Will Illinois’ Young Progressive Voters’ Enthusiasm Be Drowned Out in an Election Awash in Campaign Cash

by Holly Honderich
Medill News Service

On the night of the Illinois primaries, the second-floor bar at Old Crow Smokehouse in River North was set for celebration. The room was resplendent in regalia from State Sen. Daniel Biss’s campaign for governor. Purple and white balloons lined the perimeter. Lights flickered cheerfully from the ceiling and upbeat music blasted from the speakers. The mood, however, was decidedly un-celebratory. The results were in: Biss had lost to billionaire philanthropist J.B. Pritzker.

As Biss took to the stage for his concession speech, an assortment of loyal volunteers stood behind him. Among the somber supporters was 16-year-old Eli Stone. Though he was two years too young to cast a ballot in this election, Eli was a stalwart Biss volunteer. As a campaign fellow, he ran phone banks, texting, calling and canvassing potential voters, relaying the key points in the Biss platform he had memorized.

16-year old Biss supporter, Eli Stone

Fueled by a healthy caffeine habit, Eli – a lanky six-footer whose height partially conceals his relative youth – threw himself wholeheartedly into the Biss cause. His was the kind of raw energy that propelled Biss’s grassroots operation from relative obscurity to a second-place finish. But Biss’s climb – surprising, impressive – was ultimately insufficient.

After the primary, after his loss, that same energy hung heavy in the air, suddenly suspended without purpose or direction. After the speech, Eli moved to a seat at the back of the bar. Hunched over his iPhone, he fielded calls from his older sister who wanted to know when he would like to be picked up.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not going to school tomorrow.”

His tone was sharp, but it rung more of defeat than anger. Momentarily, he sounded like a teenager.

Eli’s enthusiasm for Daniel Biss is reflective of the progressive young people that helped the state senator claim almost one quarter of the Democratic vote. He is also illustrative of the primary’s inconvenient byproduct: a belief, held by some Biss supporters, that Pritzker was the winner of an unfair fight, who secured the nomination based on the strength of his vast personal wealth.

It is a sentiment that effectively pushed Eli to step back from active involvement in the race for governor. He and the other young progressives who served as the engine in Biss’s grassroots campaign have in Pritzker a candidate they did not support, and who, they say, robbed Daniel Biss, the self-described “middle-class candidate,” of a fair shot at the nomination.

Of the 1.2 million Democrats who cast votes for governor in the March primary (an almost 200 percent increase from the 2014 election), less than half opted for Pritzker, the eventual nominee, despite his exorbitant campaign spending and considerable name recognition. That Pritzker was able to use money and clout to win the nomination has left many of the supporters or his opponents – particularly those in the Biss camp – not only dispirited, but disillusioned.

They have not abandoned politics, however. These volunteers and voters have remained engaged  – supporting down-ballot candidates, even becoming candidates themselves. But they have effectively removed themselves from the gubernatorial race, a contest they were fully immersed in just months before. Now their political involvement is divorced from the governor’s race, even though the frontrunner is a Democrat.

The transfer of support from one party candidate to the eventual nominee is not ensured (just ask Hillary Clinton, who failed to convert many of the “Bernie Bros). The morning after political primaries, thousands of voters may wake up to a nominee they did not support. Like Eli, in the weeks and days prior, these voters devoted time, money and votes to an alternative candidate. And while party loyalty seems to demand support for the candidate who was your adversary just one day before, today’s youth seem less inclined to play by those rules.

As we move toward the mid-terms, now just two months before Illinois elects its new governor, the question looms whether team Biss’ disenchantment will effect a removal from the governor’s race entirely; whether the Eli Stone’s of the state will sit on their hands, remaining quarantined from the Pritzker camp.

“J.B. has the resources and the staff to make me feel confident that I don’t have to support him,” said Eli. “Like, not that he’s going to find another me but he’s going to pay someone to be a me.”

Chapter 1
Eli Stone joined team Biss back in August of 2017. It was his third run volunteering on a political campaign. Before Biss, Eli had completed an internship with Ald. Ameya Pawar, 47th Ward, another Democratic candidate for governor, before Pawar dropped out in October, citing a lack of funds. “Once Ameya left the race it was just like, Daniel’s the guy. He supports campaign finance reform, progressive income tax, he actually has experience,” Eli said.

