Reagan Won Illinois. Three times.

Editor’s note: In case you didn’t know…here’s a little history:

By Bruce Donnelly

— Political pundits and party leaders in DC assume that Illinois is a solid Democratic state and cannot be won.

Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush are evidence to the contrary. Illinois has certainly changed since the 1980, 1984, and 1988 elections in which they won. After Democratic dominance of Springfield in recent decades has bankrupted Illinois, voters have had a chance to see the contrast between their policies and the Reagan era. Despite voting for Reagan, Illinois did not take full advantage of the “Reagan Revolution” in the 1980’s because of “progressive” dominance in Springfield. That made the state less competitive for business investment and growth than other states.

Historical facts are stubborn things which the liberal news media tends to ignore or use very selectively to support their point of view. Consider these facts.

                   Reagan-Bush         Democrats

1980               2,358,040               1,981,410

1984               2,707,100               2,086,490

1988               2,310,930               2,215,940

1992               1,734,090               2,454,350

Bill Clinton only got only 2.4 million votes to win in 1992 after George H.W. Bush lost the support of conservatives. Carter narrowly lost Illinois in 1976.

Illinois was a conservative “red state” for most of the elections from Abraham Lincoln to the Reagan years.

Although Bill Clinton won Illinois in 1992, he earned over 100,000 fewer votes by 1996.

That raises the obvious question of whether Hillary Clinton is likely to do better in Illinois than Bill Clinton. Will Chicago Democrats support her as enthusiastically as Barack Obama after now seeing the consequences?

As the election totals show, Democratic turnout in Illinois spiked dramatically for Barack Obama in 2008, but that peak declined by 400,000 votes in 2012.

When Dick Durbin ran in 2008, he got 3.6 million votes, which was even more than Obama. By 2014, as the consequences of the Obama administration became obvious, Durbin got only 1.87 million votes.

In 2014, Governor Rauner won with 1.82 million votes as Democratic governors Quinn and Blagojevich lost support. A Republican also won as governor in 1998 with 1.7 million votes, which is typical for a midterm.

It is not impossible for Republicans to win Illinois. The Republican Party in Illinois, however, has not run a successful presidential campaign since Reagan-Bush. The national strategy of just paying attention to a few easier “swing states” has meant that little serious effort or investment has been made to grow the base of the party in Illinois since the Reagan era. It can be done.


Consider the above data in the historical context of the Reagan-Bush years.

In 1984, President Reagan earned over 2.7 million votes, up from 2.35 million in 1980.

That 1980 turnout is very similar to the results for George W. Bush in 2004, when there was strong support in Illinois but not enough for him to win as his campaign focus was on other “swing states” after he lost Illinois with only 2 million votes in 2000.

Further analysis shows that total Illinois voter turnout in the Clinton years declined to about 4.2 million and 3.9 million in 1992 and 1996 respectively. Illinois voters were not enthusiastic Clinton supporters.

No Republican since President Reagan has earned close to the 2.7 million votes he achieved in his 1984 landslide. In other words, although Illinois was still mired in Democratic policies in Springfield, the voters responded to Reagan with a dramatic increase over his 1980 totals, which were more typical of a strong Republican year.

Those were the “Reagan Democrats” and independents who came out for Reagan, but not for the more “moderate” candidates put forward by the party ever since, including George H.W. Bush, whose total declined from 2.3 million in 1988 (a typical good year, like 1980) to only 1.7 million in his loss to Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton picked up votes in 1992 relative to 1988, but he won on a much lower total voter turnout.


How can Illinois be won by Republicans?

First, consider the difference between the Chicago area (the city plus the suburban “collar counties”) and the rest of Illinois.

Republicans already win most counties of Illinois. Even in Cook County, the suburban townships are more Republican than the city of Chicago. Within Chicago, Republicans are outnumbered, but Democratic turnout in a presidential year varies significantly. There was a lot of enthusiasm for Barack Obama in 2008, but much less in 2012. In 2014, the turnout for Senator Dick Durbin was almost half the level of 2008. He got only slightly more votes than Governor Rauner.

As shown above by a hypothetical model for Illinois voter turnout in 2016, assuming that roughly 5.0 million Illinois voters will show up, the Republican presidential nominee would need more than 2.5 million votes to win.

Since Illinois has 20 Electoral College votes, that could be decisive nationally. Most “swing states” are smaller, and most political pundits assume that Illinois cannot be won. Is it really likely, however, that Hillary Clinton or any other Democratic nominee in 2016 is going to perform as well as Barack Obama did, or even as well as Bill Clinton? Bill Clinton never got 2.5 million votes in Illinois in 1992 or 1996. A serious Republican campaign could win.