Illinois' longshot candidates: Who are they and why do they bother?

Political psychologist says, 'We are all optimistic, by nature.'

October 28, 2010

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Steve Kim, Dan Rutherford, Isaac Hayes and Angel Garcia

You've heard of Lisa Madigan, no doubt. But have you heard of Steve Kim? You may know who David Orr is. But what about Angel Garcia? Those names you probably didn't recognize - they're on the ballot next week in Cook County and Illinois. But - excuse us for being frank - those candidates stand next to no chance of winning.

So what motivates them to challenge the odds? Why do they bother? To find out, we talked to some candidates who are longshots - or once were.

Last weekend, Dan Rutherford was greeted a bit like a celebrity when he walked into a sparsely-furnished second floor office in Chicago’s East Side neighborhood.

A Republican state senator from Chenoa, about two hours southwest of Chicago, Rutherford is a candidate for state treasurer.

RUTHERFORD: The people in Illinois - all the way from this 10th Ward, to the county of Cook, clear to deep Southern Illinois - they're mad.

Rutherford rallied the dozen or so local volunteers who would be passing out Republican campaign literature later in the day.  

He stood alongside 3 other Republican candidates - Angel Garcia running for Cook County clerk, Isaac Hayes for Congress, and Steve Kim, on the ballot for Illinois attorney general.  

RUTHERFORD: Is it alright with you guys, if I ask all of them to vote for the four of us? (laughter) Alright. We have a unanimous decision.

But unlike Rutherford, who is in a competitive race for treasurer against Democrat Robin Kelly, the three other Republicans at this small rally don't have much of a chance of winning. They are longshots. They know it. Rutherford knows it.

RUTHERFORD: Yup, it's an uphill battle. It's going to be really tough. But having gone through one of those myself, I appreciated it when someone I felt knew what they was doing would embrace me, encourage me, congratulate me for something good and to kind of give me the pat on the back.  

Rutherford is referring to his own "uphill battle" four years ago, when he ran for Secretary of State against Jesse White. This year, he's got newspaper endorsements, raised a lot of money, and is running TV commercials. But back then, Jesse White crushed him by more than a million votes. That campaign, though, allowed Rutherford to introduce himself to voters, meet reporters and local leaders, basically - learn how to run a statewide campaign.

RUTHERFORD: Because now, when Dan Rutherford from central Illinois comes in to and talks on Korean radio - okay - and I was just there a couple days ago. When I go in and do Korean radio, it's like, 'Oh, senator, you're back again. Thank you.' So there's a familiarity that has come about because of that.

Rutherford has shared his experiences with Steve Kim, a lawyer and former aide to Governor Jim Edgar whose only elected office was as a trustee for Northbrook Township. He entered a race that no other Republican in Illinois dared enter - to challenge the incumbent attorney general, Lisa Madigan.

KIM: I think I have ideas and the background and experience that can help improve the lives of the people of this state. And that doesn't stop November 2nd. So the voters and the people of Illinois haven't heard the last of me. 

Even though he's thinking beyond the election, Kim - like every candidate I talk to - says he's in this race to win it. But do they really believe it, and if so, how? Maybe there's some academic field that studies this stuff - perhaps a combination of political science and psychology.

KROSNICK: I am a political psychologist. So that means I study the psychology of political behavior.

And we have our expert. Jon Krosnick is with Stanford University. He heads up the political psychology institute there, and says there's a good reason these candidates say they're in it to win it. Because, he says, at least to some extent,  they are.  

KROSNICK: We are all optimistic, by nature. That we cannot make it from day to day unless we live with what psychologists call positive illusions. And the idea that a candidate running says, 'Well, I could win,' you know that's not completely unreasonable.  

But longshot candidates don't all jump in the race for the same reasons, Krosnick says. He divides them into two categories.

KROSNICK: The first is that young candidates who are planning a long career in politics realize that the first time they run, they're not very well known, they're not very experienced and connected. But they've got to get their feet in the water in order to get a sense of how the process works and to begin to develop a reputation.  

So that's the first group. Longshot candidates in the second category, Professor Krosnick says, are motivated by message. For example, Ross Perot in his presidential campaigns. He mostly wanted to get a stage - in political debates or campaign commercials - to influence the issues and maybe get a bit of attention.  

KROSNICK: It's a very effective way of getting into a spotlight for a sustained period of time and getting lots of discussion about a particular philosophy.  

Not all candidates, though, think they fall into Krosnick's two categories.

WALLS: I'm probably in that third category which is a person with a message who's watched sports and watched politics and I've seen the improbable become possible.  

Bill "Dock" Walls is a community activist from Chicago who's launched campaigns in the past for Congress, for city clerk, for mayor, for governor, and now - again - for mayor.

HUDZIK: Is there a risk that you just get this label, perennial candidate, and then you're not taken seriously?

WALLS: No. You know, the media would love to label me a perennial candidate. But most people in the African American community, most people in the progressive community, many people in the Latino community, don't even know what perennial means and they don't care. We teach our children if at first you don't succeed, try, try again. So when people speak of me they speak of me as someone who's undaunted and willing to take on the challenges.  

As Walls reminds me, longshot candidates sometimes - not often, perhaps - but sometimes, they win. And there is, I acknowledge, a Catch-22 in my even labelling someone a longshot candidate. Those labels stick, reinforcing the idea that underdogs like Bill "Dock" Walls cannot possibly win. That doesn't exactly help a campaign attract volunteers or donations.

But candidates like Steve Kim have a plan for when reporters ask about their longshot status.

KIM: I stick to my message. And I stick to the positives. I stick to my background and experience, and I stick to what I'm going to do when I'm the state's next attorney general. Everyone else that wants to talk about an 'uphill battle,' I can't stop them from that.

A Chicago Tribune poll released this week shows Kim trailing Lisa Madigan by nearly 50-points. Regardless, Madigan a few weeks ago started playing T-V ads about her record.  No matter why Madigan decided to spend money on ads, it makes Steve Kim a little proud.

After all, his opponent may be ignoring him, but at least she isn't ignoring the election.