Watching Elin in action back then, there was little indication that he was only 16. One clear sign: the fact that his schedule was occasionally arranged around orthodontist appointments. The second was the teenage fidgeting, the constant rearrangement of his limbs and gangly frame. Then there was his frequent use of the word “super”: He was “super” invested in the Biss campaign; he was “super, super” anti-Rauner; he thought graduated income tax rates were “super awesome.” Even his rationale for joining team Biss is laced with his favorite adjective: “During the whole Pawar campaign I saw the Biss people as super cool, that they were the best of the progressives,” he said.

Statistically speaking, Eli’s political engagement is somewhat exceptional.  Only three percent of the voters cast a ballot in the Chicago area in the March primary were between the ages of 18-24. Just 27 percent of the voters were between 18 and 45 years old.  But the “Biss people” were buoyed by an enthusiastic corps of young people with a penchant for politics that often predated their driver’s permits.  They were people like Karen Gekker, who rallied support for Biss while in her senior year at Whitney Young Magnet High School, and Flonja Hoxha, 19, who gave 20-plus hours a week to Biss while juggling coursework at DePaul.

When pressed, these young people say they could not name a single Biss volunteer who is not involved in the Pritzker campaign or had any plans to do so. But, like Eli, they say their disappointment about Biss will not stop them from speaking out about the issues that resonate with them, even if that means bucking up against the Democratic nominee for governor.

“I spent the last eight months of my life talking about issues that are important to me,” said Flonja. “Those issues are still important, even though we lost. I don’t know if I could fully put myself in a campaign, put in those hours, fully respect the people I was talking to in telling them my honest beliefs if Pritzker has not and continues not to address these issues.”

Chapter Two
Democrats hoping to break the glass ceiling with Hillary Clinton in 2008 were told shift their focus to relative newcomer, Barack Obama. Supporters of each of the 16 GOP presidential hopefuls in 2016 were given Donald Trump. Democrats in Illinois drawn to Biss’s anti-billionaire appeals were dealt an owner of Hyatt Hotels.

The electoral behavior of “losing” primary voters – those who submitted ballots for someone other than the eventual nominee – has been widely debated. How, if at all, does a voter rally behind a candidate they hoped to defeat? Some scholars insist that active primary elections, even the most divisive ones, lead to greater participation in the general. Studying American electoral cycles for American Politics Research, Robert Hogan found that greater divisiveness in a primary produces a higher vote share for the party nominee. Others argue that voting for a losing candidate can negatively impact perceptions of political efficacy and fairness. Disenchanted with their party’s nominee and, perhaps, the electoral process as a whole, these voters may “defect” and swap parties in their next vote. This phenomenon is easy to spot in past presidential primaries: Not all Clinton voters fell in line for Obama in 2008 and not all Santorum supporters went for Romney in 2012.

In the 2016 Presidential election, some of these voters were given a name. The term “Bernie Bros” was originally coined by Robinson Meyer in a 2015 Atlantic article. Originally a descriptor of what Meyer saw as the typical supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the name spawned into a moniker for those enamored with the self-proclaimed socialist in the primaries, but who seemed unwilling to vote for Hillary Clinton in the general.

The notion of a progressive voter, energized by Sanders but less than thrilled by Clinton, was the subject of considerable punditry and ink after Clinton won the nomination. Commentary abounded whether the Bernie Bros would stick it out with Clinton or abandon the Democratic nominee for an independent, or for Trump.

Sanders – among the most prominent independents in American politics – explicitly urged supporters against defection. “This is not the time for a protest vote,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” in September 2016. “This is time to elect Hillary Clinton.”

Following Clinton’s defeat, articles boasting some version of “Did Sanders supporters Cost Clinton the Election” as the headline, graced the pages of The Washington Post, The New York Times, NPR, Newsweek, Vox, FiveThirtyEight, and on and on.

The belief that Bernie Bros derailed Clinton’s campaign is partially supported by data. Results from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study – a post-election survey of approximately 50,000 people – suggested that Bernie-turned-Trump voters could have swayed results. Approximately 12 percent of people who voted for Sen. Sanders in the primaries went on to vote for Trump in the general.

Some of these votes held added weight. Data released by co-principal investigator on the study, political science professor Brian Schaffner, shows that in all three states considered critical swing states for Trump – Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – Trump’s margin of victory was smaller than the number of Sanders supporters who voted for him.

