Illinois Politics

 Politics, Prejudice,

and Party Realignments

in Southern Illinois

A Look at 52 Downstate Counties and How They Voted in 2020

By Steve Rensberry
Opinion / Analysis

EDWARDSVILLE, Ill., - 12/1/2020 - Look at a map of how Southern Illinois residents have voted since the late 1990s and you won't see much competition, nor much blue. This year's colossal presidential election was a perfect example, with Republican candidates -- the president included -- receiving support from roughly 70 percent of voters in nearly every county at-or-below the Springfield line.

Results per county (pg 1). See citations for data sources.
   How deep does the red run in Southern Illinois, and how long will its love affair with the GOP continue? If the two main political parties stay as they are, with Democrats leaning liberal and Republicans leaning conservative, probably for a good while yet. But there are no guarantees.

This particular analysis, compiled from the most recent election data available, looks specifically at 52 of the state's 102 counties, the most southern, with statistics on how each county voted in the 2016 and 2020 elections, and a select number of other demographics. Believe it or not, as of this past week not all votes in every county had yet been finalized or completely counted. I chose to use percentages for comparison rather than vote totals for this reason. The declared winners are not expected to change.

Results per county (pg 2). See citations for data sources.
   In one sense, given the region's history, the latest expression of political sentiment shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Historically, the region has always leaned conservative, the experts say, sharing cultural values with the South in general as well as with neighboring Missouri and Upper Southern states such as Tennessee and Kentucky. For decades it was a more conservative Democratic Party that captured their votes, dominating elections from before the American Civil War, through Reconstruction, up until the 1960s. Then things began to change. "Beginning as recently as the presidential election of 2000, Democrats have under-performed in Southern Illinois despite winning Illinois consecutively," this online description about the region states.

What is surprising to me is the depth of Republican allegiance and loyalty to such a polarizing president, apparently oblivious to the integrity they've sacrificed in the process -- a question more than a few people have asked since Nov. 4

  One estimate is that nationwide Trump won approximately 92 percent of the vote that he had in 2016. By comparison, of the 52 Southern Illinois counties considered in this study, Trump captured 98.7 percent of the vote he received that year.

   In the aggregate, pro-Trump voters in these 52 counties represented 69.6 percent of the region's vote totals in 2016, and 71.73 percent in 2020. Approximately 2.437 million votes were cast for Trump by Illinois voters in the 2020 General Election, compared to 2.135 million in 2016. See: 2020 Election Results.

"According to the national exit poll, Trump won 92% of the voters who cast a ballot for him in 2016. He also took 85% of self-described conservatives and 94% of self-described Republicans. Trump won only 81% of conservatives and 88% of Republicans back in 2016," writes Harry Enten in a 2018 article for CNN, How Biden won: He built on Clinton's successes. "Biden emerged victorious by winning an even larger share of the Democratic base than Clinton in 2016 and picking off voters in the middle of the electorate."

Southern Illinois has become a sea of red.
   Having been a resident of five southern counties since 1988, specifically the counties of Bond, Effingham, Madison, St. Clair and Clinton, I can tell you first-hand a good deal of the animosity toward the northern, more Democratic half of the state has been here for at least that long. The kind of intense devotion to a presidential candidate, like we've seen with Trump, is different however -- and a bit difficult to process. Where are the guard rails? Does might make right? I haven't seen a satisfying answer from Illinois Republicans to either of these questions, despite a platform in previous years that touted principles, ethics and fiscal conservatism. Have they changed that much, or was it all a ruse to begin with? You tell me.

We are, it's been noted, at a point where the pressure to rally around one political party and unite to defeat a common political enemy is everything. It's all hands on deck. Conservative Southern Illinoisans, however, were in the polarized camp long before Trumpism came along.

Again, from first-hand experience, if you're talking politics with a typical resident in small-town Southern Illinois, it's automatically assumed that you: 1) Hate Michael Madigan. 2) Know without question that Democrats are to blame for the state's economic problems. 3) Hate Chicago, and the people who live there. 4) Despise taxes from the depths of your soul, especially property taxes used to fund public schools. 5) Know that everyone north of Springfield is out to rob you of your hard-earned tax dollars, in order to fund a Democratic-led spending spree that benefits only those who live in-or-around Chicago. 6) Believe that everyone who leaves Illinois does so because of high taxation and the state's Democratic leadership.

