Wouldn’t you suppose that Illinois Valley voters opposed Richard Nixon? Or that Bureau County never supported a Democratic president? Or that area Catholics jammed the polls to install JFK?
Well, think again.
Nixon never lost any area counties in his three tries for president. Bureau County voted for Barack Obama and twice for Bill Clinton. John F. Kennedy’s 1960 win in Illinois remains controversial, but no one disputes this: Kennedy didn’t win a single local county.
The NewsTribune analyzed local election data for every presidential race since 1960, and the results yielded some real surprises. Among the findings:
n Marshall and Bureau counties have the best record (nearly 77 percent) in voting for the winning president. Both records were blemished by votes for Nixon in ’60 and Gerald Ford in ’76; Bureau also voted against Lyndon Johnson in ’64 and Marshall against Obama in ‘08.
n Only two presidents won all four counties in both their first and reelection campaigns: Clinton and Ronald Reagan.
n Republican sentiment was strong throughout the area until after Reagan left office. No Democrat claimed any counties between the 1964 and 1988 races.
n Putnam County has been more reliably Democratic than La Salle County, at least since 1976. Both supported Democrats Michael Dukakis and Al Gore, but only Putnam County backed John Kerry in ‘04.
Here’s how the individual races played out:
Kennedy wasn’t the first Catholic candidate for president (that was Al Smith in 1928) but his religion was a divisive point in an already tight race with Nixon, the outgoing vice president under Dwight Eisenhower.
Kennedy barely won the popular vote by 0.2 percent but he won the electoral vote more handily, 303 to 219, thanks in part to allegedly tainted polls in Cook County. Even without Illinois, however, Kennedy still would have won the race.
Locally, however, Kennedy didn’t fare well. He lost Marshall and Bureau counties by lopsided margins and even lost La Salle County, albeit by just 20 votes (27,532 to Nixon’s 27,552). Putnam County records prior to 1976 were not available.
That was the first time the Rev. Harold Datzman, O.S.B., voted in a presidential election. Datzman was 22 and remembered voting for Kennedy. He estimated La Salle-Peru was 55 percent Catholic at that time, but there was no such majority elsewhere in the Illinois Valley.
“Religion had a great deal to do, I think, in that election,” Datzman said, but added, “That he lost La Salle County is a surprise. There was a strong Catholic base — you can see that in the number of churches — but it really was an issue at that time for a lot of people.”
Johnson was elevated to the Oval Office following Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and then ran for a term of his own against Barry Goldwater, a Republican Senator from Arizona.
Johnson won in a landslide, taking 61 percent of the popular vote and claiming Illinois in an electoral rout, 486-52. He won La Salle County by a 3-2 margin and took Marshall County by a 10 percent margin. Goldwater won Bureau County, but it was close: 9,552-9,086.
“Bureau County is pretty solidly Republican,” observed Kami Hieronymus, Bureau County clerk.
Nixon, 1968 and 1972
Nixon first prevailed over outgoing vice president Hubert Humphrey with less than 1 percent of the popular vote and 301 electoral votes, including Illinois.
Nixon owed his first victory to problems on the Democratic side: Bobby Kennedy was assassinated; George Wallace took five southern states (and 46 electoral votes) from Humphrey; and the violent Democratic convention in Chicago cast a shadow over Humphrey’s nomination.
Watergate happened months before Nixon’s ’72 reelection, but the burgeoning scandal had no impact whatsoever at the polls. Nixon crushed U.S. Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) with 61 percent of the popular vote and a whopping electoral vote of 520-17, including Illinois.
Locally, both Nixon victories were solid. In 1968, he handily won Marshall and Putnam counties and took La Salle County by 26,054-22,940, a much broader lead than he held over Kennedy eight years earlier.
In 1972, Nixon continued his dominance by winning Marshall and Bureau counties by 2-1 margins and taking La Salle County 3-2.
“La Salle County in the ‘50s and ‘60s was pretty much a Republican county,” recalled Bob Vickrey, a La Salle County Board member. “I think it began to shift a little into the ‘70s.”
