Governor Pat Quinn is happy to report that the Illinois economy isnt quite as lousy as before.
  • Chandler West / Sun-Times Media
  • Governor Pat Quinn is happy to report that the Illinois economy isn’t quite as lousy as before.

Governor Pat Quinn had reason to cheer the latest Illinois job figures released this week. The state’s unemployment rate fell in July to 6.8 percent, down from 7.1 percent a month earlier and 9.2 percent in July 2013.

“Today’s news that unemployment has dropped to its lowest level in nearly six years is further proof that we are heading in the right direction,” Quinn declared during a tour of a south-side manufacturing plant.

OK, it has to be noted that Quinn has been in office for most of those six years. And that before the big drop, the unemployment rate last year was the second-highest in the country, behind only Nevada. And that even after the figure fell for a year, Illinois still ranked in the top ten last month.

That said—yes, the job picture is slowly heading in the right direction. And that means that Quinn’s reelection chances are too.

Conventional wisdom—and actual evidence—has long established that at election time, it’s always the economy, stupid, especially in presidential races.

The record shows that the financial health of the voting public matters a whole lot in gubernatorial elections around here too.

Over the past 20 years, the party occupying the Illinois governor’s office has won reelection every time except in 2002. That’s also the one time the unemployment rate was trending up at the time voters went to the polls.

Here’s a look at the unemployment rate and the results of gubernatorial races since 1994:


I know, I know—the established narrative holds that 2002 was the year that voters revolted against corruption in the party of George Ryan, who was on his way to being indicted and imprisoned for his version of pay-to-play politics. But unemployment was also inching up.

When Ryan’s successor, Rod Blagojevich, was up for reelection four years later, questions were already bubbling up about his version of pay-to-play politics. But unemployment had dropped to 4.4 percent, and he won reelection with a little less than half the votes cast.

As we all remember too well, neither the good times nor the reign of Blago lasted. The economy went into the toilet, here and across the country, which helped Barack Obama get to the White House. Meanwhile, Blago was arrested in late 2008 and then impeached a few weeks later.

Yet Illinoisans didn’t rise up in protest when they had the chance in 2010: they stuck with the new Democratic governor, Pat Quinn. Certainly the right-wing politics of GOP candidate Bill Brady helped convince voters that Quinn was moderate and competent by comparison. It didn’t hurt that the state economy was almost starting to show signs of life, and unemployment was inching down.

Here we are again. A series of recent polls have found Quinn trailing Republican challenger Bruce Rauner, who’s campaigning on a promise to use his investment background to create jobs. He’s also doing his part to stimulate the state economy by pumping nearly $10 million of his own money into his campaign.

Rauner wasn’t excited about the unemployment report. “Celebrating today’s job numbers is like cheering a touchdown when you’re down 35 points with two minutes left,” said Mike Schrimpf, Rauner’s spokesman.

I like the metaphor—it reminds me that football season is upon us, and my teams, Northwestern and the Bears, aren’t supposed to be terrible.

But I’d argue that there’s still a half to go in campaign time. While the governor needs to get his offense moving, it’s really hard for a visiting team to hold on and topple a longtime winner on his turf—almost as hard as it is to beat an incumbent when the economy is on the upswing.