2022 IL GE Candidate Performance Analysis
Cognitive biases often keep us from learning and growing, or even making good decisions—not just in politics, but in life. These biases are especially problematic when reviewing election results. Due to confirmation and outcome bias, among other biases, people often miss the real story when looking at election results.
Take Illinois’ recent 19th Senate District election as an example. When embattled Senator Mike Hastings defeated Pat Sheehan despite domestic violence allegations, the narrative was that voters re-elected Hastings, so clearly he wasn’t that bad. But that misses the context. Biden won that district by 13% in 2020, Pritzker won it by 15% in 2018 and by about 10% in 2022—yet Hastings only won by 1%. That’s a massive underperformance. That should be the story.
Go back two years for an even better example. When Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx won reelection in 2020, the media narrative was that it was a decisive win and a sign of support for her agenda. Uh…no. Joe Biden won Cook County by over 50% that year, while Foxx only managed to win by 15%. That means she underperformed by a whopping 35%, which is nearly impossible statistically when so many voters vote by party regardless of the quality of the candidate. To this day, based on polling, she remains one of the least popular politicians in Illinois.
Simply looking at whether a candidate wins or loses does not tell you how they performed. It misses the context of the district’s makeup and past candidate performance. Good candidates lose and bad candidates win all the time. So, if we’re going to evaluate how Republican candidates performed in Illinois in 2022, we need a way to do so that takes context into account.
To achieve that, we created a baseline that averages the election results from 3 major races in every precinct: the 2020 Presidential race (Biden v Trump), the 2018 Gubernatorial race (Pritzker v Rauner), and the 2020 Progressive Tax Amendment (Yes v No). That baseline isn’t any sort of predictor of how Republican candidates will or should perform in a specific district. It’s simply a benchmark against which we can compare 2022 election results so we can see how candidates performed, and more importantly, see which candidates performed better than others so we can analyze why.
The results from this study are fascinating and, in a way, groundbreaking. First, it gives us an apples-to-apples comparison of candidates throughout Illinois, allowing us to truly evaluate their performance. Second, by comparing candidate performance, for the first time ever we can quantify the impact specific things have on election results. How much does candidate quality matter? How much ground can a candidate make up if they run a good campaign? How much of an advantage is incumbency? We finally have those answers, and more.
A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats
You win and lose elections outside the actual campaign. It’s that simple.
Sure, some races are so close on the margins you can get over the top through candidate recruitment and campaigning. But in Illinois, the political environment is so bad for Republicans, even if Republicans had recruited amazing candidates in every district who ran perfect, well-funded campaigns, and the Democrats recruited the worst possible candidates in every district who ran awful campaigns with no funding, the results would not have changed that much.
In this ridiculous and statistically impossible scenario, the data shows Republicans would’ve won 3 more congressional races (IL-6, IL-14, & IL-17), 4 more state senate races (SD19, SD23, SD36, & SD48), and 9 more state house races (HD45, HD49, HD51, HD55, HD66, HD68, HD83, HD97, & HD112). We still would’ve lost every statewide race and would hold limited minorities in Springfield and our congressional delegation.
If Republicans don’t work to improve the political environment, we’re doomed to keep losing. Which is apparently acceptable for certain consultants who seem to get hired no matter how often they lose. But for those of us who actually care about winning, it’s hopefully enlightening.
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. We must improve the image of our party. We must promote leaders who resonate with everyday voters. We must persuasively engage on issues outside of elections. We must present commonsense plans to tackle the challenges of the day. We must show we’re capable of governing and leading.
When we do those things, we will create an environment in which our candidates can succeed—then we’ll be able to celebrate a lot more victories come election night.
Candidate Recruitment Impacts the Race Before it Even Begins
The difference between the national Republican Party, which enjoys a fairly solid bench, and the Illinois Republican Party, which has no bench at all (and even less of one after our November losses), is huge.
The data from the 2022 General Election results shows that a good candidate can gain Republicans up to 3%, while conversely a bad candidate can lose Republicans up to 3%. Even worse, failing to engage in recruitment and getting stuck with a candidate so outside the mainstream they can objectively be considered “extreme” loses up to another 6%.
This means, even before a race has begun, in many districts Republicans have already lost because we failed to recruit a good candidate who can resonate with the voters in that district.
As much as 6% of the vote is up for grabs before the race even begins. If Republicans are going to win in Illinois, we need to put in a consistent effort to recruit, train, and prepare candidates.
Campaigns Have Some Impact on Election Outcomes, But Less Than You’d Think
Speaking of biases, I’ve operated in politics for over 16 years now thinking I mattered. This study has made me face the cold reality that I don’t.
