Snow hits Illinois primary: how bad weather changes elections

Bad weather may have depressed turnout among Chicago voters in Illinois' primary elections for governor and the Senate seat once held by Obama. Historically, that's good news for Republicans.

M. Spencer Green / AP
A voter registers in an empty polling station during the nations first primary election Tuesday, in Chicago. Voter turnout is low despite that top offices are up for grabs in Illinois, including Republican and Democratic nominees for Governor and US Senate.

Voters in a closely watched Illinois election primary Tuesday had to stomp through two inches of fresh snow, which may have contributed to a low voter turnout in Chicago – most likely between 30 and 35 percent by the end of the day, according to Chicago election officials.

Despite the predicted low turnout, the election is an important one. The primary for Illinois governor and one of its US senators is seen as a potential indicator of whether the voter revolt that came to a head in the Massachusetts Senate vote last month is likely to continue.

The US Senate seat in play is the one once held by Barack Obama. Sen. Roland Burris, appointed by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich (who has since been impeached), is not seeking reelection.

Advantage, Republicans

Election day weather can influence political results, according to a study titled “The Republicans Should Pray for Rain: Weather, Turnout, and Voting in U.S. Presidential Elections.” The study, compiled by three universities, examined the voting patterns of 3,000 counties between 1948 and 2000.

Among the results: for every one inch of precipitation in each county, overall voter turnout dropped 1 percent. But bad weather is sunshine for Republicans: for every inch of precipitation in each county, there was a 2.5 percent increase in Republican voting.

Democrats are particularly hampered by inclement weather because one of their traditional voting blocs: seniors. “They vote large in numbers and very reliably. But if it’s the case older people are less likely to brave the elements, that will have a disproportionate affect on Democrats,” says Ivan Kenneally, a political scientist at Rochester Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the study.

In Chicago, inclement weather and politics have a storied history. Under Richard J. Daley, the current mayor’s father, primaries were moved forward in the year to benefit incumbent candidates connected to the city’s political machine, says Michael Mezey, a political scientist at DePaul University in Chicago.

“The assumption is: If you held a primary early, the only people who would really get out would be the foot soldiers of the organization or those depending upon them,” says Mr. Mezey. “Clearly, bad weather depresses turnout and in this view works to the advantage of the organization.”

Who turns out

Still, motivated voters will turn out regardless of the weather, says Matthew Kerbel, a political scientist at Villanova University. “For people who are only marginally interested in the contest – [who] will find any excuse not to vote – the weather will carry more weight, because they were only marginal interested to begin with,” he says.

That is why most campaigns spend money to ferry voters to the polls on election day – or to remind people to vote on their way to or from work.
The Tuesday snowfall forced campaign officials in Chicago to step up efforts to get voters to the polls. Thom Karmik, spokesman for Democratic candidate for Senate David Hoffman, says his office has “several rooms of volunteers” working phone banks.

“It just means we have to more vigilant and do a little more outreach to get voters out,” says Mr. Karmik. “It’s always tough when the weather is bad and today is no exception.”


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