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Illinois as a bellwether: So what?

That Illinois is a political microcosm of the nation has become received wisdom. National opinion pollster Peter Hart is quoted as claiming, "Illinois is the best bellweather [sic] state in America," according to James D. Nowlan in his 1989 book, A New Game Plan for Illinois.

Microcosm and bellwether are related ideas. A microcosm is a miniature version of a larger world; a bellwether is a pre-dictor of trends. When one state, Illinois, is both a microcosm of the nation and a bellwether of national voting, it should be at the center of media attention as the nation moves through its presidential election process every four years. Instead, media focus on presidential nominations has turned elsewhere since the mid-1970s when James Pryzbylski proved what Hart claims today (see "As goes Illinois. . . The state as a political microcosm of the nation," Illinois Government Research, No. 43, August 1976, Institute of Government and Public Affairs, University of Illinois; reprinted in Illinois Elections, 1982 edition, Illinois Issues).

Looking for predictors of which candidates will become the Democrat and Republican presidential nominees, the national media relegates more attention to smaller and less representative states. They now concentrate on such states as Iowa and New Hampshire with their early nominating contests. In 1976, example, 54 percent of the network coverage in the early part of presidential nominating politics went to New Hampshire. in the 1980s, the early Iowa caucuses began to saturate the media's coverage of nominating politics. Yet neither New Hampshire nor Iowa are microcosms of the nation. For example, neither has major cities. New Hampshire is Republican-dominated and Iowa has few minorities.

As a microcosm of the nation, Illinois is extremely diverse. It is heterogeneous geographically, ethnically, racially, economically and politically. It extends from the Upper Midwest to the Border South. It contains one of the world's greatest cities, Chicago, which is surrounded by a burgeoning suburbia in Cook County and its five collar counties. The rest of the state is dotted with several middle-sized cities and small towns everywhere. Illinois has both an agricultural and an industrial base, although as in many Rust Belt states, its manufacturing base has eroded and its service sector is growing. The state is a leader in exports to foreign markets. Demographically, Illinois has a substantial black and Hispanic population. It is a state with great wealth: If Illinois were a nation, it would be the 14th largest in Gross National Product. It is also a state with pockets of extreme poverty in both its urban and rural areas.

As a political microcosm, there is no doubt that Illinois is a strongly competitive two-party state. Control of state government is split between the parties. Since 1976 the governorship has been held by Republicans; since 1982 the General Assembly has been controlled by the Democrats. The other elected state executive officers are also split: Republicans now hold the office of secretary of state while Democrats hold the offices of attorney general, comptroller and treasurer.

When determining whether a state is a political bellwether, consider that the word originally referred to the bell-wearing ram who was the leader of a flock of sheep. A casual glance over a hill at a flock might show one sheep in the lead. Any shepherd who depended on keeping track of his flock by listening for the leader's bell, however, would study his flock carefully to be certain the true leader was wearing the bell. The point is that the first or second presidential nominating contest may appear to pick the leader, but if the contests are not in states representative of the nation, its choices may not have the best chance to win nationally.

The primary test for finding a political bellwether state is its record of voting for the winning presidential candidate. Besides that win/loss record, there are two other tests. Most important is its closeness to the national vote margin in presidential elections. The other is whether the change in its vote from

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one election to the next called "swing" in political science parlance is similar to the nation's.

Swing in Democratic presidential vote, Illinois v. Nation, 1976-1988













Illinois passes the first bellwether test. It has voted for the winner in every presidential election in this century save two: Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and Jimmy Carter in 1976. Przybylski, whose analysis covered 1860 through 1972, pointed out that "since 1928 percentages won by the various presidential candidates in the state [Illinois] have never been more than five percentage points from the corresponding national figures; in some elections, the two figures have been almost identical."

Przybylski noted the changes in party politics taking place in the 1970s, including the decline of party and the breaking up of the New Deal coalition, and cautioned: "With these changes, Illinois' presidential voting may diverge from that of the nation." Has it? There have been four presidential contests since Przybylski's analysis, and Illinois voted with the winner in three of the four.