The data shows that if one candidate runs a perfect race and the other candidate runs the worst possible race (or no race at all), the maximum boost they can receive in their final vote tally is 7%: 5% for the campaign and 2% for their funding advantage. But only a handful of candidates achieve this mark each election (just 4 in 2022)—for most, they’re able to move 1.5%-3.5% of the vote in their campaign and another 1% via their funding, for a total maximum advantage of 4.5%.
(You’ll note we separated out those two categories. In the data we saw that some candidates were well funded but ran bad campaigns, while others were barely funded but ran great campaigns. Most of the time those two went hand-in-hand, because “you can’t save the world if you can’t pay the rent.” But since funding doesn’t automatically mean campaign success, we evaluated each category independently.)
So what does this mean? It means if you’re that “lighting in a bottle” candidate you might be able to move 7% of the vote in your favor during your campaign. If you’re a mere mortal, you’re looking at moving a maximum of 4.5% of the vote. Obviously, you need to gain every vote you can to win contested races in battleground districts, so this shouldn’t discourage candidates and organizations from fighting to run the best possible campaigns. But for those of us who run campaigns for a living, it’s sobering evidence of how little of our potential success is in our control.
Illinois Minority Voters Are Not Exclusively Democrat
Many have already reported on the record-low voter turnout in Black wards in Chicago. Polls and election results for the past 6-8 years have shown a seismic shift in Hispanic vote preferences. This is not new information. What is new, however, is the quantifiable impact this is already having on elections in Illinois.
In the districts with the highest percentage of Black voters, Democrats lost as much as 12% at the polls. The average in contested legislative races with this impact was between 4%-6%. While most districts with this impact are not even remotely in play, it can play a significant role in some countywide, regional, and statewide races, and it was an important factor in a few specific contested races in 2022: SD19, SD48, & HD114.
In the districts with the highest percentage of Hispanic voters, Democrats lost as much as 8% at the polls. The average impact in contested legislative races with this impact was between 4%-5%. With Hispanic voters more spread out across the state, and with this trend potentially continuing in future elections, this is likely a much more relevant data point for Republicans. It is especially relevant in IL-17, HD49, & HD97, and if this trend continues it could soon become relevant in IL-6, IL-14, SD31, SD43, HD46, HD61, HD62, & HD86.
(Note: these factors may be relevant in even more districts than what we list here. We only have data for contested races in 2022, so this doesn’t consider races that were uncontested in 2022.)
What does this mean moving forward? Well, Black voters have long been a significant portion of Democrats’ base—if they continue to have problems turning out this segment of their base, Republicans gain a key advantage across the board. And Hispanics are now a swing demographic—Republicans gain a huge strategic advantage if they’re able to capitalize.
It’s well known that a candidate who goes into a race as an incumbent has an advantage. What hasn’t been known, until now, is how much of an advantage.
Our study showed that candidates with incumbency enjoyed up to a 3% advantage in their election, absent all other factors. Interestingly, this advantage started showing up almost immediately and reached up to that full 3% number after just a single term.
In recent years we’ve seen strategic political maneuvering, mostly by Democrats but occasionally by Republicans, to elevate preferred candidates well before they have to run in an election. The data says this is a smart play: changing a race from an open seat to an incumbent re-election campaign earns your candidate up to 3% support they wouldn’t have received otherwise (in addition to the other advantages they gain, like additional fundraising capacity and the ability to run a stronger campaign).
Other Factors Can Sometimes Create Massive Swings
There are some regional factors that significantly swung, or skewed, the data in 2022, and it’s important we note them.
First, there was indeed a “red wave.” In rural districts outside Chicagoland, where the red wave didn’t crash into a blue wave, Republican candidates gained a 4%-7% advantage, typically about 6%. This even had an impact on the statewide election results, gaining Republican candidates 1%-2% in this category depending on how conservative they were.
Second, there’s a unique impact in the data on races from Lincoln Park to Highland Park that we found nowhere else. You could draw an oval over this socially liberal region, where every Democrat gained 4%-6% in the 2022 election, with the impact highest in Highland Park, where it reached as high as 12%. This is certainly due to the Highland Park parade shooting and Dobbs, but it is unique to just this region.
Third, we found a similar data skew near East St Louis—strongest in Madison County but also present in St Clair County. Republicans in this region gained 3.5%-5% separate from all other factors, an impact that proved decisive in a few campaigns.
Fourth, while voters in Illinois are demonstrably less influenced by scandals, those scandals do impact the final election results. While both candidates still won, Democrats in SD19 and HD29 lost 7.5% and 5% respectively in this category and are more vulnerable as a result.