2022 IL General Election Final Analysis

In an effort to learn exactly what happened in the 2022 Illinois General Election, we have buried everyone (ourselves included) in data.

In Part 1 of this effort, we conducted an exit survey of Illinois voters to learn how they voted and why. In Part 2, we compared 2022 candidate performance to historical performance to determine which candidates over- and under-performed. In Part 3, we inspected turnout data to see who voted and who didn’t. It’s a lot of information, even for those of us who do this for a living.

So, here in Part 4, the final step of our analysis, we’re bringing all the data together and helping make sense of it all.

This process was absolutely necessary, because unlike typical elections, the answer to “what happened in November?” was not a simple one. As a result, self-serving political grifters have been able to make their own narrative:

  • The Rauner consultants need you to believe it was all Darren Bailey’s fault Republicans lost, because otherwise they’d have some culpability. But how can you lay all the blame at Bailey’s feet when he performed just as well as Rauner statewide when you account for 3rd party candidates, or even better than Rauner if you exclude those other candidates?
  • Conservatives and moderates in Illinois who have spent the past two decades blaming everything on each other predictably blamed each other after this last election. But if it was conservatives’ fault, why did Bruce Rauner, Mark Kirk, and congressional candidates like Bob Dold lose in the past? If it was moderates’ fault and we simply needed a “pure conservative” in order to win, why did Darren Bailey, Mark Curran, and congressional candidates like Jeanne Ives lose?
  • Those who desperately want to keep Trump from being the Republican nominee in 2024 saw an opportunity to further tarnish Trump’s brand by blaming him for our failures in 2022. But if this was all his fault, why did the GOP’s decline in Illinois start years before Trump announced a presidential run?
  • Strategists blamed the overturning of Roe rather than their own inability to craft messaging that resonated with voters. But if it was a failure of our issues, why did those issues work so well in other states, like New York and Florida?
  • Consultants and staff blamed the lack of funding for why they were unable to push their candidates across the finish line. But if it was all due to the funding disparity, why did our candidates who got nearly as much funding as their opposition see limited improvement in their numbers over those who didn’t?

While each of these factors did indeed play a role, the truth is the Illinois Republicans’ failure in 2022 wasn’t due to just one factor. A monumental failure like this is rarely caused by just one thing, especially since our party has been failing in Illinois for well over a decade.

There is no excuse for our horrible performance in 2022. None. Everything played in our favor. Females and minorities stayed home. The electorate was more conservative than liberal. The vote share shifted significantly to outside Chicago and Cook County. Voters trusted Republicans more on nearly every issue they cared about. All this adds up to what should have been the best Republican election in a generation, a true “red wave.” Yet…we lost.

The same thing happened nationally. Did you know Republicans actually won the national popular vote in 2022 by 3% (51%-48%)? This was a 7% improvement from our 2020 national performance and, according to the data, should have led to a 21-seat pickup in the House and 3 flips (and an additional hold) in the Senate. Yet, instead, we barely took the House and lost the Senate.

What does this tell us? It tells us that an electorate made up of people who historically vote Republican voted Democrat in 2022. That is a flat-out rejection of our party.

It’s time we stopped blaming each other and started accepting that each of us bears responsibility for this data-breaking failure. It never should have happened—and cannot happen again.

Based on the data we’ve been able to generate over this 3-month project, we’ve identified 6 key steps Republicans in Illinois need to take right now to be successful. This isn’t an exhaustive list of everything that needs to be done—these are the foundational steps on which we can build in future election cycles.

Define What it Means to Be a Republican

The data proves that in Illinois, the political environment is so bad for Republicans, even if we recruit amazing candidates in every district who run perfect, well-funded campaigns, we’d still lose most races.

Voters are rejecting our brand. Well, maybe a better way to say it is, voters are rejecting “Republican.” Because we have no brand.

If we’re going to turn our fortunes around in Illinois, developing a brand and defining what it means to be a Republican is a wise place to start. It’s the same in the private sector when starting a business or organization: you first define your mission and vision and develop your brand. Yet that’s not something we’ve done as Republicans.

We need to develop an identity for our party that centers on our ability to lead and make people’s lives better. Across the country and even in Illinois in 2022, the candidates who did best, whether conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, were “governing” candidates whom voters trusted would be strong leaders that would get things done. This has always especially been the case in Illinois, where voters will re-elect you even if you’re a crook as long as you make their lives better. By the way, Governor Pritzker and the Democrats understand this—Pritzker even said it at the 2023 World Economic Forum.

Republicans have successes we can point to and leaders we can highlight to show we are capable of governing. Voters are actively fleeing blue cities and moving to suburban areas led by local conservative/Republican leaders who have implemented right-of-center policies. Voters moved to those towns for a reason—we ought to highlight what has made those communities so attractive and point to how that same leadership would work at the state and federal level.

