On Tuesday, Illinois will become the first state to hold its primaries for the 2010 elections. Three of the four key races -- the Senate nomination on the Democratic side and the gubernatorial nomination for both parties -- are reasonably close and should provide for a fairly exciting night of return-watching. But it's the Senate primary, featuring Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, former Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman, and Chicago Urban League President Cheryle Jackson, which has drawn the most attention.
The race is for all intents and purposes between Giannoulias and Hoffman; Jackson, a former communications spokeswoman for Rod Blagojevich, will probably be limited to 15-20 percent of the vote, mostly coming from Chicago's predominately Afrian-American South Side. Hoffman, however, has gradually been creeping up on Giannoulias, the front-runner.
As there is relatively little policy daylight between the two leading candidates -- although Giannoulias has the endorsement of the unions and is regarded by most observers as being a hair to Hoffman's left -- the issue of "electability" has loomed large, as Democrats are understandably nervous about dropping yet another blue-state Senate seat to the formidable Republican nominee Mark Kirk. And both sides are making electability arguments that are, to my mind, somewhat superficial.
The case for Giannoluias rests in the polling. An average of the two most recent polls, from PPP and Rasmussen Reports, shows Giannoulias leading Kirk by a margin of 42-36.5 (+5.5 points), but Hoffman trailing him 37-39.5 (-2.5 points).
I've suggested before that Giannoulias looks as though he would have a better chance in a general election. This is based on a relatively unsophisticated evaluation of the polling and the fact that Giannoulias has held elected statewide office before (a factor which has some predictive value).
To repeat myself again: this is a very simplistic analysis. Giannoulias has better statewide name recognition than Hoffman, and it's often the case that the candidate who is less well-known (in this case, Hoffman) has more room for growth in his numbers. At the same time, Hoffman has not just been faring worse against Kirk on a marginal basis but also in an absolute one: between the two polls Kirk gets 39.5 percent of the vote against Hoffman, but 36.5 against Giannoulias. This is different than in, say, Pennsylvania, where Joe Sestak fares slightly worse on a marginal basis against Pat Toomey than Arlen Specter, but also limits Toomey to a smaller fraction of the vote (with more voters going into the undecided column) -- a pattern that is more commonly associated with a name recognition gap.
In sum, I think the Giannoulias people can make a reasonable argument on the basis of the numbers, but it's hardly a definitive one.
The Hoffman argument, on the other hand, is based not on the numbers but rather on the perception that Giannoulias is tainted. Indeed, for some weeks now, Hoffman has been running "Alexi the Unelectable" ads on FiveThirtyEight and on other websites which are widely read by opinion-makers. (Full disclosure: FiveThirtyEight uses two external buyers to handle its advertising; I do not vet individual ads, either before or after the fact, unless they are grossly offensive or fraudulent or endorse a cause which I find profoundly morally objectionable.)
In recent days, these arguments have escalated, and indeed have been voiced emphatically by some liberal blogs, because of the news that Broadway Bank, a Chicago-based institution in which the Giannoulias family has a substantial ownership stake, is struggling financially and has been told by the FDIC that it must raise additional capital and meet certain other requirements or may risk being taken over and put into receivership. The regulatory action post-dates both the PPP and Rasmussen polls. Giannoulias, who maintains a 3.6 percent ownership stake in the bank and formerly worked as its Vice President, has somewhat awkwardly avoided questions about the regulators' requirements.
Although these things may be problematic for Giannoulias, let's be very clear here: there is no "scandal" involving Broadway Bank, either proven or alleged, and to suggest otherwise is disingenuous. Broadway is a relatively small and fairly conventional community bank which like many other banks (both small and large) is now struggling financially. The regulatory action is fairly commonplace and reflects concerns over the bank's solvency but not about the legitimacy of its business.
Certainly, one can reasonably argue that whether or not there is any actual scandal involving Broadway Bank, it's a bad environment in which to be associated with a bank of any kind and particularly one which has made some poor loans and which is struggling financially. One can also reasonably argue that, although there is no actual scandal involving Broadway Bank yet, perhaps there is some statistically elevated likelihood of one going forward. Nevertheless, certain of the anti-Giannoulas arguments are not a whole lot more sophisticated than Bank! Rawwwwr! Bad! and are far more conjectural than their dramatic headlines would suggest.
FiveThirtyEight does not endorse candidates. And I'm no longer a resident of Illinois, so I haven't given the first thought to who I would vote for in this race. Nevertheless, if you're a (Democratic) voter in Illinois, please resist skin-deep arguments about electability. On the one hand, although Giannoulias has fared better in the general election polling, such polls have fairly limited predictive value so far in advance of a general election, may be somewhat out of date, and could easily be outweighed by other evidence. On the other hand, Hoffman's electability arguments, particularly those involving the recent regulatory actions on Broadway Bank, have also been overstated in many cases and do not warrant the panicked reaction that some Democrats are now having about the race.