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Is Jesse Jackson Jr. Electable?

So now Harry Reid is in trouble for apparently having told Rod Blagojevich that he didn’t want Jesse Jackson Jr. to fill Barack Obama’s Senate seat. Nor did he want Danny Davis or Emil Jones, who are also African-American candidates. Reid apparently “did not believe the three men were electable”, according to the Sun-Times.

Right now, with Jackson’s name being at least tangentially tied up in the Blagojevich scandal, he might well have a difficult time winning statewide office in Illinois. But these communications between Reid and Blagojevich apparently took place before the scandal broke, so let’s concern ourselves with that hypothetical. Was Jackson electable then?

In the literal sense of the term “electable”, of course Jackson Jr. was electable. Before the Blagojevich scandal, virtually any Illinois Democrat was going to be the favorite over virtually any Illinois Republican. One only need back to look to 2006 when Blagojevich himself, already relatively unpopular in Illinois, defeated a fairly appealing, moderate Republican in Judy Barr Topinka by 10.5 points. Having the big ‘D’ by your name is exceptionally advantageous in Illinois — or at least it once was.

Nevertheless, I don’t think that Reid was wrong to conclude that Jackson Jr. was relatively more vulnerable to an upset than another Democrat might have been.

On December 4th, about a week before the Blago scandal broke, Rasmussen released a poll asking Illinoisans who they preferred to succeed Barack Obama. Jackson Jr. was named by 23 percent of Illinoisans, essentially putting him in a three-way tie with Lisa Madigan (25%) and Tammy Duckworth (21%).

A look at the internals of the poll, however, suggests that Jackson’s support was fairly limited outside of his base.

Candidate preference by party:

Candidate      DEM      Indie      GOP
Jackson, Jr. 36% 14% 9%
Duckworth 29% 19% 12%
Jones 2% 3% 6%
Madigan 17% 23% 37%
Schakowsky 8% 9% 5%

Nearly all of Jackson’s support came from Democrats, among whom he was the plurality favorite to succeed Barack Obama. He placed a fair bit behind Madigan and Duckworth among independents, and received very little support among Republicans.

Unsurprisingly, these results are strongly tied to the issue of race:

Candidate preference by racial group:

Candidate     White     Black     Other
Jackson, Jr. 10% 81% 21%
Duckworth 22% 6% 31%
Jones 2% 4% 6%
Madigan 31% 0% 23%
Schakowsky 9% 2% 5%

Jackson had the support of 81 percent of black voters in the Rasmussen poll, but just 10 percent of whites. He did do reasonably well among those in the “other” category — which in Illinois, means mostly Hispanics — getting 21 percent support, though he still trailed Duckworth among that group.

Now, it is hard to translate the results from a straw poll like this into a prospective matchup against a Republican opponent. But a reasonable worry for Reid is that, while African-American voters would probably have supported another Democrat in a matchup against a Republican, white voters who might have gone for someone like Madigan might not have gravitated to Jackson.

In the 2006 gubernatorial race, Illinois’ turnout was made up of 77 percent white voters, 10 percent black voters, and 13 percent “other”. Let’s say that Jackson Jr. received a turnout bonus among black voters, boosting their share of the electorate to 12 percent, bringing white voters to 75 and leaving “other” at 13. Let’s furthermore say that Jackson Jr. wins 95 percent of the black vote — a Barack Obama type of number — and 60 percent of the “other” vote. These Jackson votes account for a total of 19.2 percent of Illinois’ electorate.

In order to receive a majority, Jackson Jr. would then have to win the support of just slightly over 41 percent of white voters. In Illinois, about 35 percent of white voters are Republicans, 35 percent are Democrats, and 30 percent are independent. What if, say, Jackson received the support of 80 percent of white Democrats, but just 35 percent of white independents and 5 percent of white Republicans? That would bring him to 49.4 percent, denying him election by a point or so.

Hypothetical 2010 Election:

___                    Share of
Group Electorate Jackson Jr. GOP
African-American 12.0% 95% 5%
Hispanic/Asian/Other 13.0% 60% 40%
White Democrats 26.25% 80% 20%
White Independents 22.5% 35% 65%
White Republicans 26.25% 5% 95%
Total 100% 49.4% 50.6%

Now, obviously these numbers are completely made up. Perhaps Jackson Jr. would get more like 70 percent of Hispanic voters instead of 60 percent, or more like 85 percent of white Democrats instead of 80 percent. All that I’m saying is that given Jackson’s tepid support outside of his base, there is a plausible path to defeat here, one that might not have existed for someone like Madigan.

I do share rikyrah’s concern over at Jack & Jill Politics. If Reid was looking for someone electable — should he really have been looking at Tammy Duckworth? The fact of the matter is that Illinoisans have gotten to see an awful lot of Tammy Duckworth, and they simply don’t like her all that much — note that she’s getting barely more crossover support than Jackson in the Rasmussen poll. Duckworth also couldn’t defeat a non-incumbent Republican in Illinois’ 6th Congressional District in 2006. Although IL-6 is a slightly Republican district, registering as an R+3 on Charlie Cook’s PVI scale, 2006 was a very, very Democratic year. Democrats were knocking off Republican incumbents in R+3 districts all over the country in 2006, and they certainly should have been favored in an open seat race. I’m a pretty big proponent of the No Loser Rule: don’t nominate someone for higher office if they lost their last race for lower office.

In all probability, though, this seat would be considerably more vulnerable to Republican takeover if Jackson were the nominee than if Madigan were instead, or for that matter someone like state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias.

If Harry Reid hadn’t expressed that concern to Blagojevich, then Harry Reid really wouldn’t have been doing his job.

NOTE: To be clear, my argument is about Jackson Jr. and Jackson Jr. only, who along with Madigan and Duckworth, has strong enough statewide name recognition that we can credibly discuss their chances of winning election. I don’t particularly know about Davis, or for that matter someone like Jan Schakowsky, who are little known outside of their home districts. In particular, the implication that Jackson is more likely to lose than Madigan seems credible. On the other hand, the implication that, say, Davis is more likely to lose than Tammy Duckworth is far more speculative.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.