Consider the bellwether closeness test. Przybylski noted that "Illinois' popular vote percentages have closely paralleled those at the national level during the twentieth century." Since his study, Illinois' Democratic percentage of the presidential vote is still a near parallel to the nation's (see figure). Przybylski's 5 percent rule has not been violated. Indeed, Illinois' average deviation from the actual national Democratic percentage in the last four elections has been a little over 2 percentage points (2.2) with a low of .7 in 1980 and a high of 3.0 in 1988. In those four elections, the Democrats have averaged 44.3 percent of the vote nationally; in Illinois they averaged 45.6 percent.

In the 1976 election, even though Illinois passed the closeness test, it failed to pick the winner. Jimmy Carter won the presidency, but he lost in Illinois. Illinois' percentage of the vote for Carter was within 2 points of his national percentage.

A somewhat different aspect of bellwetherness is how parallel a state is to the nation from one election to the next in its "swing." (Przybylski did not include "swing" in his analysis.) A state's swing could be similar to the nation's, but its vote could be way off the nation's in the individual elections. For example, consider the 1980 and 1984 records of New Jersey and Kansas. Nationally, Carter lost to Reagan in 1980 with 44.7 percent of the vote, and in 1984 Mondale lost to Reagan with 40.8 percent, showing a national swing in the Democratic percentage of -3.9 percent. In both elections New Jersey (42.6 percent and 39.5 percent) was closer to the national Democratic vote percentages than Kansas (36.6 percent and 33.0 percent), but Kansas' swing in Democratic votes (-3.6 percent) from 1980 to 1984 was closer to the nation's (-3.9 percent) than New Jersey's (-3.1 percent).

Bellwether comparisons, Illinois, Iowa, New Hampshire and Nation, 1976-1988 presidential elections


Average % Democrat vote

Average deviation from nation's %

Average deviation from nation's swing

Win/loss record
















New Hampshire





The swing record for Illinois in presidential elections since 1976 shows an average deviation from the national swing of only 2.7 points. From the 1984 to the 1988 election, Illinois was extremely close to the national swing, but from 1980 to 1984 Illinois departed slightly in direction from the nation.(See table.)

By all three tests of bellwetherism, since 1976 Illinois shows a close approximation of national trends While changes in party politics have occurred as Przybylski noted, the changes are clearly at work nationally. Illinois' performance still reflects the nation in presidential elections.

So what? National media still pay more attention to Iowa and New Hampshire, those early testing grounds where each party is trying to determine which candidate will perform best in the general election. If journalists and others are concerned with understanding national public opinion on candidates and issues, they might select Illinois as their sampling ground with some degree of confidence that their results would be generalizable. The old adage, "How does it play in Peoria?" could become "How did it do in Illinois?"

Why don't the media focus more on Illinois? Ironically, for the same reasons they should: The state is large, diverse and hard to get a handle on. Media attention in the presidential nominating process goes to the first states like New Hampshire and Iowa partly because they are small where "face to face" politics is easier to cover. But how closely did those reflect the national vote in the general election? In 1984, for example, Ronald Reagan got 55 percent of the two-party vote. In Illinois, he received 54 percent, in Iowa 62 percent and in New Hampshire 69 percent. All three states voted for the winner, but Illinois was off the national division by 1 percent, Iowa 7 percent and New Hampshire 14 percent.

For the last four elections, Illinois has been a better bellwether than either Iowa or New Hamphire (see table). Illinois and New Hampshire both have .750 records for picking the winner, but in closeness to the national vote and national swing, Illinois wears the bell.

If the purpose of a nomination process is to get an idea how the candidates might fare in the general election, these data should convince the national media that it might be a good idea to look at Illinois. Don't hold your breath. New Hampshire and Iowa and now other states on "Super Tuesday" have their nominating contests before Illinois holds its primaries in mid-March.

David H. Everson is professor of political studies and public affairs at Sangamon State University and editor of Comparative Politics, a bimonthly journal of political trends and events of the states, published by Sangamon State.

10/February 1990/Illinois Issues

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