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Voters riding a blue wave
Chicago Tribune
By Rick Pearson
Tribune political reporter
Published September 12, 2006, 9:27 PM CDT

The percentage of Illinois voters who call themselves Democrats is at its highest pre-election level in more than a decade, posing a problem for Republicans trying to win the governor's mansion and key congressional seats, a Tribune/WGN-TV poll shows.

The poll found 43 percent of voters identified themselves as Democrats while a little more than a quarter of the voters identified themselves as Republicans. The 17 percentage point difference ranks among the most polarized partisan spreads in more than 16 years of Tribune surveys taken prior to an election day.

The results of the poll echo surveys taken nationally that show an increase in voters lining up in the Democratic column, a factor attributed to dissatisfaction with the Republican White House and GOP-led Congress on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to economic uncertainties.

The findings of the Tribune poll indicate the potential for trouble in Illinois for Republicans trying to revitalize a political party beset by scandal and infighting. The survey was conducted in the days following the sentencing of former Gov. George Ryan, whose corruption-tainted tenure helped end a quarter century of Republican administrations.

Because Illinois has no true partisan registration procedure, survey respondents were asked if they "considered themselves" to be a Democrat, a Republican or an independent/middle-of-the-road voter.

The findings largely represent the mood of the voter, which can fluctuate greatly due to a variety of political or news events. The survey of 600 registered voters likely to vote Nov. 7 has a margin of error of 4 percentage points. The results are considered very fluid and could change closer to the election.

Yet the findings of the poll, conducted Thursday through Sunday, could be problematic for Republican governor candidate Judy Baar Topinka (who faces a 12 percentage-point deficit in her challenge to Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich), for GOP candidates in the suburban congressional races and for Republicans in down-ballot races.

Chris Mooney, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said the poll findings reflected recent dissatisfaction with President Bush's administration and anti-war sentiment on top of the state's longer-term demographic trend toward the Democrats.

"The population has become more and more urban, it's become more and more non-white," Mooney said. "This [national] short-term bump toward Democrats is exacerbating the long-term trend."

Previous Tribune polling conducted during the last 16 years by Market Shares Corp. of Mt. Prospect, covering seven previous general elections, found nearly the same trend toward Democrats in the 1996 presidential election year. That year, President Bill Clinton was seeking re-election against a backdrop of investigation and criticism.

In 1996, 42 percent of Illinois voters identified themselves as Democrats in the October preceding the election while 27 percent aligned with Republicans—a 15 percentage point spread. Clinton ended up winning Illinois in 1996 with 54 percent of the vote and Democrats retook control of the Illinois House from Republicans after a two-year hiatus.

Traditionally, Democrats have enjoyed a plurality of the state's voters, meaning Republicans need to capture the support of their party faithful as well as a healthy majority of self-described independents to win.

In 1994, when the GOP kept the governor's chair and swept all statewide offices and control of the General Assembly, the percentage of voters who identified themselves as Democrats fell to 33 percent while Republicans were at 31 percent and independents were at 33 percent.

But the most recent Tribune poll found that even in longtime Republican-leaning regions, the GOP no longer might have the upper hand. In the collar counties, 31 percent of voters aligned themselves with Republicans while 29 percent identified with Democrats. Outside the Chicago metropolitan region, voters split equally at 36 percent between Democrats and Republicans.

"Here in Illinois, the Republicans are doing nothing to stop the bleeding so people will move more toward Democrats and the Democratic label to reaffirm their concerns at the national level," said Steve Brown, a spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, the veteran Southwest Side lawmaker who also chairs the state Democratic Party.

Andy McKenna, the state's Republican chairman, acknowledged the GOP in Illinois suffered "tough years" in 2002 and 2004. But, he said, with Democrats in control of the state, "they're going to be judged by their leadership and I think the deficiencies in their leadership are beginning to show up" in the form of investigations into the Blagojevich administration.

Mooney, the U. of I. at Springfield professor, said he believed the party identification among voters might not be a significant factor in high profile races such as governor, where the candidates and their positions are well known.

"The partisan effect is the default when [the voters] don't have anything else to judge a candidate by," Mooney said. "You don't get that at the gubernatorial level. People know who Rod Blagojevich is and who Judy Baar Topinka is and more people will know by Election Day."


Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune

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