Monday, February 25, 2013

What You Need to Know Before the #IL02 Special Election

Even in regular election years, individual House races rarely get much attention—so you know you're getting down into the depths of obscurity when you're dealing with a special House election. On February 26, the voters of the new Illinois Second Congressional District will choose their next US representative, succeeding Jesse Jackson Jr., who resigned due to mental illness and a now-exploding ethics investigation. True, February 26 is just a primary, but in this heavily Democratic district (a Cook PVI of D+27), the winner of Tuesday's Democratic primary is guaranteed a coronation on the general-election date of April 9.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, there are no less than 15 Democrats running for this seat that hasn't been open since 1995. That's daunting for election watchers like us who want to know what's going on and who's likely to win. Thankfully, Baseballot is here to grant you a crash course before you tune in on Tuesday.

I know the Illinois Second about as well as you can without being a local; my mother grew up there, and I visited family there frequently while growing up. The first thing to know is that it's an extremely diverse district, both geographically and demographically. IL-02's northern border sits on East 53rd St. in urban Chicago—Hyde Park, to be precise, President's Obama's home neighborhood (although he just narrowly avoids being in the district and the awkward questioning that would surely come with it). A small, well-to-do neighborhood for professors at the nearby University of Chicago, mostly white Hyde Park quickly gives way to the poor, almost completely African-American South Side. Despite physically taking up only the northern tip of the district, the South Side constitutes a hefty chunk of its vote share; Chicago accounted for 26% of the total votes cast for Congress in this district in 2012 (76,506 out of 297,712 total).

As you drive south on I-94 past Lake Calumet, you cross the Chicago city limits into the core suburbs of the Illinois Second. Cities like Calumet City, Dolton, Harvey, and South Holland are also majority African-American, though unlike the virtually homogenous South Side, they retain some of the white voters who were their traditional residents a generation or two ago. Currently, the dividing line is I-80/I-294, which crosses I-94 about 15 miles south of where we began in Hyde Park. The change is evident immediately to a southbound driver: suburban commerce, strip malls, and densely packed cookie-cutter homes give way to forests, wide-open spaces, and, yes, cornfields. Most communities south of I-80/I-294, such as Homewood and Lansing, remain white enclaves. By the time you hit Will County just south of Chicago Heights, you've driven past 52% (154,284 of 297,712 votes cast in the 2012 congressional race) of the district's voters since crossing over from Chicago. Roughly half of that suburban vote share is in the mostly black northern suburbs, roughly half is in the mostly white southern suburbs, but all of it is solidly Democratic.

In stark contrast, Will County, from Steger and Crete all the way down to Peotone and Beecher, is rural, white, and Republican. Only 8% of the district's vote resides here, despite a land area as big as all the turf we had covered to the north. Another 20 miles south, through Kankakee County, and the district finally comes to an end—the low population density and farmland sharply different than where we began. Anchored by the relatively large city of Kankakee, Kankakee County accounts for a larger 15% of the district by 2012 vote share, but it votes even more reliably with the GOP. Kankakee's sizable black population (about 11,000 strong) accounts for virtually every Democratic vote cast down here. Overall, the Illinois Second is 29.6% white, 55.3% black, and 12.8% Latino.

The stage is set; next, meet the cast of characters—though certainly not all of them. Eleven of the 15 Democratic candidates are pretty clearly hopeless. The main two names to remember are former State Representative Robin Kelly and former Congresswoman Debbie Halvorson, the undisputed frontrunners. Thought to be a dark horse by some is Alderman Anthony Beale, although in this blogger's opinion, a win by him would be a real shocker. Pulling up the rear of the viable candidates but managing to separate himself from the riffraff is former Congressman Mel Reynolds, who actually preceded Jackson in this seat but had to resign himself due to charges of statutory rape. (Two other potentially potent candidates, State Senator Napoleon Harris and State Senator Toi Hutchinson, have dropped out in recent weeks.)

In this majority-black district, the only white name of the six above is Halvorson; a roughly proportional two of them (Beale and Reynolds) are from Chicago city proper. Halvorson is from idyllic Crete, part of Will County. Kelly is from Matteson, one of the few mainly black communities south of I-80/I-294. Kelly is also the best-financed candidate; she raised $200,000 by December 31, unfortunately the most recent figure we'll have before the election. Before dropping out, Hutchinson has raised the second most at $135,000; interestingly, Halvorson had raised only about as much as Beale ($50,000). Reynolds hasn't even raised enough to trigger an FEC report.

It is on December 31 that our play begins. At the start of the new year, Halvorson had real reason to be confident, despite those low fundraising totals: in a jumbled, yet-to-be-defined field, she had the name recognition and thus the advantage. The old (pre-redistricting) congresswoman for the southern half of the Illinois Second before losing in the Republican wave of 2010, Halvorson also benefited from a split in the black vote between Kelly, Hutchinson, Beale, and the other black candidates in the race.

