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Elections Tue Feb 04 2014
An Ethernet cable. Carrie Underwood's career. What Derrick Rose does to people at the top of the key. That Nissan with the really stupid commercials. They're all crossovers. And the next big crossover is coming our way.
They'll go by a lot of different names. You can call them Grand Old Party Crashers, or One Trick Pachyderms, or maybe just Those Meddling, Conniving Democrats.
They're the Elephants for a Day. And they're diabolically plotting to pull Republican primary ballots this March even though they're not really Republicans.
And maybe you're one of them.
The generic term is "crossover voters" — people who identify with one party but vote in a different party's primary. Generally, this only happens when one party's primary is very boring, and another party's primary is very interesting — and that's the situation at hand.
The Democratic primary is mostly a dud this year. Governor Pat Quinn does have a primary opponent — Tio Hardiman, former executive director of CeaseFire — and Hardiman will definitely pick up some protest votes. But Quinn is in no danger of losing the primary. U.S. Senator Dick Durbin is unopposed, and none of the other statewide offices are opposed. None of the countywide offices in Cook County are opposed, either. There's little incentive for voters to pull Democratic ballots this year.
The Republican primary, on the other hand, is already a bonanza of excitement. Long-time officeholders Kirk Dillard, Bill Brady and Dan Rutherford are all reasonably well-known statewide. Venture capitalist Bruce Rauner is the lightning rod, though. Rauner is literally trying to buy the election — he's already put in over $1,000,000 of his own money — and along the way he is running the most strident anti-union, anti-incumbent, shake-up-the-system campaign Illinois has seen in recent memory.
According to the polls, it's working. Even though Rauner has gotten hammered in the press in recent weeks, he's gained ground with voters. In part this is because he's spent so much money, and in part it's because he's managed to get more media attention than the other candidates combined... because, well, he's spent so much money. Rauner has been running TV commercials, during prime spots, for months. His opponents haven't run a single commercial yet.
Democrats don't want Rauner to win the nomination. As I wrote previously, Pat Quinn's best shot at holding onto his seat is likely for Rauner to lose the primary. Beyond that, if you're a fatalist Democrat and you think Quinn is going to lose one way or another, you'd much rather have someone like Rutherford who's more of a known quantity.
But Republican leaders don't want Rauner to win the nomination either. A group with ties to Congressman Aaron Schock (R-Peoria) has gotten into the game. Kirk Dillard in particular expresses special animus for Rauner. The Republican histrionics over Rauner ultimately seem to have less to do with his politics than with his violating the tenets of their Good Old Boys Club — and maybe with thinking this is the year they can finally get one of their own elected, with all of the plum appointments that come with it.
This is where the Elephants for a Day come in. Rauner's greater exposure may be resulting in his doing better in polls of likely Republican voters, but what if the Republican primary is flooded by people the polls aren't accounting for?
Illinois has what is known as a "semi-open primary." Voters do not register as members of particular political parties. Instead, at the primary election, voters declare which party's ballot they wish to take. In most parts of the state, only Democratic and Republican ballots are available. (In limited cases, either Non-Partisan ballots with only local referenda, or Green Party ballots for uncontested primaries for local offices may be available.)
(The decision of which ballot a voter selects is technically a matter of public record. Political party organizations and campaigns, when they request voter rolls from election authorities, will be able to get lists of people who voted in one party's primary or the other. This is what makes Illinois "semi-open" instead of "open" — in a completely open primary state like Texas, the voter's choice of primary ballot is secret, and the parties have no idea who actually voted in their primaries. FairVote.org provides a solid reference for comparing the various types of primaries.)
In states with registration by party and closed primaries (where you have to be a registrant of a party to vote in their primary), crossover voting is extremely uncommon, because it requires resubmitting a voter registration form well in advance of an election. In Illinois, though, a person can be a Democrat or be a Republican on any given election day just by declaring themselves so.
Crossover voting has been common in Illinois for a long time. Downstate, many areas have only had Republican county officeholders for decades, making the Republican primary the de facto election. The phenomenon is mostly reversed in Cook County.
What makes the situation at hand supposedly different — and what has Rauner crying foul — is that it seems like Democratic-leaning groups may be visibly attempting to affect the Republican primary.
Rich Miller of Capitol Fax reported in January that unions are preparing an "assault" on Rauner. Russ Stewart has said much the same thing, but he added this caution: "If the unions target [Rauner] in the Republican primary, they better beat him, and with three foes, that's unlikely."