Stand FOR Something

“People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.” –Michael J. Fox as Lewis Rothschild in The American President

Whenever there’s a problem, Democrats present a plan, Republicans give “thoughts and prayers.” It’s infuriating to me and not at all appealing to voters.

I get why this happens. The Republican Party is built on the importance of personal responsibility, so when we see a problem, we want people to step up to solve the problem, not government. That may be a good philosophy, but it’s horrible politics. Because as a result, politicians on the left get to present a plan to address that problem, while we look like we don’t care. For voters who want to see action, whether the left’s plan is good or bad doesn’t matter—it’s a plan, and voters want their leaders to do something.

We’ve seen this time again. On healthcare a decade ago, everyone agreed the system was broken (it still is), yet Republicans had no plan to fix it—now we have Obamacare, and it’s not going anywhere. In 2021, when the public overwhelmingly agreed something needed to be done to address racism, criminal justice, and economic disparities in underprivileged neighborhoods, Republicans had no plan, Democrats did. That led to the SAFE-T Act, among other laws, being passed. We’re seeing it play out again right now on guns. Voters of every demographic agree something needs to be done about mass shootings, especially in schools. The Republican response? Put your head down and wait for the public to forget about the latest shooting. The Democrats have a plan, one more focused on virtue signaling than actually addressing the very real problem, but it doesn’t matter—it’s a plan, and we need to do something, so voters will support it.

These are such wasted opportunities to lead. A decade ago (or since), why didn’t Republicans in Congress push measures to make health care costs more transparent, something supported by over 90% of voters, which would turn the focus to where it should be—on the skyrocketing cost of medical insurance and health care? In 2021, why didn’t Republicans in Springfield work with business associations and community colleges to create and expand internship and educational opportunities for underprivileged young people, a perfect example of a Jack Kemp “hand up” solution? Why aren’t conservatives huddling right now with gun organizations to identify measures to keep guns out of the hands of those who wish to use them to do harm while protecting gun rights for law abiding citizens?

You even saw this dynamic play out in the side-by-side videos of Governor DeSantis’ and Governor Pritzker’s inaugural addresses, where DeSantis focused on all the things he was going to stop from happening, which comes off negative and uninspiring, while Pritzker emphasized what he was going to do to address problems, which naturally feels more positive and inspirational.

Voters are inherently selfish, and frankly that’s a good thing—they’re supposed to take care of themselves, their family, and their community. When we speak, if we’re not speaking about how we’re going to make their lives better, why would we expect them to care what we have to say?!?

It’s time the Republican Party started presenting commonsense plans to tackle the challenges of the day. It’s time we were actually FOR something.

Recognize We Need People in Our Party Who Might Think Differently Than Us

I’m frankly sick and tired of the infighting in the Illinois Republican Party. I’ve been listening to and living through it since I started in politics nearly two decades ago. It’s childish and unproductive.

Both sides are right and both sides are wrong.

Conservatives are right that we need strong conservative leaders to push forward our principles, fire up our base voters and small dollar donors, and generate the volunteers we need to win campaigns. They’re wrong that an ideologically “pure” conservative candidate can attract so many low propensity voters that they can win without appealing to swing voters. As we learned with Darren Bailey’s election, this one-sided approach gains us about an equal number of votes as it loses us, which ends up in the same place: an election loss.

Moderates are right that we need less ideologically driven leaders to win in the battleground suburbs, appeal to swing voters, and generate funding from high dollar donors. They’re wrong that they can win elections without the base. We saw this in Rauner’s and Kirk’s re-elections, where Republicans won swing voters but couldn’t turn out their base and lost.

The debate over “conservative or moderate” is a complete waste of time. No matter which we choose, we will lose, because whatever we gain on the one side we lose on the other. It’s time we introduced a brand new word to our party: “and.” We need conservatives AND moderates, or we will keep losing.

We don’t need to slice the pie differently. We need to grow the pie. This should be self-evident to free market conservatives, which make up the majority of our party. On economics we stress we don’t need to play the zero-sum game of “slicing the pie” smaller and smaller so everyone gets an equal slice, we need to “grow the pie” so there are opportunities for all to thrive. We should be applying this principle to our own party. Instead of the zero-sum game of slicing the pie up, pushing out conservatives to attract more moderates or pushing out moderates to attract more conservatives, we should be growing the pie.

Recruit and Promote High Quality Candidates

Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, we should be a party that is the sum of all its parts. Meaning we shouldn’t be demanding leaders and candidates in one region look, think, and talk like us. In one of the most diverse states in the country, we need to recognize that a Republican in Decatur isn’t the same as a Republican in Highland Park—a strong leader in Naperville isn’t the same as a strong leader in Carbondale.