Watergate, and Nixon’s ensuing resignation, turned Gerald Ford into the first man to become president despite having never been elected on a national ticket. Thus tainted by his lack of a mandate — and his controversial pardon of Nixon — Ford lost his ’76 bid for a term of his own to Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia, a virtual unknown at the time.
Nationally, the race was close. Carter narrowly won the popular vote and the electoral vote 297-240.
Ford won Illinois, however, and took all four local counties including Putnam, for which this is the first election still on record. Carter did not keep the race especially close in the Illinois Valley; Ford won Marshall, Bureau, Putnam and La Salle counties by 22 percent, 18 percent, 8 percent and 4 percent, respectively.
Reagan, 1980 and 1984
The Carter presidency fell into disarray and Ronald Reagan, former governor of California, crushed him in the 1980 election. Reagan took a 10 percent lead in the popular vote and an electoral lead of 489-49.
The script played out again in 1984, when Reagan destroyed former Carter VP Walter Mondale with an electoral vote of 525-13.
Reagan both times took Illinois, having been born (Tampico), raised (Dixon) and educated (Eureka College) in the Land of Lincoln.
Locally, Reagan became the first president to win his initial and reelection bids in all four Illinois Valley counties — and won each with double-digit margins. His worst showing was in Putnam County, where in ’84 he still beat Mondale by 13 percent.
Tom Setchell, a former La Salle County auditor, was among the local Republicans ushered into office in the pro-Reagan crush. He called Carter a “terrible president” who’d only benefited from anti-incumbent sentiment left by Watergate.
“Reagan was obviously a very likable local guy,” Setchell said, noting there were local athletes who’d competed against Reagan in his Dixon years. “I had coffee with people in Mendota who remembered playing against him.”
George H.W. Bush-Dukakis, 1988
Former vice president George H.W. Bush wasn’t a favorite among the GOP’s right wing, but he capitalized on Reagan’s lingering popularity and on problems among the Democratic field (the Donna Rice scandal; Joe Biden’s illness) to beat a weakened Dukakis in an electoral landslide, 426-111.
That would be the last presidential race in which Illinois voted Republican, however.
Locally, Bush’s support was split. He won Marshall County by a 13-percent margin and Bureau County by 9 percent. Dukakis won Putnam County by 3 percent and narrowly won La Salle County (0.2 percent).
Clinton, 1992 and 1996
Bush’s lack of right-wing support caught up with him in his reelection bid, compounded by the entry of Ross Perot, the nation’s first Reform Party candidate for president.
The resulting fractures in Bush’s base gave the race to Clinton, who took 370 electoral votes, including Illinois, and 43 percent of the popular vote. Clinton’s reelection bid over Perot and Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) was even more decisive: 379 electoral votes and 49 percent of the popular vote.
Clinton thus joined Reagan in winning all four Illinois Valley counties on both tries, halting a string of Republican victories in Bureau County and a similar streak (except LBJ in ’64) in Marshall County.
George W. Bush, 2000 and 2004
Former Gov. George W. Bush of Texas won by the narrowest of leads: 271-266 electoral votes. Gore became the first president since John Quincy Adams to win the popular vote but lose the election.
Florida was the epicenter of a hotly-disputed recount, but Illinois never was in question. Gore won here in 2000 and Kerry won in 2004.
Locally, both races were split. Bush fared best in Marshall County (14 percent in 2004, 10 percent in ’00), and both times took Bureau County while losing La Salle and Putnam.
Four years ago, Illinois voted “blue” in its fifth straight presidential contest and helped make Obama the first African-American president. Though born in Hawaii, Obama made his home in Illinois and he cruised to victory in the Land of Lincoln.
Marshall County voted against Obama, but even there it was close: U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) enjoyed only a 1 percent margin of victory in the Lacon polls.
“I was kind of surprised because we had heavy voting and heavy registration, and I really did think we would go Obama,” said Andrea Mahoney-Platt, Marshall County clerk. “We have flipped before but we’re predominantly Republican.”
Obama had no such trouble in La Salle and Putnam counties, winning both by double-digit margins. Bureau County resumed its trend (since 1992) of breaking ranks with the GOP to support a winning Democratic president.
Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or email@example.com.