Picking a President

Photo from the McLean County Historical Society. 
On Tuesday—for the 51st time in our state’s history—Illinoisans will participate in deciding who will lead the nation for the next four years.

Over the years Illinois has had a fairly good record of ending up on the winning side in Presidential contests. In the state’s first 50 Presidential elections, the candidate who carried Illinois ultimately made it to the White House 42 times, an 84% victory rate.

Until 2000, no Republican had ever won the Presidency without winning Illinois. Only three Democrats, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter have reached the Presidency without Illinois’ electoral votes. Cleveland actually lost Illinois twice before finally breaking through on his third try, and while Wilson fell short in his second run in 1916 he won Illinois the first time he ran in 1912. Two Whigs (Zachary Taylor and William Henry Harrison) were the only other nominees to win the Presidency without winning Illinois.

From 1920 through 1972 Illinois was on the winning side in 14 consecutive elections, backing seven Democrat tickets and seven Republican tickets. Illinois has only been on the losing side in consecutive Presidential elections once: 2000 and 2004.

Across the last 202 years the state’s clout has increased and then diminished.

In 1820; the first time Illinois voters helped choose a President; the new state had the bare minimum of electoral votes (three) which the state gave to re-elect President James Madison. Madison in his first term had signed the Illinois Enabling Act which granted Illinois statehood. Illinois’ mathematical influence grew along with the state and peaked from 1912 to 1940 when the state had 29 electoral votes.

Starting with the 1940s, however, as more Americans moved to southern and western states, Illinois followed a trend which struck other industrial northern states in losing electoral votes. Having given 29 electoral votes to Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, 1936 and 1940, Illinois had only 28 to give him in 1944. There were 27 electoral votes for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, 26 for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, 24 for Ronald Reagan in 1984 and 22 for Bill Clinton in 1992. Illinois currently has 20 electoral votes, with a reapportionment scheduled for next year following the results of the 2020 Census.

When the electoral college casts its votes later this year to formally elect the President, Illinois will be tied with Pennsylvania with the fifth-largest delegation, trailing California (55), Texas (38), Florida (29) and New York (29).

Illinois has seen its share of close Presidential contests over the years. The most famous of these remains the 1960 matchup between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. The official count gave Kennedy an 8858 vote margin over Nixon, or 0.18%. Legends and speculation have endured for half a century about the 1960 election in Illinois. Regardless of what happened or did not happen in Illinois that year, the outcome would have remained the same: Kennedy won with 303 electoral votes, enough to claim the Presidency without Illinois.

The smallest number of votes to decide a Presidential election in Illinois came in 1824 when John Quincy Adams defeated Andrew Jackson by 244 votes. Of course this came at a time when Illinois’ population was a small fraction of its current total and when whole segments of the population were disenfranchised. In more recent times Harry Truman edged out Thomas Dewey in Illinois in 1948 by just 33,612 votes on his way to victory in an election made famous by the next morning’s “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline in the Chicago Tribune.

Four Illinoisans have made it to the Oval Office. Each of them was also re-elected to a second term. Each time, their home state delivered for its favorite son. Most recently Barack Obama of Chicago easily took Illinois, winning with 62% in 2008 and 58% in 2012. Before that, Ronald Reagan of Dixon won Illinois with 56% in 1984 and 50% in 1980 when the third-party candidacy of Illinois Congressman John Anderson also claimed a share of the Prairie State’s votes. More than a hundred years earlier, Ulysses S. Grant of Galena took 56% of the vote in each of his successful runs in 1868 and 1872. The first Illinoisan to reach the White House was, of course, Abraham Lincoln of Springfield, who got just over 54% of the Illinois vote in his re-election bid in 1864 after winning the state with almost 51% in 1860.

That 1860 election is notable for many things, including the fact that it was the first and only time that both major parties nominated Illinoisans for the White House. Senator Stephen Douglas, who had bested Lincoln in the Illinois Senate race two years earlier, fell short in the rematch, garnering only 47% of the vote in his home state.

Douglas’ loss was the first of six elections in which an Illinoisan at the top of a major party Presidential ticket would miss the big prize. The next three belonged to William Jennings Bryan who made his fame as a Nebraskan, but was born in Salem, Illinois. Bryan was nominated unsuccessfully in 1896, 1900 and 1908. Each time Illinois declined to back the “Great Commoner,” giving him 43% of the vote against William McKinley in 1896, 44% in their 1900 rematch, and then just 39% against William Howard Taft in 1908.

The last Illinoisan to be nominated unsuccessfully by a major party for the Presidency was Adlai Stevenson II, who twice challenged Dwight Eisenhower for the Presidency in 1952 and 1956. Stevenson, who was also the only Governor of Illinois to be nominated for the Presidency when he ran in 1952, lost his home state to Eisenhower 55-45 in 1952 and then nearly 60-40 in 1956.

Illinois did, however, back a different Stevenson on the national ticket back in 1892. That year Adlai Stevenson I, grandfather of the future Governor and Presidential nominee, was nominated for Vice President alongside Grover Cleveland, the former President seeking a return to the White House. The Cleveland-Stevenson ticket took Illinois by just under 27,000 votes on their way to victory nationwide. Stevenson was not so successful in the above-mentioned 1900 election when he was again nominated for Vice President, this time alongside Bryan.

Stevenson was the first of two Vice Presidents from Illinois. The other was Charles Dawes who ran successfully with President Calvin Coolidge in 1924, taking a wide victory in Illinois and the nation that year.

Throughout its 200-plus years of statehood Illinois has left its mark on American history. That list of accomplishments includes those it has propelled to the White House and the four who, thus far, have made the journey from the Prairie State to the Oval Office.