best to stay positive the day before election day, so even if it was a draw, that’s still a loss for the challenger.

“Earned media” can’t win an election on its own. Topnotch advertising is essential. Quinn’s closing TV ads were very positive and, to my eyes, very effective. In one, he looked directly into the camera and said: “You know who I am. For years, I’ve fought the big shots on behalf of everyday people.” 

A trusted friend of mine believes that was the best ad of the season. It surely was close. The governor and his team did an amazing job of framing what was really at stake. “On Tuesday,” Quinn said in the ad, “my opponent’s counting on false, negative ads to win. Me? I’m counting on you.” Perfect.

So, the night before the election the big question was whether all of that was enough to put Quinn over the top. While he obviously stopped the hemorrhaging, was the patient just too far gone to be saved at the last minute?  Or, did Hynes peak too soon? Did he start running the now-infamous Harold Washington ad too early (even though it totally blunted Quinn’s initial Burr Oak Cemetery ad, which started the same day and could’ve been very damaging)?  Etc., etc.

Everybody I talked to went back and forth. If they started by saying that one would win, they would always find a way to reverse themselves or seriously question their own logic. It was a maddening exercise. I learned nothing except that everybody is confused and nobody wants to stick their necks out.

As we all know by now, that last, incredible week was enough to boost Quinn’s prospects and help him squeak by Hynes with an 8,000-vote win, out of more than 900,000 votes cast — a little over a vote per precinct statewide.

It was one of the greatest comebacks I’ve ever seen. My hat’s off to the guy.

It’s just too bad he didn’t vet all the lt. governor candidates ahead of time. His election night would’ve been perfect.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.

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