August 6, 2008


In the not too distant past, political parties picked presidential candidates based on geography. Now the choice depends on personality, fund-raising capability, ideology, race and gender.

After the Revolution Virginia was the "cradle of the presidency," with four of the first six presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe) being a Virginian. There have been none since. During the period from 1789 to 1828 geography mattered, with the South outvoting New England, although a Bostonian won in 1796 and 1824.

After the Civil War Illinois, Ohio and New York battled to be the proverbial "cradle," as all were swing states and, given the enormous patronage of the presidency, a nominee won his home state. In the 18 elections from 1860 to 1928, the Republicans nominated seven Ohioans, four Illinoisans and two New Yorkers; Democrats chose seven New Yorkers, one Ohioan, and three New Jersey residents. Republicans won 14 of the 18 elections.

After the Depression, from 1932 to 1960, New York was the critical state. Democrats nominated a New Yorker (Franklin Roosevelt) in four of five elections, and Republicans (Tom Dewey) in two. Democrats won all five contests.

The South and the Sun Belt dominated thereafter. In the 12 elections from 1960 to 2004, a Texan (Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush) won four, a Californian (Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan) four, a Democratic southerner (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton) three and a Bostonian (John Kennedy) one. Republicans won seven of the 12 elections.

Now, with the emergence of Barrack Obama as the 2008 Democratic nominee, geography has become wholly irrelevant.

Obama won the nomination not because he is a senator from Illinois, but rather because he has stature as a black senator with an engaging personality, a liberal and racial base, and an awesome fund-raising capability. The fact that Hillary Clinton was a transplanted Illinoisan who lived in Arkansas, then the White House, and then New York, was similarly irrelevant. Her fundamental appeal was based on gender, and her marriage to Bill Clinton enabled her to tap into his vast network of connections and raise stupendous amounts of money.

In the 55 presidential elections spanning America's 220-year electoral history, Illinois has been the home of just two presidents, Abraham Lincoln (1861 to 1865) and Ulysses Grant (1869 to 1877), one an icon, the other a failure.

In the 148 years since Lincoln's election to the White House, an eclectic array of Illinoisans has aspired to the presidency, and due to political trends, personal faults, ineptitude, party feuds or pure bad luck, all have failed. Here's the list:

Stephen Douglas: The "Little Giant" was a Democratic Illinois senator from 1847 until his death in 1861. He was a master equivocator, another in a long line of Democratic "doughfaces" - Northerners with Southern sympathies. After beating Lincoln in the 1858 Senate race, Douglas was the obvious 1860 Democratic presidential nominee, but he also was the author of "popular sovereignty" in Kansas, and he alienated both abolitionists and southerners. The Democrats were split in the 1860 election, and Lincoln beat Douglas 1,866,352-1,375,175, with 845,763 votes for southern Democrat John Breckinridge. Had the Democrats been united, Douglas would have won.

John Logan: This Civil War general, after whom Logan Square is named, was a Republican Illinois senator from 1871 to 1877 and from 1879 to 86. In 1884 he was the vice-presidential candidate on the Republican ticket with James Blaine, who lost to New York Democratic Governor Grover Cleveland by 62,683 votes. Had Blaine won, Logan could have become president at a later date.

Shelby Cullom: Cullom cultivated a physical likeness to Lincoln, and he was Illinois' Republican governor from 1877 to 1883 and a senator from 1883 to 1913 - a remarkable span of 36 years. Although monumentally popular in Illinois, he never won a presidential nomination. His best shot was in 1888, but Benjamin Harrison of Indiana beat him.

Adlai Stevenson: A classic example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Stevenson was elected vice president on the Democratic ticket with Grover Cleveland in 1892, but the economic collapse of 1893 prompted a clash between gold and silver coinage advocates. Had Cleveland been popular, Stevenson would have been his 1896 successor. "Silverite" William Jennings Bryan won the 1896 nomination but lost the election. Stevenson ran for vice president in 1900 with Bryan, who lost again.

John Peter Altgeld: A reformer who won the governorship in 1892, Altgeld was a logical Democratic presidential contender in 1896, but he granted pardons to three anarchists convicted of killing police officers in the Haymarket bombing, was eclipsed by Bryan, and lost his re-election in 1896.

