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Will President Biden’s arrival in Chicago for DNC be met with a hug or a shrug?

CHICAGO — Chicago will play host to President Joe Biden’s renomination for president at the Democratic National Convention in August, but the voting in last week’s presidential primary indicates the city’s welcome may be less than wholehearted.

With mail-in ballots still being counted, results from the Chicago Board of Elections show that of the more than 300,000 Democratic ballots cast in the city, nearly 1 in 4 party voters — more than 73,000 — opted not to vote for president or cast a ballot for one of Biden’s three nominal challengers.

At the same time, the Republican primary election indicated a softness in support for former President Donald Trump in the suburbs, a key swing area that has gradually turned more Democratic.

Reflective of a low-enthusiasm election, nearly 15% of Democratic voters in Chicago chose to not cast a vote for president, according to unofficial results from Chicago election officials. In addition, more than 10% of city Democratic voters who filled out a ballot for president opted for someone other than Biden, the results showed. Combined, that meant more than 24% of Chicago Democrats either didn’t vote for president or didn’t vote for the current president.

The number of voters who didn’t cast a presidential vote likely included an unknown number who wrote in “Gaza” as part of an organized protest against Biden’s actions toward the Israel-Hamas war. Write-in votes are not legally counted in the city.

The unofficial outcome of the Democratic presidential vote in Chicago shows Biden received 89.6%, compared with 4% apiece for Minnesota U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips and activist Marianne Williamson and 2.5% for entrepreneur Frank “Frankie” Lozada.

Biden is not in danger of losing Illinois and its 19 electoral votes in November. But David Yepsen, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, said that if the support for Biden in about a half-dozen swing states is similarly soft, those states could end up going for Trump.

“It’s just an uninspiring, unexciting candidate at the top of the ticket,” Yepsen, a former national political journalist, said of Biden. “Voters could easily say ‘meh’ and not waste their time voting.

“I think in Illinois, that Democrats have that problem especially because it’s sort of taken for granted it’s going to be a Democratic vote, it’s a Democratic state,” Yepsen said. “And so, if you’re a Democrat, and you’re not excited about Joe Biden, why bother to vote?”

Yepsen said a lack of Biden coattails could come into play in closely fought U.S. Senate and congressional races around the country, including one congressional race in Illinois. On Tuesday, the stage was set for the November showdown in the northwest and west central Illinois 17th Congressional District, where freshman Democratic U.S. Rep. Eric Sorensen is being targeted by national Republicans and their nominee, Joe McGraw of Rockford.

The March 19 results contrast with recent presidential primary returns.

In 2020, with a contested primary for the Democratic nomination, only 2% of Democratic voters did not cast a ballot for president. Biden defeated U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont 53% to 42%. The two top candidates accounted for 95% of the presidential votes cast.

Four years earlier, with a contested primary between Sanders and former Secretary of State and U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, the same percentage of Democratic voters in Chicago — only 2% — did not cast a ballot for a presidential nominee. Clinton defeated Sanders 54% to 45%, and the two accounted for 99% of the presidential ballots cast.

This time, before Illinois’ primary Election Day had even dawned, Biden had already amassed the needed number of nominating delegates to secure his renomination at the Democratic National Convention, which is being held at the United Center Aug. 19-22.

The results from this year’s presidential primary election results most closely compare in recent times to the city’s 2000 Democratic primary, when then-Vice President Al Gore had effectively locked up the nomination and rival former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey had dropped out weeks earlier. This year’s primary resulted in a Chicago voter turnout just below 23%. In 2000, voter turnout was higher, at 33%. As in this year’s primary, there were no statewide contested offices in 2000.

In 2000, Gore won with 86%. But 15% of city Democrats casting ballots did not vote for president then, and 27% of them either did not vote for Gore or cast a vote for president.

At the time, many liberals were soured by the prospect of Gore serving as a continuation of a moderate Bill Clinton administration and some became attracted to Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy.

Gore ultimately won the nomination and Illinois in the general election but was defeated by Republican George W. Bush in the controversial Supreme Court-decided outcome that gave Florida and its electoral votes to the Republican.

Whatever problems Biden may have in the city, the primary results also point to difficulties in the suburbs for Trump and Republicans seeking to make inroads after years of Democratic gains in the region.

Unofficial GOP primary results show Trump winning presidential preference contests with 72% in DuPage County, 72.5% in Lake County, 76% in Kane County, 78.5% in McHenry County and 81% in suburban Cook County despite all of Trump’s formal opposition having dropped out of contention months and weeks earlier. Trump’s best suburban showing was in Will County, where he garnered 84% of the vote.

Eric Adelstein, a longtime Chicago-based Democratic political consultant, said the overall numbers for Biden and Trump show that “obviously, what’s well documented, lots of people in this country don’t want either of them.”

But he said any loss of support for Biden by general election time will be minimal and will be more than offset by independent and Republican-leaning suburban women backing the president over issues such as abortion rights.

The question for Democrats, he said, is whether the tradition continues of a diverse political base coalescing for the general election fight.

“I think there’s no … greater motivator for Democrats to vote than Donald Trump. And it’s proven itself in the past,” Adelstein said. “Now, whether the past is prologue, we’re gonna find out in a major way.”

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