When the annals of the 2020 presidential nominations process and general election are written, the role of the Illinois Primary, along with its counterparts in Florida and Arizona on the same day, will be marked as uniquely important turning points in the long and chaotic road to the White House.
Understanding that role depends on understanding the role the mass media, and now the social media, have come to play in the modern era when the primaries and caucuses make the crucial decisions in the selection of the candidates who will face off in the general election and the media report and referee the contest.
The calendar drives the evolution of the whole nominations and general election season. The calendar for the nominations contests gives structure to the narrative adopted by the media, and to the strategic plans of the candidates and their campaigns.
The contests unfold in a set and predictable pattern which is dictated by the intersection of the state party rules and state law in all 50 states. This creates a series of hurdles setting up a race that will unfold in a predetermined sequence which candidates, the media, and the voters can understand and plan toward.
This has been true ever since 1972 when the primaries and caucuses took over the process and dislodged the national conventions as the key decision points. As the role of the primaries grew, so did the role of the press. However, in the case of 2020, what should have been fairly predicable turned out to be quite unpredictable in the Age of Corvid-19.
At the opening of any presidential campaign, the media need a frontrunner and they need the winnowing to begin almost immediately. Journalists need to tell a story, to develop a coherent narrative so the story can have some clarity and coherence.
This role is crucial because we the voters need help in sorting out the choices that face us. Those choices are much more difficult and confusing in a primary or caucus because we don’t have the simplifying cue of party identification to guide us as it does in the general election. We are in a confusing and information rich environment where a welter of personalities, issues, ideologies and events have to be sorted out before we vote.
The voters cannot be expected to make much sense, much less a rational choice if there are 29 official candidates facing them at the outset of the primaries season as was the case for the Democrats in 2020. The Democratic National Committee decided that the presidential debates would be their major arena for winnowing the field. They held 10 debates in 2016, and they decided to double that in 2020. They couldn’t even get all the candidates on the same stage so some polling and campaign fundraising criteria were set up for winnowing the viable candidates down to only 20 who had to appear in groups of ten each over two nights. The debates were supposed to be clarifying, but instead they became more confusing, as the loudest and most confrontational voices in the room won the most airtime and media notice.
The Democrats opened the season with no clear frontrunner and that problem only grew worse as the debates and the primaries and caucuses proceeded along parallel paths in the early contests. The two candidates most often designated by the press as the frontrunners in the early days were Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Both had a legitimate claim, but neither reached any kind of prohibitive frontrunner status at the outset. Biden was the former Vice President under President Barack Obama, and before that he had spent thirty years in the Senate. Bernie Sanders was the head of the most Progressive wing of the party and had given Hillary Clinton a close contest in 2016. Bernie quickly lived up to some of his front-runner status while Biden failed miserably at first.
The traditional opening contests were Iowa on February 3 and New Hampshire on February 11. Iowa was a mess when the count was delayed by two weeks. Sanders won the most popular votes while Pete Buttigieg won the most delegates. Biden came in fourth. Next came New Hampshire where Sanders won the most popular votes and claimed the mantle of front-runner. He confirmed this status on February 22 in Nevada where he won an impressive victory and the media declared him to be the clear favorite if not the prohibitive favorite by then. Biden came in fifth in New Hampshire and a distant second in Nevada. The press began to speculate about how much longer he could last without a victory and out of money.
The long-awaited answer
That answer came on February 29 in South Carolina. Biden always claimed that South Carolina would be his “firewall” and that he would do well there based on his long association with the state and especially his strong support in the African American community. This support was solidified when the state’s most powerful Democrat, Rep. James Clyburn, endorsed Biden. Biden took 49 percent of the popular vote and won 39 of the 54 delegates. He had the momentum.
March 3, was Super Tuesday. It turned into a rout for Biden. He won from Virginia across to Texas and Oklahoma and everything in between. Biden at that point became the favorite, although there were lots of contests yet to go and he was far short of the 1991 delegate votes needed for a first ballot victory. Sanders vowed to press on and his supporters urged him to continue.
Illinois plays important role
Illinois, Florida, Arizona, and Ohio were scheduled to hold their primaries on March 17th. At the directive of Governor Mike DeWine, Ohio dropped out early on the morning of the primary because of Covid -19 fears. Governor J. B. Pritzker faced similar pressures to cancel the Illinois Primary but he declined to do so citing his lack of authority to go against state law. When the night was over Illinois provided a huge victory for Biden, as did both Florida and Arizona. It was a clean sweep for Biden. Bernie went home to Vermont to confer with his campaign staff.
The media immediately declared Biden to be “the Presumptive Nominee” even though he still did not have a majority of the delegate votes. Biden went home to Delaware and set up shop in his basement from where he campaigned for the next two months. The media moved on to the fight against the pandemic as the nation was shutting down to fight the virus. They simply could not cover two major stories, the pandemic and the Democratic nominations contests adequately, especially since they also routinely reported daily on whatever message President Trump was Tweeting out. In early April, Senator Sanders conceded to Biden and warmly endorsed him. He vowed to do whatever he could to support Biden, and urged his supporters to do the same. We had gone from twenty-nine candidates to one in a record six weeks.
Almost all the former contenders had also endorsed Biden by then. The party coalition was coming together to form a solid wall of opposition to Trump. A divisive primary season, which would have been draining on Biden personally and debilitating to his campaign resources was avoided. Instead the campaign pivoted to getting ready for the general election fight against Trump. The Democratic Party was united around that one objective whatever their other internal differences may have been. Illinois was essential to that progression. There is actually a theory in political science which maintains that the player who enters the coalition at the point of forming the winning vote is the most powerful and essential participant.
Think for a moment about a counterfactual scenario for the outcome on March 17th. What if Biden and Sanders had split victories that night with Biden winning Illinois and Sanders winning Florida, as seemed quite possible earlier? Bernie would have been loath to drop out, and his supporters would have urged him to stay in because there were lots of contests left on the calendar. The media would have reported the Democratic Party in disarray story, a story that would have potentially lingered until the last contests were over in June. Donald Trump would have become the benefactor of that development. Instead the three Biden victories of Illinois, Florida, and Arizona became the last real story in the Democratic Primaries narrative and then the race was instantly frozen by the media’s attention necessarily being focused on the virus. Illinois along with its two other counterparts became the fulcrum which leveraged the early Biden victory in the crowded Democratic primaries and became a contest comparable in importance to South Carolina and Super Tuesday. The 2020 Democratic Primaries results became yet another story reshaped and decided by the vagaries of the Covid-19 virus and the practical necessities and professional norms of the press in how to cover it.
John S. Jackson is visiting professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute where he is a frequent contributor to local, state and national media coverage of government and politics. He was the 17th chancellor of SIUC.