Primary 2012: Meager turnout, sweeping impact

Even a rousing GOP presidential contest could not rally voters.

March 21, 2012

The Associated Press

Illinois voters, at least the ones who bothered to show up, did the math and wound up backing Mitt Romney, a candidate they see as less than thrilling but still the Republican Party's best chance of capturing the White House this fall.

Turnout seems likely to be among the lowest in decades — perhaps the lowest, period. The record low in state records dating back to 1960 is 23 percent, which happened two years ago. Officials in several election districts said Tuesday's turnout was hovering around 20 percent.

Romney easily bested Rick Santorum in the popular vote and captured at least 41 of the 54 delegates at stake, pushing him closer to his party's nomination.

But many voters were less than enthusiastic about Romney.

"On all the issues, I disagree with him less than I do anyone else," said Cherie Fletcher, a voter in Urbana. "I am not a strong supporter of anybody. ... Isn't that terrible?"

More than 4 out of 10 Republican voters had reservations about their preferred candidate, exit polls showed. Romney held a 20-point lead within that group.

Voters also said what they most wanted in a candidate was the ability to beat President Barack Obama. Romney was the overwhelming pick of those voters.

In the southwestern Illinois town of Columbia, Michelle Miller said she prefers Newt Gingrich but eventually decided she should back Romney because he stands a better chance in the fall.

"That was a tough one," she said.

Enthusiasm curbed across the board

Outside the presidential spotlight, U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. survived his first serious challenge in years. And in a bitter Republican battle for a seat in Congress, freshman Republican Adam Kinzinger defeated veteran Donald Manzullo .

Turnout was low across the state. In Sangamon County, a Republican stronghold in central Illinois, about 1 in 5 registered voters cast ballots. The numbers were about the same in the GOP-leaning suburbs of Cook County. Kane County saw similar results, although officials said turnout among Republicans topped 50 percent.

The city of Chicago, overwhelmingly Democratic, might end up with its lowest turnout since World War II. Officials said turnout was 22.8 percent, with just 1 percent of precincts left to count as of early Wednesday morning.

The lack of statewide races beyond the presidential contest likely played a role in holding down turnout, particularly among Democrats. It was the first Illinois primary since 2000 that didn't include a race for U.S. Senate or governor.

Political mud-slinging may have played a role too.

"Particularly for the Republican campaigns, there was highly negative advertising which usually depresses votes. People think if all the candidates are bad like ads tell them, they don't want to be involved," said Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In most years, presidential nominations are settled long before the Illinois primary, but Santorum's recent string of victories elsewhere made Obama's home state relevant in the GOP contest.

Romney, in his victory speech, portrayed himself as an economic expert after years spent in the business world — in sharp contrast to the work Obama did before reaching the White House.

"You can't learn that teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago. You can't even learn that as a community organizer," said the former Massachusetts governor.

With 99 percent of precincts reporting by early Wednesday morning, Romney had 428,434 votes, or 46.7 percent, and Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, had 321,079 votes, or 35 percent. Ron Paul had 9.3 percent, and Newt Gingrich had 8 percent.

Aftereffects of redistricting

Candidates are running in newly drawn political districts, so the officials ultimately elected will have a huge advantage in keeping those seats for the rest of the decade.

The Democratic majority at the state Capitol drew the new maps to make life difficult for Republicans. As a result, Manzullo and Kinzinger were forced to battle for survival in northwestern Illinois, with Manzullo losing after 10 terms in Congress.

On the Democratic side, Jackson was weakened by his admission of an affair and ties to imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. But the Chicago political veteran easily defeated former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorsen of Crete.

In the Legislature, eight incumbent Republicans wound up facing each other in the new districts, meaning four of them will be out of office no matter who wins.

State Rep. Derrick Smith of Chicago won his race despite being hit with federal bribery charges last week.

Democratic leaders aided his campaign because the challenger was a former Republican official. Now that the ex-GOP leader has been dispatched, Democrats are likely to pressure Smith to step aside so a new candidate can be appointed.

In a Supreme Court race, Mary Jane Theis was nominated for a 10-year term representing Cook County after a race that featured plenty of sniping. Come November, she’ll face Republican Judge James Riley for an open seat on the state’s highest court.