Unintended Consequences: Illinois Delegates May Still be a Prize Worth Having

Mar 1, 2012

Wherever you start the selection of an American president, it’s going to be a big story with lots of reporters blowing it out of proportion — coverage that then has an impact on subsequent contests in the race.

Nowhere does the law of unintended consequences work better than in politics. The coming Illinois presidential primary on March 20 provides an example. 

After moving the state’s primary to February in 2008 to help Illinois favorite son Barack Obama in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Statehouse policymakers thought better of the idea two years later. That’s when the early primary helped an unknown guy named Scott Lee Cohen come out of nowhere to win the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.

Following embarrassing revelations about his personal life — disclosures that never got a full airing in that truncated 2010 primary season — Cohen withdrew as a candidate, and the party spent several weeks coming up with a replacement. Chastened party leaders decided to move the primary back to the more traditional third week in March.

In doing so, they understood that the Illinois primary probably wouldn’t mean much in the 2012 presidential campaign. Think again. Mitt Romney was supposedly going to cruise to the GOP presidential nomination with a big victory in South Carolina on January 21. Instead, Newt Gingrich beat him badly, and Rick Santorum logged three victories in early February, prompting GOP strategists and observers to predict a “long, hard slog” to the GOP nomination. Under that scenario, the 54 delegates at stake in Illinois on March 20 could still be a prize worth having, since the primary comes near the time when 1,144 of the delegates will have been selected and that’s the magic number needed for nomination.

Unintended consequences are a major feature of presidential primary campaigns. When Newt Gingrich’s ex-wife Marianne told the story of how he left her after she refused to share him with another woman in an open marriage, conventional wisdom had it that her account would hurt him with South Carolina’s religious voters. Wrong. He won big in that state. (Just as there are penalties for late hits in football, voters felt Gingrich was victimized by a scorned woman and a sensationalist media just before Election Day. That, plus the fact many evangelicals believe forgiveness is an important part of their faith, helped Gingrich win.) 

There are other examples of unintended consequences. In almost every presidential campaign, when party officials in big states get upset that Iowa and New Hampshire receive so much attention, some of them decide to hold their contests earlier, closer to Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s. But that has the unintended consequence of forcing candidates to put even more emphasis on the two early states, since there isn’t much time to recover from bad showings in them.

Yes, the two early states have an inordinate influence. Wherever you start the selection of an American president, it’s going to be a big story with lots of reporters blowing it out of proportion — coverage that then has an impact on subsequent contests in the race.

And no state is exactly “typical” of the rest of the country, either. Iowa is often criticized for being lily white, yet an unintended consequence of that helped Obama. By winning Iowa with those voters, he proved to many African-American voters in South Carolina that he could, in fact, win white votes, and they started deserting Hillary Clinton.

Instead of Illinois hosting an early primary, one possible cure that might give the state more influence is a series of rotating regional primaries with groupings of states holding contests all on the same date, which would be selected by lot. But, if you like money in politics, you’d love a regional primary. Costs to hold regional primaries or a national primary would skyrocket. After all, the Chicago television market is a lot more expensive for a candidate than one in Ottumwa, Iowa.

Illinois could also hold a stand-alone early presidential primary: Just have an early beauty contest with no delegates at stake. The local politicians could then still hold their primary that third week in March. The problem with this idea is that it costs millions to hold statewide elections. Since Illinois doesn’t have the money for basic services, it might be hard to sell voters on spending it on a presidential primary.

Another option is for Illinois to hold early presidential precinct caucuses, like Iowa Republicans, where the state conducts a “beauty contest” vote just among the faithful in each precinct or ward. Assuming Illinois can count the results better than Iowa just did in its caucuses, it might prove an interesting exercise. Caucuses are great party building tools. In Iowa, the modern day Democratic Party rose to parity with the Republicans thanks in part to the organizing done for presidential precinct caucuses. Party leaders didn’t set out to do that, but it was a nice unintended consequence and has helped create one of the most competitive two-party states. 

