Editor's Note: Diversity of Candidates May be Behind Bigger Turnouts

Mar 1, 2008

 

Dana Heupel
Credit NPR Illinois

Did you ever walk into a gathering — at a restaurant, maybe, or a party or a nightclub — where nobody there looked like you? Maybe their skin was a different hue. Maybe they were of the opposite gender. Perhaps they were much younger — or older.

Chances are, you became uncomfortable. You might even have left.

But if at least some faces in the crowd looked like yours, chances are you walked right in. And if they were participating in a mutual activity, you probably joined in.

I wonder if the record turnouts in this year’s presidential primaries have as much to do with the diversity of the candidates as with the excitement or importance of the elections. Many more eligible voters can see someone who looks like them, and that just might make them feel more welcome in the political milieu.

There is a white woman, Hillary Clinton. An African-American man, Barack Obama. A Christian minister, Mike Huckabee. A former military officer, John McCain. During many early primaries, there was a Hispanic Democrat, Bill Richardson, and a Mormon Republican, Mitt Romney.

The oldest candidate, McCain, is 71. Obama is 46, relatively young for a presidential contender.
Of course, all of them are politicians, having been elected as senators and governors. But they also represent the different faces of America. And that alone may invite more people who look like them to join the political fray.

In nearly every national election up to now, the faces of those whose names are listed on ballots have been male, white Christians, with some notable exceptions such as Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

But this year’s primary elections, for the first time, have offered voters an array of candidates who earned their spots on the ballots on their own merits, who are legitimate choices as well as standard bearers for the various ingredients in the cultural stew that has always been the staple of our nation.

Women and African Americans and Hispanics and others who have never seen national candidates who look like them now can truly believe they are part of the process, not only as supporters but as participants.

That’s not to say all women support Clinton, or all African Americans will cast ballots for Obama, although both have fared strongly with those demographic groups, as has Huckabee among evangelical Christians. But if the diversity of candidates draws a greater mix of interested voters into the debate, only good things can happen.

In Illinois, 32.9 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the February 5 Super Tuesday primary, according to American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate. That eclipsed the previous record of 29.7 percent, set in 1980.

Records also were set in 14 other states with primaries in both parties, according to the center: Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah.

Nationally, the center’s analysis calculated the turnout rate for all 2008 primaries through that date at 27 percent, compared with the previous average high of 25.9 percent in 1972.

It’s a shame that we consider 30 percent as a high water mark for voter turnout. The online magazine Slate says historical trends have shown that Americans do show up at the polls when elections are close or when important issues such as a war or the economy dominate the national consciousness, and certainly those issues are at stake now. But it’s only natural to assume that voters also become more engaged when the candidates’ faces in the news reports and TV ads resemble their own.

 

In this issue, we also look at several other forms of engagement.

Kevin McDermott, who covers Illinois government for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, writes about how the Democrats who hold the reins in the legislature and every statewide office have bungled an extremely rare opportunity to push a political agenda through the legislature because they’re engaged in an increasingly vicious intraparty battle.
Kristy Kennedy revisits the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago to draw comparisons and contrasts over whether today’s youth are as engaged in the debate about the Iraq War and other issues as the ‘60s generation was. Her findings may surprise you.

Abdon Pallasch, political reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, attends slating meetings for judicial candidates and presents the case that the jurists often are chosen more for their political connections than their legal savvy.

Our Capitol bureau chief, Bethany Jaeger, unweaves the continuing tangle that ensnarls the state’s new medical malpractice laws. That knotty legal issue has now moved from the General Assembly and the governor’s office to the courts.

Statehouse intern Patrick O’Brien delves into why public higher education is becoming less affordable. Much of the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the people who make and sign laws.

In her State of the State column, Jaeger argues that the federal government should reduce the backlog in processing citizenship papers for immigrants — especially Hispanics — to help them participate in the political process.

And columnist Charles N. Wheeler III examines the Super Tuesday vote, focusing his attention on the collar counties around Chicago — traditionally a Republican stronghold but more recently home to increasing numbers of Democrats.

 

I also would like to welcome Janet Kerner, who is now staffing our front desk. Her friendly voice and face is the first you’ll probably hear or see if you phone or visit the Illinois Issues office. A major part of her duties will be to maintain information about the magazine’s subscriptions and circulation.

Janet holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Sangamon State University (now the University of Illinois at Springfield) and a master’s in human development counseling from UIS. She was an editorial assistant at the magazine in 1995 and ‘96. We’re happy she decided to return.

 

Many more eligible voters can see someone who looks like them, and that just might make them feel more welcome in the political milieu.

 

Dana Heupel can be reached at heupel.dana@uis.edu.

 

Illinois Issues, March 2008