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The 1992 primary:
proportional representation for Illinois Democrats

Presidential primaries are now the most important arenas for selecting our presidential candidates. In 1992 there are likely to be 40 presidential primaries, a record number. In Illinois, voters in the 1992 presidential primaries will encounter some changes from and some continuity with previous primaries. As is often the case, the change is on the Democratic primary side and the continuity on the Republican side. The most important focus will be on the lineup of candidates facing the voters, but significant Democratic rule changes will threaten party unity and increase candidates' efforts in Illinois.

Historically, the Illinois primary attracts considerable national attention and in 1992 will probably be contested by all the serious candidates. Illinois is a big, industrial-agricultural state, and it can be argued that Illinois comes as close as any to being a microcosm of the nation (see Illinois Issues, February 1990, p.9). In addition, the Illinois primary is positioned relatively early in the primary season, early enough to be important in building what George Bush once termed, "The big Mo," the political momentum necessary to sweep on to victory in the crucial delegate race. In 1992 the Illinois primary will be held on March 17, one week after the "Super Tuesday" primary and only one month after the kick-off in New Hampshire.

On the Republican side it is likely to be a very quiet primary. It is safe to predict that George Bush will be a candidate again and that there is not likely to be a serious challenger in the primaries. In addition, there are no Republican rule changes to muddy the water in Illinois or nationwide. All of this should prove to be good news for Bush who can husband his resources for the general election in November while watching the Democratic battle from a safe distance. The Edward Kennedy challenge in the 1980 Democratic primaries and the Ronald Reagan challenge to Gerald Ford in the 1976 Republican primaries show just how destructive an intraparty fight can be to an incumbent president's November prospects.

On the Democratic side, the party is in flux and it is difficult to predict who the players will be. The chances are good that the Democratic candidates will still be fighting it out at that time a the approximately 184 delegates from Illinois will be a prize well worth the race. Under previous rules Illinois, with its large delegation, could play a significant role in determining the eventual outcome of the nominating process. However, new rules will make it even more likely that the Democratic race will be longed well beyond the Illinois primary and that Illinois will be a battleground for all the Democratic candidates.

Since 1976 the National Democratic Party has required "proportional representation" (P.R.) in the selection of delegates to the national conventions. In its purest form P.R. requires that there be a direct relationship between the popular votes won by a presidential candidate in the primaries and the number of delegate seats he or she receives from that state in the national conventions. In theory, at least, if a candidate receives 60 percent of the popular vote in the state's "Beauty Contest," that candidate should receive 60 percent of the delegate seats in the state's national convention delegation. Few real-world P.R. systems actually achieve that level of mathematical precision, but that the ideal that Democrats have adopted. Actually, P.R. is a well-known system in European parliamentary democracies, but it has not been widely adopted in the United States. In fact, the Democratic party's adoption of P.R. as the controlling principle for its entire national convention delegate selection process is probably the largest experiment with P.R. in U.S. history.

The Democrats' adoption of proportional representation grew out of the reform-era rules, which got their largest boost from the McGovern-Fraser rule changes of 1972. P.R. was adopted as the national standard for the Democratic party in 1976, but it was not applied to Illinois and a handful of other large, politically important states that the national party was reluctant to force into compliance. Under an exception in national party law, these state were allowed to conduct their primaries according to state law.

10/October 1991 /Illinois Issues

For this reason the Illinois primary election of delegates to the national party convention was often called a "loophole" primary. Following state law, Illinois Democrats elected three-fourths of their convention delegates; the remaining fourth were selected in state conventions held after the primary.

Illinois held simultaneously in March both its delegate selection primary (the election of national convention delegates) and its presidential preference primary (the Beauty Contest, meaningless except for prestige). The elected delegates were the top vote-getters in the congressional district primary. For example, if there were seven delegate seats available in a congressional district, the top seven vote-getters received those seats regardless of the outcome of the presidential preferential primary and regardless of the delegate candidates' own presidential preferences.

This usually (but not always) meant that the delegates who won at the congressional district level were the supporters of the most popular presidential candidate entered in the race, and thus it was termed a "winner-take-all" primary at the congressional district level. In essence, the winner-take-all system is the opposite of P.R. In some cases, this winner-take-all rule led to considerable variance between the statewide popular vote returns in the Beauty Contest and the delegate seats won.

