The names may have changed, but for many voters, the 2018 Primary Election for governor probably looks a lot like 2014, but with a flip of party identification.
In 2014, Republicans had a true throw-down between two state senators, the state treasurer and political novice Bruce Rauner. Rauner had a lead by early January thanks to an outsider campaign message and a significant advantage in resources. He recognized voters were looking for change and appealed to primary voters with his “shake up Springfield” mantra plastered on televisions across the state.
Today, Rauner, like then-Governor Pat Quinn, is a relatively unpopular incumbent being challenged in a primary.
Meanwhile Democrats have a crowded primary with political novice JB Pritzker leading the pack. Pritzker, like Rauner, has a significant advantage in resources. Unlike Rauner in 2014 though, Pritzker decided to cede the outsider mantle in exchange for institutional support, which is far more valuable on the Democrat side, given their superior political infrastructure combined with the power of labor union muscle.
The other similarity? In 2014, Democrat-leaning unions banded together to run ads attacking Rauner. Ironically, this year, it’s Rauner who made a play in the Democrat primary by attacking Pritzker.
Based on the public polls, including one released over the weekend by Capitol Fax, it appears that Pritzker has withstood Rauner’s early barrage, perhaps aided by the fact that Rauner had to turn his focus to his primary opponent, Jeanne Ives.
But primaries can change in an instant, and months of good campaigning can quickly unravel. My experience on the Rauner campaign is a lesson in why you should assume nothing in a primary election.
In 2014, as part of the Rauner operation, we went into Primary Day confident of the outcome. All internal and external data pointed to a resounding win. Public polls showed Rauner with a lead in the mid-teens and our own data showed similar numbers. Our prospects looked so promising that our final TV ad shifted from attacking the competition to a more positive spot. Rest assured, a competent campaign will only stop their negative advertising close to an election if they feel confident of victory.
As the numbers began to pour in on election night, it quickly became evident that winning by double-digits wasn’t going to happen. Political operatives know all-too-well the distinct feeling of nervousness that comes as the votes are being counted no matter how far ahead or behind the polling shows their candidate.
As the margin between Rauner and Kirk Dillard kept shrinking, our modeling still showed we would narrowly prevail, but no one could exhale until the Associated Press finally called the race. Rauner had slipped through by a margin of 3 points - a far cry from the double digits our polling predicted.
To their credit, the Pritzker campaign appears to be taking nothing for granted. The poll released by Capitol Fax shows Pritzker is comfortably leading by 19 points. Just as important, he is attacking any candidate who gets within striking distance of that coveted first place spot, and he doesn’t seem to be relenting. Nor should he, because as the Rauner 2014 primary campaign showed a big lead can evaporate in the flurry of the closing week of a campaign.
The one thing I know for sure about this year’s primary night is that it will be a whole lot less stressful watching from the sidelines.
I think the kid may have a future in this business. /s