And yet, assigning Bernie Bros all the blame, or painting their party switch as a political rarity, would involve some revisionist history. As explained by Robert Wheel for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, defections from a primary to a general are fairly common. The one in ten Sanders voters who ended up supporting Trump were matched by the 12 percent of Republican primary voters who chose Clinton. Likewise, eleven percent of Democrats went for George Bush instead of John Kerry in 2004. Perhaps most notably, a higher percentage of Sanders voters backed Clinton in 2016 than did her supporters for Obama 2008.

Some of these defector dynamics may be at play on the Democratic side of the Illinois race for governor. Pritzker is faced with primary voters who expressed ardent support for his opponents. Not all of these voters have unified behind their party nominee. The first head to head poll of the general election, conducted in April by Victory Research, found that while 83 percent of Kennedy supporters said they would vote for Pritzker in the fall, only 54.2 percent of Biss supporters said the same.

A comparison to the 2016 presidential election is imperfect. For example, both Pritzker and Rauner are male, removing a variable some observers deemed significant in moving Bernie supporters away from Clinton. And while the Pritzker family name holds a dynastic quality in the Chicago area, J.B. is mostly safe from the political establishment label affixed to Clinton. But there are key similarities. Pritzker, like Clinton, is seen as the favorite to win. To some, Pritzker’s institutional and monetary power – coupled with Rauner’s deep unpopularity – effectively assures his claim on the governor’s mansion. Certainly, to the grassroots organizers who drove the Daniel Biss campaign from relative obscurity to second place, devoting time to a candidate with a $3.5 billion fortune may seem unnecessary. But as past defections make clear, party loyalty is a fragile foundation for electoral success.

“The fact that you have 50 plus percent of the vote going to Biss and to Kennedy…you recognize that there are voters out there that you’ve got to win over.” said Redfield.

“If Pritzker phones it in, he’s going to be in trouble.”

Chapter Three
Eli, a particularly passionate member of that 50 plus percent, does not dispute Pritzker’s clear primary win. And in terms of policy, Pritzker’s platform is nearly indistinguishable from that of Daniel Biss. Like many Biss supporters, however, Eli still harbors some resentment about Pritzker’s particular path to victory. He and his peers believe, with striking uniformity, that Pritzker’s exorbitant spending was decisive in his victory.

“Why we lost? Just purely because of money,” said Eli, over one month after the election. “100 percent because of money.”

Later, hedging slightly, Eli lowered his percentage, rounding off at 90 percent. “Ten percent were flaws of Daniel’s,” he said. “But the thing I always go back to is if we had more money, we could have had more ads, responded to the pension issue and to the math issue,” he said, citing some of Biss’s more notable campaign blunders.

For Eli, Pritzker’s spending produced an unbridgeable gap between himself and the other candidates, allowing him to jump the line in the absence of any political experience. But it also made an indelible mark on the candidate’s character, contributing to a perception of Pritzker as a product of the Democratic machine: elite, inaccessible and entirely unrelatable. “When the issues seem relevant to you, it motivates you,” said Robert Donahue, associate director at Northwestern University’s Center for Civic Engagement.

Eli and his peers say they are still waiting for the Pritzker campaign to reach out and that they are in some way hurt or insulted by the lack of effort to do so.

In an emailed statement, Pritzker’s campaign spokesperson Jordan Abudayyeh wrote: “This election isn’t just about beating Bruce Rauner. It’s about uniting Democrats across the state around a progressive agenda that will bring real change to Illinois. Chris Kennedy, Senator Daniel Biss and J.B. have relationships rooted in the shared values of expanding healthcare, investing in education, and creating good paying jobs. Democrats are united and we will win big in November to put Springfield back on the side of working families and move Illinois forward.” In his email, Abudayyeh noted the “unity breakfast,” hosted by Pritzker on the morning after the primary, which Biss attended.

But Eli is unconvinced, campaign statements notwithstanding. The breakfast felt “fake,” he said. “He invited all the Democratic leaders from all over and was like ‘We’re going to be unified.’ Unity doesn’t just happen like that, you actually have to work for it.”

“It’s really unfortunate that they’ve been putting on this unification show,” said Keren. “When in fact, really nobody has tried to unify with us and tried to address any of the concerns that we had.”

These feelings of isolation may create a challenge for Pritzker and the efficacy of his unification attempts. “It is a huge problem in terms of getting young people involved in politics. The legitimacy of the political process depends on people participating in such a way that they feel their ideas are expressed…so they can accept losing,” said Redfield.  “If you don’t get people engaged then the system doesn’t work.”

