The concept of "racial slippage" is back, and it's being misapplied to Illinois.
Racial slippage describes a situation of minority candidates doing worse than the polls predict. According to the theory, some white voters lie to pollsters and tell them they support a black candidate because they might be embarrassed to admit that they aren't going to vote for an African American. Only when they are in the privacy of the voting booth do they allow their prejudices to take over and vote their race.
Charlie Cook, the famed national political analyst, brought up the racial-slippage subject in a recent piece for the National Journal about the Illinois U.S. Senate race between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Jack Ryan. Cook publishes The Cook Report, a highly respected newsletter about U.S. House, Senate, and presidential politics.
After claiming that most pundits believe Obama is the heavy favorite, Cook tossed in a caveat.
"Nationwide, minority candidates in major statewide races have tended to do less well at the ballot box than final polls had predicted," Cook wrote. Obama, if you didn't know already, is an African American.
"That pattern of under-performing held true when Doug Wilder was elected governor of Virginia in 1989, when former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt failed to upset Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) in 1990 and 1996, when Ron Kirk failed to win Texas's open Senate seat in 2002, and when Indian-American Bobby Jindal lost Louisiana's gubernatorial race last year. So, Obama may need to have a strong - although no one knows how strong - lead in the polls to actually pull off a win."
Cook usually knows his stuff, but he should have looked at Illinois history before he predicted that Obama would need a big lead in the polls to win.
Unlike those Southern states Cook described, Illinois has a history of electing African Americans in statewide races.
Roland Burris was elected to three terms as state comptroller, beginning in 1978. In 1990, he was elected the state's attorney general.
In 1992, Carol Moseley-Braun won the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, beating all the polls, confounding the pundits, and upsetting incumbent Alan Dixon. In November of that year, Moseley-Braun again beat the polls in her win against Republican Rich Williamson.
Moseley-Braun lost her seat to Peter Fitzgerald in 1998, but she did better than all but one of the polls predicted.
In 2002, Secretary of State Jesse White won all of the state's 102 counties in his re-election bid, out-performing every prediction.
This spring, Obama took on six opponents, including two-term comptroller Dan Hynes and multi-millionaire Blair Hull, and won with an astounding 53 percent of the vote. No published poll even came close to predicting Obama's final result.
Another problem with applying this racial-slippage theory to Illinois is that it is based on just a few high-profile races in Republican-leaning states.
Illinois is trending more Democratic every year. While Republicans have scored major victories in Virginia and North Carolina, and they practically own Texas, Illinois is dominated by the Democrats. All but one statewide constitutional officer is a Democrat. Both chambers of the General Assembly are controlled by Democrats, and the Supreme Court has a solid Dem majority.
Illinois' congressional delegation has more Republicans than Democrats, but that was by design. The U.S. House Speaker, Denny Hastert, is a Republican, and keeping him happy (and, therefore, making sure the pork projects kept coming our way) was a priority. A Democratic congressional map could have easily been drawn.
I'm not suggesting here that Barack Obama is a slam-bang winner this November, although he does look pretty good on paper. Still, there's a long way to go until the general election. Plenty of things can happen. And he does have that weird name.
Then again, Jack Ryan's last name has become political death in Illinois, thanks to indicted ex-Governor George Ryan. If there's any last-second slippage, it could be when a small handful of uninformed voters are faced with the decision of casting their ballots for yet another Ryan and decide to take a pass.
All I'm saying is that applying a Southern-bigotry theory to this campaign to make it seem like it could be closer than the pundits are currently predicting denigrates Illinois voters and ignores the past.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (http://www.capitolfax.com).