Illinois Primary Results Revisited as COVID-19 Crisis Cripples Turnout

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

In what now seems like ancient history, Illinois Civics Instructional Specialist Mary Ellen Daneels and I previewed Super Tuesday and the St. Patrick’s Day primaries that included Illinois in a February 18 webinar. While Ohio and many states since postponed their primaries amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Illinois pushed ahead with voting days before a statewide shelter-in-place directive. What follows is my analysis of the results, and please join us for our April 21 webinar on Election 2020 titled “End Game.”

Recall that Illinois will send 155 pledged delegates, plus an additional 29 superdelegates, to the Democratic National Convention now scheduled for the week of August 17 in Milwaukee. By defeating Senator Bernie Sanders by 23 points in Illinois on March 17 (59.0% to 36%; see tally and map below), former Vice President Biden claimed 94 delegates to Sanders’ 60 with one yet to be allocated. Biden’s victory was expansive, winning 101 of 102 counties (Sanders prevailed by 2.9% in Champaign County), especially impressive given that Sanders won 78 counties in 2016, with Hillary Clinton edging him statewide given massive margins in Cook and St. Clair Counties.


Biden leads the overall delegate race over Sanders 1,217-914, with 1,991 delegates necessary to clinch the nomination, a subject we’ll address at greater length during the April 21 webinar.

Down the ballot,
  • Marie Newman knocked off longtime Congressman Dan Lipinski in the 3rd District on Chicago’s southwest side and suburbs, elevating a progressive more in line with the Democratic Party nationally than the socially moderate incumbent.
  • Former State Representative Jeanie Ives ran away with the Republican nomination in the 6th District in Chicago’s western suburbs for the right to face freshman incumbent Sean Casten in November.
  • And State Senator Jim Oberweis won a narrow plurality (with only 25.6% of the vote) in the exurban 14th District to challenge first term Congresswoman Lauren Underwood.
Downstate, Central Illinois Democrat Betsy Dirksen Longdrigan rolled to a rematch with incumbent Republican Rodney Davis, while Republican Mary Miller won the nomination for an open seat to replace retiring Congressman John Shimkus in Southern Illinois’ 15th District. Miller is opposed by Democrat Erika Weaver.

Of Illinois’ 18 congressional races, only four are deemed competitive, with the Davis-Longdrigan matchup in the 13th a toss-up, Underwood-Oberweis in the 14th leaning to the Democrats, and both Casten-Ives in the 6th and Representative Cheri Bustos’ reelection bid in Western Illinois’ 17th likely Democratic holds.

Finally, incumbent Senator Dick Durbin seeks a fifth term and will face former Lake County Sheriff and Republican nominee Mark Curran in a race unlikely to be competitive, although control of the U.S. is very much up for grabs.

Given the timing of Illinois’ primary, turnout proved lackluster in comparison to 2016 and 2008, yet higher than 2012 when President Obama sought reelection. 2020 primary turnout for the presidential contest was down 21% in comparison to 2016 (see graph below).


However, the Republican presidential nomination is virtually uncontested, campaigns were curtailed in the closing days as the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced, and citizens proved wary of in-person voting. Many opted instead for mail-in ballots, and the state would be wise to prepare for a similar enterprise at scale come fall. Stay tuned for further analysis of the 2020 Election through the lens of Illinois politics in this brave new world of e-learning while candidates run campaigns not from their front porch, but their basements.

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