If we’re going to be successful, we need to find candidates who fit their districts. Sure, this is ideological, but even more than that it’s about running candidates who can appeal to their voters. This means candidates who look like, sound like, and think like the voters in their communities.

This isn’t a “conservative or moderate” thing. The issues that resonate in each community typically aren’t ideological. Voters don’t care about “inflation,” they care about how much it costs to fill up their gas tank and grocery cart. They don’t care about “the economy,” they care that their favorite restaurant just closed or their paycheck isn’t keeping up with the cost of living. They don’t care about “crime,” they care that their kids are safe.

Voters don’t care about the issues themselves. They care about how those issues impact their lives. And a local candidate who is ingrained in their community will know how to translate conservative issues into kitchen table conversations that resonate with voters in that specific district.

That’s why we need to be less focused on ideology and more focused on candidate quality when recruiting candidates. Don’t get me wrong, as a political strategist I admit it is significantly easier to elect a candidate whose issues align with the majority of voters in their district. But as someone who has recruited hundreds of candidates to run for office, I can tell you it is often nearly impossible to find someone willing to run who is both a good candidate and ideologically fits their district. If you find that candidate, run them! But when looking, focus first on candidate quality, because a good candidate can appeal to voters even if they don’t always align on every issue.

Then we need to get those candidates through their primary elections. We’re already seeing some positive movement on this front. Several Republican organizations are developing programs that help amplify high quality candidates, regardless of ideology. This is the right approach. Party leaders shouldn’t be specifically picking winners and losers in primaries, because those choosing have their own bias. Instead, like the NRCC’s Young Guns program, the party can reward candidates for meeting certain transparent benchmarks that indicate a strong candidate running a strong campaign. This helps amplify good candidates over bad candidates without taking sides in primary elections.

Put in the Work Year Round

The hard work of winning campaigns isn’t confined to the months leading up to an election. It’s a year-round, full-time job.

A great example is vote by mail (VBM) programs. Republicans are locked in a perpetual cycle in Illinois. After every election, party leaders rightly identify a big reason for our failure is a lack of success in voting by mail, so they promise this next election they’ll make VBM a big focus. Then the next election comes around, we do the bare minimum again, and we lose again. Rinse and repeat.

Why do we always end up doing the bare minimum? Because real VBM programs take work. An Illinois Republican VBM program is putting out a few mailers, maybe doing some mass text or call follow-ups, and patting ourselves on the back. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is more than we used to do, so it’s something.

But in working with state parties in other states, we’ve seen what a real VBM program looks like. It requires multiple full-time staff as well as local surrogates. You need a specific website, database, and tracking process for both external and internal use. You must have strong data and experts who can utilize that data for effective targeting. Hundreds of volunteers need to be actively harvesting ballots and contacting voters at every stage in the process. You have to set up passive ballot harvesting sites at favorable locations. You need capabilities in multiple languages. Every GOP organization and campaign need to be working together. In short: you need an active VBM operation, not just a line item in a paid outreach budget.

This is just one example of the work our party needs to put in year round. We need to be actively recruiting volunteers and candidates. We need to conduct voter registration drives. We need to be talking to voters and capturing issue preference data to be utilized in the next election. We need to be building out our fundraising base. We need to be training our volunteers and candidates. We need to be engaging on issues as part of the public discourse. We need to be promoting our leaders and celebrating their successes. Etc.

Elections are won and lost before the campaigns even start. This takes work. Yes, Democrats have the advantage here in Illinois, because with the reigns of power they have significant resources at their disposal to motivate their workers. Republicans don’t enjoy that advantage. So I’m not saying this will be easy. But we won’t win if we don’t put in the work.

Don’t Lose Hope—We Can Do This

The mountain we’re trying to scale is intimidating. But if we take it one step at a time, we can do this. We didn’t dig ourselves into this hole in one election—we’re not going to dig ourselves out in a single election either.

The good news is the data shows this isn’t a lost cause.

There are key signs of weakness for Democrats that put them in a precarious position. The more they focus on social issues like abortion to win suburban and white voters, the more they lose support among minorities. The more they appease their progressive base, the more they alienate working class households. The vote share is moving away from Chicago. Even after spending hundreds of millions of dollars painting Republicans as extreme, voters are just as likely to think Democrats are extreme. And much of their base is made up of moderate voters, which have shown an openness to key right-of-center issues.

I’m not interested in wasting my own time, so if there wasn’t hope, I’d be the first to say we should all just move on from this fight. But that’s not the case. We can win if we get back to leading from the front, unify as a team, and put in the work.