However, Illinois caucuses would require the political parties to open their operations up to newcomers and strangers who just walk in off the streets. It’s doubtful either party truly wants to reveal its innermost sanctums and rituals to the likes of anti-war insurgents, tea partiers, civil rights organizers or “occupy” activists. After all, this is the place where a young Abner Mikva — who would later become a congressman and federal judge — showed up to volunteer at a Democratic headquarters in 1948 and was told to scram by a precinct captain who said, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”

And the country might not cede early leadoff positions and meaning to states with atypical ethical climates and rich histories of election fraud. States such as New Jersey, Louisiana or one with a governor in prison and another headed there would have a hard time saying, “Me first, me first!” The rest of the country would worry about fraud and that too many local pols would take advantage of an opportunity that was “golden,” to borrow a phrase.

Reforming the process or carving out a larger role for a state is difficult. For better or worse, the authority for running elections is jealously held by the states. Election processes reflect local traditions. That leaves the two major political parties with little meaningful power to tell states how to run their nominating contests. This year, for example, Florida started the leapfrogging of states by moving up its primary to January 31. That move prompted South Carolina, New Hampshire and Iowa to follow suit and move their contests. The penalty for Florida’s breaking the rules: A loss of half their delegates to the national convention. Big deal. Conventions are nothing but photo ops these days, and Florida wanted some say, not great seats on a convention floor. It paid off, too. Florida’s January 31 primary became an important, high-stakes contest.

Not only do the political parties have no meaningful enforcement tool to whip states into line, but once the nominee of a party is chosen, that person has no interest in reforming the nominating process. After all, that would amount to changing the rules of a game he — and someday she — just won. Second, the focus after a nominee is selected moves on to the main event: Nobody wants the distraction of another family feud at a national convention. And nobody wants to seriously punish Iowa, New Hampshire or Florida because all three of those states will be battleground states in the November election. 

Fiddling around with the nominating process usually becomes the preoccupation of the party out of power. For the party that holds the White House, the existing process worked pretty well. They won with it, right? For the party out of power, the finger pointing begins immediately after losing the election. Two culprits are identified. First, there’s the nominating process, and those early states that produced a loser for a nominee and, second, there’s that flawed message, which was either too moderate or too extreme, depending where you are on the ideological spectrum.

Another problem with the nominating process is that all politics is local. Since the states have a lot of discretion in the conduct of their elections, local considerations are bound to get stirred into the presidential mix. (For example, in 2008 it was OK with many Illinois legislators to move their primary into February to help Obama because it also helped them. As one of them was quoted as saying, “If someone wants to run against me in a primary, let them knock on doors in the snow.”) As mentioned, Illinois Democrats later thought better of the idea after it produced a flawed nominee for lieutenant governor, not because it was bad presidential politics.

Reform has also been difficult because, historically, the two parties often weren’t interested in civic participation; they were interested in winning elections. Until recently, that meant fixing on a nominee early — the earlier the better. To them, this isn’t about seeing how many people get to vote or how many debates are held or how many groups get to question candidates. A “long, hard slog” created divisions and wasted resources on internal fighting.

But wait, didn’t the long, hard slog to the Democratic nomination in 2008 make Barack Obama a better candidate and energize the party across the country?

It did, and that’s one reason some of the opposition to long primary campaigns turned into support from GOP pros. Instead of opting for an early nominee this year, the Republican Party encouraged a longer campaign when it went to a system called “proportional representation” to award delegates in many states. Instead of so many winner-take-all primaries like it had in 2008, the GOP in some states decided to award delegates to candidates based on the percentage of the vote they received in that state’s primary. It’s entirely possible no one will have amassed the 1,144 delegates to win the nomination by March 20, which actually could — possibly — make Illinois a battleground on that day.

Imagine that. A presidential primary in Illinois with real consequences. If that happens, we should enjoy it while we can. The president’s home state is rated as “safe” for him in November. This fall, Democrats will take it for granted, and Republicans will write it off.

Come to think of it, Illinois has only itself to blame for being left behind. Had the Democratic National Convention of 1968 in Chicago not been such a fiasco, Hubert Humphrey might have won the 1968 election. Democratic activists on the left wouldn’t have been so angry, and reformers in Iowa might not have moved up their caucuses to give them a greater opportunity to participate, thereby starting this leapfrogging game that is now a hallmark of presidential politics.

Maybe that’s just one more thing — an unintended consequence — we can blame on the late Mayor Daley and his police department. 

David Yepsen is director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He was a longtime political reporter and columnist for the Des Moines Register.

Illinois Issues, March 2012