There is no middle ground in the debate, and if you don't share these assumptions or insist on more proof or evidence, expect to be scoffed at.

Madigan, of course, does have some serious corruption issues on his hands, but thankfully for the Republicans they now have Gov. JB Pritzker, who conveniently fills the need for a downstate nemesis. Evidence of corruption or rural bias? Who needs it. He's a Democrat. Thus we see "Pritzker Sucks" signs on display, even when he's not on the ballot.

I've seen at least three types of analysis with respect to Southern Illinois and its political alliances.

One involves economics. Though both parties share blame for the state's fiscal woes, Democratic Party critics have successfully hammered their case home, painting Democrats as spendthrifts, out of touch, and the source of all that's wrong with the state's economy. One of the more neutral articles I've read on the subject was written by Daniel Vock in 2018: Who Ruined Illinois? 

Edward McClelland, writing for ChicagoMag in a 2018 article Why It's So Hard for Republicans to Win in Illinois, quotes Southern Illinois University Professor of Political Science John Jackson who cites the loss of unions and their influence in the region as a major factor in the loss of Democratic Party strength. "The same thing that’s happened to the South has happened here, though ours came more recently," Jackson said.

George W. Smith, 1824. Wikipedia Commons License
     Another type of analysis involves culture and the very early days of the state. Go back far enough and the most southern counties were clearly more aligned with pro-slavery attitudes and less progressive policies than those to the north.

Consider this description of the state's southern-most county, Alexander County: "Settled largely by white migrants from the Upland South, southern Illinois had many racial attitudes of the South. As African Americans settled in Cairo to seek jobs on steamboats, ferries, in shipping and railroads, there were tensions between the racial groups. White residents sometimes used violence and terrorism, as well as discrimination, to keep black residents in second-class positions. They excluded them from the city government and the police and fire departments, and relatively few African Americans were hired to work in the local stores . . . There were three lynchings of blacks in Alexander County in the years between Reconstruction and the early 20th century. The county had the second-highest number of lynchings of African Americans in all of Illinois."

Mary Bohlten, writing for Illinois Times about touring the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, states: "When I toured the museum and memorial last spring, I was disheartened to realize Illinois had 56 documented lynchings from 1877 to 1950. St. Clair County had the most with 40, but Sangamon County had two, associated with the 1908 race riots. Deep southern Illinois counties had lynchings but so did Cook, Macon, Marshall and Vermillion. So did such states as Oregon, California, North Dakota, Michigan and Trump’s native New York."

Increased mobility across the nation has been cited as another factor in increased polarization, and in the concentration of residents of like mind. Speaking in 2014, NPR Correspondent Shankar Vedantam had this to say about the relationship between geography and ideology:

"There's new research now that links the red state/blue state phenomenon with the fact that 40 to 50 million Americans move every year. So we are an increasingly mobile society," Vedantam explained, citing research by University of Virginia Psychologist Brian Nosek showing that liberals and conservatives tend to migrate to areas that are more aligned with their own ideology. "The downside is that if this mobility phenomenon is real, it means that the more mobile we get as a society, the more polarized we're going to become. Red states are going to get redder. Blue states are going to get bluer. The United States is going to get less united."

Reform and change is good, but what are we supposed to make of the kind of radical, norm-breaking presidency we've just lived through, apparently supported by a large number of residents in Southern Illinois? I suppose we should continue to expect the unexpected. The irony is that while the Republicans in downstate Illinois fixate on what they see as "corrupt and irresponsible Democrats," they've all but climbed in bed with one of the most corrupt and irresponsible Republican presidents in our nation's history. Who their next reactionary leader will be, and how extreme they'll be, is anybody's guess.

Graph Data Sources
Statistical Atlas (educational/income/ethnicity data)
Politico (2020 election results per county)
Politico (2016 election results per county)
Wikipedia (county population data)
270towin (national and state election results)