Frank Lowden: Despite a wave in support of Woodrow Wilson, businessman Lowden was elected governor in 1916. He governed well and, after the death in 1919 of Teddy Roosevelt, he sought the 1920 Republican presidential nomination. But Lowden feuded with Chicago Mayor "Big Bill" Thompson, and the Illinois delegation didn't back him in his fight with "progressive" General Leonard Wood, and the delegates wound up deadlocked for nine ballots. Warren Harding was the compromise choice. Had Lowden been nominated, he would have won.

Scott Lucas: From Downstate Havana, Lucas' political rise was meteoric. Elected a Democratic senator in 1938 and re-elected in 1944, Lucas was the Senate majority leader in 1948, and he was poised to run for the presidency in the 1950s, but scandals in Cook County involving the Democrats gave underdog Republican Everett Dirksen an opening, and he upset Lucas by 294,354 votes.

Adlai Stevenson II: Republican Dwight Green was a reasonably popular governor, having won by 256,945 votes in 1940 and by 72,271 votes in 1944, but Chicago lawyer Stevenson, the son of Cleveland's vice president, rode a crest of Democratic support for President Harry Truman and won by a landslide 572,067 votes. Stevenson was in the midst of his 1952 re-election campaign, and not seeking the presidency, when he was drafted for the thankless task of running against Dwight Eisenhower. He lost big that year and again in 1956; in 1960, when he could have won, he couldn't get nominated.

Everett Dirksen: A congressman from Downstate Pekin from 1933 to 1949, Dirksen was the "sacrificial" Republican Senate candidate in 1950. In 1952 he was the leader of conservative Bob Taft's effort to derail the Eisenhower candidacy, accusing Dewey and the Eastern liberals of "leading us down the road of defeat." Like Lucas, Dirksen rose quickly in the Senate. After the 1958 election debacle, when Republicans lost 13 seats, Dirksen became the minority leader. He evolved into a pragmatic liberal, supporting civil rights and having great influence, but, being born in 1896, he was never a presidential prospect. He died of cancer in 1969.

Chuck Percy: The "boy wonder" Bell and Howell chairman lost a race for governor in 1964 by 179,299 votes, but he rebounded to defeat incumbent Democrat Paul Douglas in 1966 by 422,302 votes. Percy appeared to be on a fast track for the presidency, but he was a liberal in an increasingly conservative party. His best shot was in 1976, after Richard Nixon's two terms. Percy figured that he could run against the controversial Vice President Spiro Agnew, but Agnew and Nixon resigned, Gerald Ford became president, and Ford didn't choose Percy for vice president. Percy's hopes vanished, and he was defeated by Paul Simon in the 1984 Senate race.

Dick Ogilvie: Elected sheriff in 1962 and Cook County Board president in 1966, the uncharismatic Republican Ogilvie had a White House timetable: Win the governorship in 1968 (which he did by 127,794 votes), get re-elected in 1972, and run for president in 1976. Ogilvie courageously imposed a state income tax, and he lost to Democrat Dan Walker in 1972 by just 77,494 votes. Like Percy, Ogilvie figured he could beat Agnew, but he was never a beloved figure like Ronald Reagan, and he had no base outside Illinois. Even if he had defeated Walker 1972, he never would have won a presidential nomination.

Dan Walker: If Jimmy Carter could win the presidency in 1976, why couldn't Walker? One reason: Mayor Richard J. Daley. Walker spent 4 years fighting with the mayor. Had he spent that time running for president, he might have won.

Jim Thompson: Blessed with youth, vigor and smarts, Thompson always aspired to be president, but he got derailed by the "Reagan Revolution." Elected Republican governor in 1976 and re-elected in 1978, Thompson was ready to move upward in the 1980s, but Reagan won the presidency in 1980 and Thompson's window was shut, although he served as governor until 1990.

Paul Simon: Elected lieutenant governor in 1968, Simon lost the 1972 Democratic primary to Walker. He later beat Percy, and he ran for president in 1988 - one cycle too soon. Had Simon run in 1992, he, not Clinton, would have beaten Bush.

And then there's Obama, who in 2003 was an obscure state senator from Hyde Park. He had no "presidential timetable." But, like Lincoln was in 1860, he's in the right place at the right time.