Polling at the time bore this out. Both the Kelly campaign and the Hutchinson campaign released internal polls in early January:

Kelly poll Hutchinson poll
Debbie Halvorson 25% 16%
Toi Hutchinson 16% 12%
Robin Kelly 15% 8%
Anthony Beale 10% 5%
Napoleon Harris 9% 7%
Mel Reynolds 8% 7%
Conducted Jan. 3–7 Jan. 8–10
Sample 500 LV 400 LV

Bear in mind that each campaign's poll is probably biased by five or so points in their candidate's favor, but a clear picture of the race emerges: Hutchinson and Kelly, with their fundraising advantages, were poised to strike. Kelly's poll also showed her with leads among African-American women and suburban African-Americans; in such a black district, that indicated she had more room to grow. Importantly, Kelly's poll also showed one more thing: a deep dislike within the district for the National Rifle Association.

Alongside typical bread-and-butter topics like seniors or the construction of a third airport for Chicagoland in Peotone, one issue that quickly took hold in this heavily urban district was gun control. Especially after the high-profile shooting of a 15-year-old Chicagoan who had performed at President Obama's inauguration, Kelly emphasized that her "F" rating from the NRA made her the best candidate to stop gun violence in the district. Kelly also didn't miss a chance to point out that her two main rivals, Halvorson and Hutchinson, both had received "A" grades from the organization. Halvorson also didn't do herself any favors by continuing to oppose the assault-weapons ban—although Hutchinson quickly saw the error of her ways and distanced herself from the NRA.

By February 1, the momentum in the race was clearly Kelly's. First, Napoleon Harris dropped out, endorsing Kelly and helping to consolidate some of the African-American vote. Then Kelly scored her real coup—an endorsement and $2.1 million from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's anti-gun super PAC. Then again, you probably knew that already, since Bloomberg's involvement nationalized the special election around the issue of gun control and made that the defining issue of the campaign for good.

Courtesy of Mayor Bloomberg, commercials lambasting Halvorson and Hutchinson have been airing nonstop in Chicago since early February, and they took their toll. The Kelly campaign released another internal poll, conducted February 4–5 of 400 likely voters, that flaunted her new frontrunner status:

Vote Share Change from Jan.
Robin Kelly 26% +11%
Debbie Halvorson 22% –3%
Toi Hutchinson 20% +4%
Anthony Beale 10%None
Mel Reynolds 5% –3%

The poll also showed that Kelly was now the preferred candidate of African-American voters overall and anti-gun voters overall. As the dialogue in the campaign and debates continued to center on gun control, Kelly looked unstoppable. The current was so strong that even one of the supposed frontrunners saw no path to victory; on February 17, just nine days before Election Day, Hutchinson dropped out of the race and endorsed Kelly. Word was that internal Hutchinson polls had found Kelly with an insurmountable double-digit lead over the field.

Critics cried foul, as they saw a last-minute backroom deal to anoint a single black candidate and tell the African-American community to get behind her en masse. However, Hutchinson hails from—and represents in the State Senate—the southern part of the district, and her strongest base of support proved to be the (predominantly white) voters in this area. To Kelly's chagrin, there is good reason to think Hutchinson's voters were predisposed to switch to Halvorson, not Kelly, after her withdrawal. (In fact, Hutchinson was once Halvorson's chief of staff and now represents Halvorson's old State Senate district.)

What's more, in recent days, Kelly has experienced the backlash typical of a frontrunner. Halvorson and others have been trying to paint Bloomberg's involvement as a liability, urging voters not to let the election "get bought" by outside forces. On Thursday, news also broke that Kelly was facing an ethics probe over timesheet abuse while working for the Illinois treasurer's office. Since this news became public, Kelly has not and will not participate in any more debates—no doubt hoping to freeze the race as is, but also avoiding tough questions about the probe.

Oddly, that last hyperlink references a We Ask America poll taken recently in the district, but that poll exists nowhere else on the internet. Therefore, the most recent snapshot of the race is also the only public poll taken in the race to my knowledge. Taken February 17–19 (before the ethics news), it shows a tightening race: its 500 participants gave Halvorson 21% to Kelly's 17%—a statistical tie.

Tomorrow, as the clichĂ© goes, the only poll that matters takes place: Election Day. It certainly looks like a nailbiter, as Halvorson seems to be getting a second wind at exactly the right time. Still, it's worth paying attention to the raw numbers—specifically, how Halvorson's support is pretty static (between 21% and 25% in almost every poll). To put it bluntly, this is her ceiling: the number of likely white voters in the Democratic primary.

Like any election, the result will come down to turnout. For Halvorson to win, that means turning out white voters; for Kelly to win, it means consolidating the support of enough black voters to break the 21–25% threshold. A real X-factor in Tuesday's turnout, however, will be a snowstorm expected to buffet the region tomorrow with heavy winds and three to five inches of snow. Turnout for special elections is already extremely low, making them unpredictable as is; this storm could push turnout into the single digits.

Whom will that help? My money is on Kelly, as her support comes mainly from the black voters who live in more densely packed areas. Simply put, polling places in urban and dense suburban areas are closer and easier to get to than those in the rural areas where Halvorson is drawing her support. Just because of Halvorson supporters' reliance on their cars and driving longer distances to vote, I expect that she'll be hurt the most by the weather. My final prediction: Kelly by six.

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