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Paul Simon Institute

Simon Institute research tracks Illinois political shift

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The political landscape in Illinois, like much of the nation, has changed and John Jackson says he has the maps to prove it.

In the most recent edition of The Simon Review, a series of “occasional papers produced by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, long-time SIU political scientists Jackson and John Foster look at the what many call a “political realignment” in Illinois and its impact.

Analyzing statewide elections since 1990 as the basis for their paper “Biden, Trump, Durbin and Taxes: The 2020 Election in Illinois,” the pair tracked election results for the governor’s office, U.S. Senate seats and presidential races as well as how Illinois’ 102 counties voted in those elections, noting a distinct transition.

“This dramatic shift in the electoral map shows the overall pattern of giving up land for gaining population for the Democrats and giving up population for land for the Republicans,” Foster and Jackson wrote.

What the pair is saying is that over the last three decades, Illinois counties which voted Democratic in these elections (so-called “Blue” counties) have become fewer in number, but are those with larger populations. On the other hand, more less populous states have voted Republican (“Red”) in recent elections.

“The trade-in of land for people has been a great deal for the Democrats both statewide and nationally and bad for the Republicans,” Jackson explained. “But in rural areas, that same trade has been great for Republicans and very bad for the Democrats.”

Jackson said Southern Illinois was a perfect example of this realignment.

“We can see that in Southern Illinois, where there are very few Democratic office holders still standing,” he said.

Jackson added that he considers many of the congressional and state legislative seats in the region to be “safe seats” for the Republicans, as often the office-holders are running unopposed.

Just how much things have shifted becomes apparent in looking at the color-coded maps included in the paper. In looking at the 2020 election results of the Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump presidential election and the Richard Durbin vs. Mark Curran race for Senate, 88 of Illinois’ 102 counties went red (Republican), whereas just 14 were blue (Democratic), yet Biden and Durbin won their elections because the counties that voted Democratic are more populous – counties including Champaign, Cook, DeKalb, DuPage, Jackson, Kane and St. Clair.

By comparison, in 1996, Bill Clinton carried Illinois over Bob Dole by winning 64 Illinois counties, including many of the rural counties through the central and southern part of the state.

Illinois is not alone in realignment along urban and rural lines, according to the research, and, the authors note, this is one factor in the political divide across the country.

Jackson and Foster note in bold in the document: “The Democrats now have a firm foothold in the large cities, and they have gained a major foothold in most of the suburbs. They have given up, however, almost all the rural ground and much of small-city America. This geographical party realignment is one of the key causal factors that explains the deep-seated overall polarization the nation had experienced over the past three decades.

Jackson cites several reasons for this realignment. He said what he called “culture wars” – hot-button issues such abortion, for example have become partisan and he pointed to economic factors including the decline of unions both have led to political realignment.

He said things have become so polarized that party affiliation often appears to be all that matters.

“In many ways, we have totally nationalized state and local campaigns and politics. It no longer matters, for example, that you are a good, well-respected Democratic sheriff in a Southern Illinois county. What counts is do you have an ‘R’ by your name rather than a ‘D’ by your name,” he said.

The publication not only looks at the realignment statewide, but it also explores its impact on the election of Governor J.B. Pritzker and state revenue and expenditures.

“Biden, Trump, Durbin and Taxes: The 2020 Election in Illinois” can be downloaded at



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Related to this story

For those downstate Illinois residents who want to breakaway from Chicagoland and form their own state, two Southern Illinois University Carbondale researchers have an emphatic caution: do not do it.

In a whitepaper released earlier this year by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, a think tank at the university, political scientists John Foster and John Jackson said analysis of Illinois state revenue and budgeting over recent years shows downstate Illinoisans would be worse off without Chicago than they are with their northeastern neighbors.

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