For the last two months, Chicago and the state of Illinois have resembled a Midwestern home for President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign, starting with a June visit to debut his “Bidenomics” recovery strategy and followed by repeated stops from Vice President Kamala Harris, a visit from first lady Jill Biden and countless tours by Cabinet officials.
Illinois has voted Democratic in presidential contests since 1992, and rejected former President Donald Trump by 17 percentage points in both 2020 and 2016. So the attention the Biden campaign is devoting to a reliably blue state might appear to run counter to the need to hit competitive states that will be crucial in the 2024 election.
Running up a popular vote for Biden against Trump, or whoever becomes the eventual Republican nominee, is irrelevant to the stakes for the White House given it is a state’s winner-take-all Electoral College votes that decide the presidency.
”It’s not what you normally would expect. You normally would expect him to focus, of course, on the swing states,” Christopher Mooney, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said of Biden.
But leading Democrats and Democratic consultants said there are a variety of factors at play for the White House’s interest in Chicago and Illinois — most notably making an early effort to build enthusiasm amid signs that the Democratic base has become blase in a donor-rich state that will host the Democratic National Convention next August.
And if enthusiasm for Biden is problematic in Illinois, it also portends problems in rest of the nation including the all important swing states.
”There is some very obvious softness in the president’s numbers with the Democratic base, and you’re not going to be successful in 2024 without an enthused Democratic base. It’s just good politics to pay attention to them,” said Democratic political strategist Tom Bowen, whose work has included the campaigns of Mayors Rahm Emanuel and Lori Lightfoot, but is not part of Biden’s campaign apparatus.
”The president has a strong record that base Democratic voters will be excited about, but the only kind of thing they’re experiencing in their lives right now is recovery from COVID, recovery from inflation — this constant sort of malaise out there from the things that the MAGA Republican base has been most excited about,” Bowen said, using shorthand for Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.
The president kicked off the Windy City White House drive June 28 when he came to the Old Post Office to officially embrace “Bidenomics” — once a derogatory term used by Republicans — to describe his post-pandemic efforts to rebuild the economy and combat inflation with government stimulus, including infrastructure, broadband and clean air programs.
That was followed by three Chicago visits by Harris within a one-month span, starting July 16 with an appearance before Rainbow/PUSH, followed by a speech to the annual conference of the Latino organization UnidosUS eight days later and then an address to the national gathering of the anti-gun violence group Everytown for Gun SafetyAction Fund’s on Aug. 11.
On Wednesday, first lady Jill Biden closed out the summer campaign tour with a pre-Labor Day event celebrating union labor, a major Democratic ally, at McCormick Place. On the same day, Biden’s Department of Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, was the latest in a parade of Cabinet officials coming to Illinois to tout the Biden agenda, visiting the 70th annual Farm Progress Show in downstate Decatur.
Illinois is an “easy in and out to a major market in the middle of the country,” David Axelrod, political strategist for President Barack Obama and a CNN analyst, said when asked about Biden’s focus on the state this summer. “I assume some of them are picking up some campaign money while they’re here. And, it is the (DNC) convention city, so they’re building toward that.”
While largely fly-over territory for presidential campaign rallies, Chicago has been a traditional ATM stop for political fundraising by both Democrats and Republicans. The president raised money during his June appearance and Harris also had fundraisers during one of her trips to Chicago.
The city’s status as a major convention hub with national attendees also has been a factor, offering an audience that spills beyond city and state lines. Harris’ visits were described by the White House as outreach to “key constituencies,” including audiences of Black, Latino, women and young voters as Republicans have sought to raise negatives about her amid questions about Biden’s age.
“Illinois is like the heart of the heartland,” said Bob Reiter, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor. “So, when Joe or Jill Biden comes and talks to the labor movement in Chicago, that reverberates to our sisters, brothers and siblings in Wisconsin and Michigan and Indiana.”
Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a member of Biden’s reelection advisory board, said the presidential campaign team’s attention on Illinois reflects an embrace of the policies enacted by Democrats who control the state, something that also helped Chicago attract the Democratic National Convention.
”I do think that being in Illinois is an opportunity for them to point to the things that they really believe in, because we’re accomplishing those things here,” Pritzker said. “It’s an opportunity in many of those situations for them to highlight the good work that they do that’s helping Illinois and also, the things they’d like to see in the rest of the country.”
Pritzker noted that Biden and his campaign team have been hitting states where the 2024 presidential vote remains up for grabs, like Wisconsin.
Jill Biden’s visit came a day before a trip to nearby Madison, Wisconsin, to tout the need for cancer screening and a fundraiser for Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin. The president was in Milwaukee Aug. 15 to tout “Bidenomics” and the manufacturing economy.
But softness in Biden’s numbers, as well as frequent visits to Democratic-friendly Illinois, also could mean that the president is not in high demand places where his presence might not be seen as significantly helpful to local Democrats.
Bowen said Illinois provides Biden’s team with “a venue to keep a national message” to the base on issues such as support for organized labor and clean energy technology funding. The president’s campaign figures to be a much rarer sight as the election nears.
”He’s not going to be able to campaign here next year, when he’s in battleground states after Labor Day,” Bowen said of expectations for Biden’s travel after the convention. “So you can do some blue states with some of your Cabinet and do that necessary base tending at the beginning of the campaign.”
Chicago Tribune’s Jeremy Gorner contributed from Litchfield, Illinois.