Stewart's point is salient here — attack ads against Rauner won't help if the people who oppose Rauner the most aren't participants in the primary, and if those who are split their votes across his three opponents. What will have to happen is for the various anti-Rauner camps to coalesce around one preferred candidate. That candidate will need to be acceptable to moderate Democrats, while still looking like someone who could beat Quinn in November to satisfy moderate Republicans.
The most likely beneficiary of that informal coalition will be State Treasurer Dan Rutherford. Rutherford has already proven capable of winning statewide office as a Republican in a solidly Democratic state. He is widely seen as the most moderate of the Republican challengers — and his fundraising is in decent shape, which neither Brady nor Dillard can claim.
Most of the reporting has focused less on the prospect of crossover voting than on the idea that deep-pocketed Democratic groups will pour money into the election. Most of this money, presumably, would flow into traditional advertising like television. But a focus on crossover voting can target two significant voter pools: younger voters and voters who remain swayed by local ward machines.
Younger voters are less likely to formally identify with one major party or the other — but they lean Democratic. And they're a lot less likely to be watching the nightly news. What we should expect as March 18 election draws near is the growing presence of what we'll call the Viral Herd.
The Viral Herd will involve groups generally predisposed to loathe Rauner. Social media will start to be flooded with calls for people to not only vote in the primary, but to vote Republican, and likely vote for Rutherford. Rauner will be portrayed as the Illinois version of extreme anti-union Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. The razor thin margin of victory for Brady in 2010 will be repeatedly cited as evidence that this election can be won with a small percentage of voters crossing over.
I also think that Rutherford will benefit — to the surprise of many commentators — from ongoing rumors about his sexual orientation. (Some readers may argue that rumors like this shouldn't be brought up. My opinion is that these rumors are likely to have an impact on the race, and therefore, media should not pretend that the rumors don't exist. Just this week extremely vague allegations of misconduct were made against Rutherford. If the media thinks it's fine to report in a way that suggests that a candidate may have committed an act of malfeasance, then refusing to report on the existence of rumors which might impact the race, yet don't actually involve any wrongdoing, would seem very hypocritical.)
In Chicago, local ward machines aren't as strong as they used to be, but they remain important in many areas of the city. Precinct captains and other functionaries of patronage armies can easily be given instructions to relay to voters as they enter the polls that they should pull Republican ballots this year. Ward committeeman seats aren't up in Chicago in 2014, so they might have no other reason to get out the vote.
While some elections can simply be bought — look no further than Michael Bloomberg buying Robin Kelly's seat in Congress in 2013 — other elections require multi-faceted, nuanced strategies. For anti-Rauner foes, running ads attacking Rauner and pushing some money toward a consensus alternate candidate like Rutherford will of course happen. But the real elephants in the room will be there for just one day and move on.
Or will they? What if the strategy backfires? What if Rutherford ultimately proves to be an even stronger challenger to Quinn than Rauner? Are unions okay with Rutherford winning the election?
The answer is Yes, at least for some unions. AFSCME, IEA, and IFT aren't going to support Quinn anyway. The pension fight has so alienated union leadership that it's not infeasible to think that they would actually prefer a Rutherford victory. It's because of this that the prospect of union involvement — even in encouraging rank and file members to be crossover voters — is so likely.
Therein, at least for the unions, lies the ultimate tragedy of the Elephant for a Day approach. Unions and other groups, recoiling from what's gone down in Wisconsin and other states, beaten down by the pension disaster in Springfield, and supremely screwed over by Rahm Emanuel, may actually crossover and help get a Republican elected as governor of Illinois, instead of stepping back and trying to rebuild around a positive political vision. These groups have been politically short-sighted for years, claiming that they can't afford to alienate their Democratic friends, even as those friends have turned their backs or been replaced by neo-liberals with no use for union support. If Rutherford does win the nomination, and these groups are all truly indifferent as to whether Rutherford or Quinn wins in November, then this is the time they should be throwing their full support behind a third party candidate. But don't hold your breath.
As for you, dear voter, just sit back and consider your options. The political process in Illinois provides the grandest theater around, and here is a rare opportunity for genuine audience participation. You too can channel your inner Derrick Rose. All you have to do is be an Elephant for a Day. But don't be surprised if you find the floppy ears and trunk hard to take off even after November.
Image via lolcostume.com