They are not, however, likely to derail his electoral odds. The most recent NBC/Marist poll released August 21 put Pritzker ahead by 16 points: 46 percent to Rauner’s 30, with the remaining voters either undecided or opting for a third-party candidate. Indeed, Gov. Rauner’s deep unlikability throughout the state may be Pritzker’s most assured asset. “Rauner has got so many problems in terms of credibility…it’s very hard to get excited about Rauner,” said Redfield. “Democrat or Republican, he’s the most endangered governor in the country.”

Indeed, Eli’s dislike for Pritzker is eclipsed by a much greater contempt for Rauner. “If Rauner gets elected again, our values that we’ve been fighting for are ten times harder to achieve.” Eli said. “Rauner is just something we can’t have. It just can’t happen.”

And Rauner is why Pritzker will receive their vote (age permitting), if not any broader support. “There’s no option for me to vote for Rauner,” said Alexander Vasconcelles, a senior at Northwestern and fellow on the Biss campaign who ran Northwestern Students for Biss. It is a delicate distinction, driven in part by memories of the Bernie Bros in 2016, where progressives turned away from the Democratic nominee, contributing, perhaps unwittingly, to the election of Donald Trump. “I think that’s still very much in the minds of progressives. I think 2016 woke a lot of people up,” said Alexander. “We still have to come together behind Pritzker to get Rauner out.”

“I can’t imagine people voting for Rauner as a protest vote for Pritzker because Rauner has caused so much destruction in the state of Illinois,” said Flonja of other Biss supporters. Flonja has evaluated the costs of a protest vote before. A “huge” Bernie supporter, she moved to Ohio to work for Hillary Clinton during her freshman year of college once Clinton became the nominee. “A lot of my friends sort of doubted me, they said… ‘How could you support her after the primary and she rigged the election.’ And I sort of found it in myself to think, Trump was such a threat, similar to Rauner…that I was going to put all of my being into supporting Hillary and trying to get her elected.”

In this sense, the 2016 cycle resonates. “I can’t see our supporters protesting Pritzker in a way that would hurt millions of people,” Flonja said.

Chapter Four
It is now June, and Eli is studying for finals. “I’m in a good position,” he says, by way of explanation. While he’ll take any questions about exams, Eli is, predictably, more eager to discuss his latest extracurricular pursuits. Eli is the field organizer for Marianne Lalonde, a former Biss volunteer who is running for alderman in Chicago’s 46th Ward. He will recruit and manage volunteers for phone banking and canvassing and join strategy meetings for the campaign – a marked leap from campaign fellow.

“It feels good to be back,” he said of his brief political hiatus. “There’s nothing like waking up and feeling like ‘I’m going to canvas today.’ To actually have the opportunity to create this field plan and have my voice be heard that way…it’s something I’m super excited about.”

Biss for Governor, 2018

Like Eli, Keren, Flonja and Alexander have all quickly found new outlets for their civic engagement, though mostly separate from the governor’s race. Keren is the head of interns for Troy LaRaviere’s mayoral campaign, Flonja is an intern at an attorney’s office focused on immigration and Alexander has begun work at a political consulting firm in Chicago. Still politically engaged, but slightly less in tune to the daily dramas of the campaign.

In just over two months since Biss’s defeat, Eli’s degree of disaffection toward Pritzker seems to have eased, assisted by Biss’s recent endorsement of Pritzker. The public display of affection from Biss to Pritzker was enough for Eli to volunteer at a phone bank for the Democratic nominee. It was a tough choice, he explained, a personal negotiation. Because he can’t vote, can’t block Rauner in the ballot box, it’s Eli’s version of bare minimum support for Pritzker.

“I made a total of 20 calls,” said Eli. “It felt like, ‘Ok. I support Daniel and now he supports J.B. so we’re all going to come together. The goal of the primary is to discredit your opponent, that’s just how democracy works. But it’s dangerous to keep that up.”

But this new allegiance is not without speedbumps. “My first call I stuttered,” he said. “I started to say Daniel.”

Heading into eleventh grade, Eli’s political endeavors will be tempered by a more rigorous course load at school. “Next year will be much harder because I start the I.B. program, I’ll be like a diploma candidate,” he said. “I’ll be so stressed with school I’ll need to find something other than politics to take my mind off it.”

The precise details of what, exactly, these details are, are still to be determined.

“I don’t know. Cubs games?”