The discrepancy between popular votes won and seats obtained drew objections in both 1984 and 1988 from supporters of the Rev, Jesse Jackson. Strengthened by his popular votes and delegates won, Jackson pressed his demands for future full compliance with the P.R. requirement a move that would generally strengthen the hand of "also-rans" in future conventions. In an effort to present a unified Democratic convention to the nation, Michael Dukakis agreed to the rules changes for 1992: Illinois and other states would no longer be able to escape P.R. through the loophole. In 1990 the national party leaders decided to enforce the P.R. rule regardless of state law, and the Illinois General Assembly, at the request of the state Democratic party, changed the law.

The Republican rules for 1992 will not change from those used in 1988. Three-fourths of the GOP delegates will be selected at congressional district level elections during the March 1992 primary. The remainder will be selected in a subsequent Republican state convention. In essence, this means that the Democrats will use the P.R. system, and the Republicans will use the winner-take-all system at the congressional district levels for 1992.

It is impossible to tell what P.R. will mean for Democrats this year, but the difference it would have made in previous Illinois primaries can be ascertained. In 1988, U.S. Sen. Paul Simon ran for president. His campaign got its biggest boost from his home state, winning 635,219 votes and 89 delegates in the Illinois primary. This solid victory was surprising in that some polls had shown Jackson to be much closer to Simon than the final results indicated, and by the time of the Illinois primary, the Simon candidacy was facing serious difficulty. However, the Simon margin reflected his statewide strength and his 30 years of standing as a major political force in Illinois. (It probably also presaged his relatively easy victory in his 1990 Senate race.)

By contrast, Jesse Jackson did not do as well as had been expected in his adopted state. It is clear that the Jackson forces raised a valid issue if you accept the proposition that popular votes should be directly reflected in delegates won. Statewide, Jackson received 32 percent of the votes in the Illinois primary, but he won only 21 percent of the delegates elected at the congressional district level. This discrepancy was repeated in the Jackson results in many other states. He often cited his national popular vote totals in comparison to his delegate pledges as evidence of discrimination in the Democratic rules applicable in 1984 and 1988. These figures were often dutifully reported by the mass media. What is not so self-evident is that the candidate who finishes in first place has an advantage in most electoral systems, especially winner-take-all systems. The Democratic rules allowed first-place finishers to obtain a clear and positive bonus in states like Illinois in 1984 and 1988, and that system has now been outlawed for 1992. In addition, it is also true that if a candidate's support is heavily concentrated in a few geographical areas (e.g. central cities), he or she is likely to win big in the popular votes in those areas but "waste" votes in the delegate contests. This is exactly what happened to Jackson nationwide in 1984 and 1988. Whatever the political dynamics, a straightforward P.R. system will undoubtedly reduce the "votes to seat" discrepancy evident in the table for 1992.

The table also provides the 1988 Republican results for com-

What proportional representation would have meant: a look at previous Illinois presidential primaries

Total Vote

% of Vote

Total Delegates

% of Delegates

Delegate %
Minus Vote %


1988 Democratic primary






+ 37%






- 11






- 16






- 9





1988 Republican primary






+ 30%






- 21






- 9





1984 Democratic primary












- 11












- 4





1980 Democratic primary






+ 26%






- 21






- 5





* Total does not add to 100% because of rounding errors.

** For ease of presentation the table combines Jackson's popular vote with Mayor Harold Washington's delegate vote. To combine the two takes a certain amount of liberty with the political situation but is useful given the heavy support each received in Chicago.

October I991/Illinois Issues/11

parison. There was, of course, a spirited race on the Republican side in the early primaries. Sen. Robert Dole gave George Bush a stiff challenge early and even won the Iowa caucuses. However, Bush regained his footing in the New Hampshire primary and then gathered momentum coming out of his significant sweep of the Super Tuesday primary. By the time of the Illinois primary, Dole, who had once had legitimate aspirations for winning in a big midwestem state like Illinois, was virtually finished. Illinois was his last stand; Dole won a respectable 36 percent of the popular vote but was able to win only 12 delegate contests (15 percent). All other candidates took 9 percent of the popular vote; however, George Bush got 85 percent of the delegates.

The Republican results displayed in the table illustrate a larger point: Winner-take-all rules usually favor the front-runner, and the leading candidate gets a boost from each week's primary victories. Thus, winner-take-all rules tend to propel the race toward an earlier conclusion. On the other hand, P.R. rules tend to continue the battle because second and third place candidates can expect to win some delegates in each state, providing that they exceed the threshold which Democrats have set at 15 percent. Accordingly, the natural progression in a series of P.R. contests is to prolong the race unless there is a very heavy favorite whose popularity and resources overwhelm the field. Overall, the results of the recent primary races on the Democratic side, as opposed to the Republican side, are consonant with these basic generalizations. In 1988 Dukakis locked up the Democratic nomination fairly late, and Jackson and his supporters continued the fight to the convention although he did not have the votes to win. At the same time. Bush wrapped up his victory early and then turned his attention to the general election. The two previous Illinois Democratic primaries displayed the same pattern. In 1984, Walter Mondale, the front-runner and eventual victor, got a real boost out of the Illinois results. Gary Hart had problems that were predictable. He not only ran second in a race that rewarded the winner but also failed to enter his own delegate candidates in all congressional districts. Hart was certainly the big loser in the 1984 Illinois primary in terms of failure to convert popular votes to delegate support. Jackson managed to capture 21 percent of the popular vote, which he converted to 21 percent of the delegate vote only by counting the delegates pledged to Mayor Harold Washington.

In 1980, President Carter resoundingly beat Sen. Kennedy in the popular vote, and his Illinois victory was a big boost in his drive for the nomination. Carter's 65 percent of the vote was magnified to 91 percent of the delegate seats in 1980. It was this kind of distortion of the vote/seat totals that the Democrats were trying to eliminate by their shift to P.R. At the same time, there are trade-offs for this shift in the rules. In this case, there is likely to be a diminution in the development of momentum for the Democratic candidate, and one would expect closure to be reached later in a multi-candidate race. This is what is called "winnowing" and is likely to be prolonged under P.R. rules.

Generally the dynamics of the new rules are not likely to be the source of good news for the Democratic candidates. The imperative need for the challenger party in the presidential race is to wrap up the nominations early, hold a harmonious convention, unite all former foes behind the candidate, and get ready quickly for the general election. Indeed this is exactly what Bush accomplished in 1988 and Reagan accomplished in 1984 and 1980. The Republicans have not been deeply divided late in the nomination season, nor have they lost, since 1976. In 1992, it is not likely that the Democrats will be able to unite early on a consensus candidate unless only one or two Democrats of major national stature run. The P.R. rules, to be applied uniformly for the first time in 1992, make it even less likely that the Democratic race will be settled early and successfully.

For the state's Democratic party, the immediate practical impact of the rule changes should be twofold. First, with allotment of delegates now dependent upon the respective candidates' results in the Beauty Contest, presidential aspirants will no longer have the luxury of relying heavily on delegate candidates within the congressional district to get themselves elected. The presidential candidate will have to assume greater responsibility for garnering support in the Beauty Contest or delegate seats will not be forthcoming, despite a good showing on the part of the delegate candidates themselves. This should be good news for Illinois Democratic primary voters who wish to scrutinize the presidential candidates up close before voting. It should also be good news to the campaign industry and media who benefit when the candidates must conduct a major campaign in a large state with many media markets. The other side of this equation is that any candidate who wishes seriously to contest the nomination in Illinois had better be prepared to spend time and money doing so.

The rule changes also likely will have the effect of increasing intraparty divisiveness within the congressional district Democratic organizations by removing the incentive for delegate slates (candidates committed to the same presidential candidate) to work together. The new rules make it imperative that each individual delegate candidate seek to out-distance the other delegate candidates on the same slate in order to increase the likelihood that he/she will make the cut when the percentage share of the delegate seats is awarded to each presidential candidate. The cost of campaigning for a delegate seat will likely increase, placing participation beyond the reach of many rank-and-file Democrats. Perhaps even more importantly, the competitive nature of the delegate selection process may strain local Democratic party alliances and discourage the very unity of effort needed to mount a successful president campaign.

At the very least, the Democratic rules will introduce perception of divisiveness that will, once again, contribute to the overall impression of a party in disarray, dimming its presidential prospects. Certainly, the rules are not the whole story and there are many other important political factors which go into a successful campaign. Nevertheless, the rules are a factor and sometimes a crucial factor, and they are rarely neutral in their import for who will win or lose and how they will play the game.

John S. Jackson is dean of the College of Liberal Arts and professor of political science at Southern Illinois University at Carhondale. Barbara Leavitt Brown is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at SlUC. She and David Kenney are coauthors of a forthcoming textbook on Illinois government and politics.

12/October 1991/Illinois Issues

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