Strategic Context and Campaign Professionalization in the Illinois Senate Race

The close race between Senator Mark Kirk and Representative Tammy Duckworth makes the strategic context, or the current political mood in Illinois in 2016, and the professionalization of campaigns important factors in determining the outcome of the election. Strategic context affects how those running for election form their campaign and target voters (Crowder-Meyer, September 23, 2016). The voter mood affects if/how both candidates interact with their respective parties (Crowder-Meyer, September 23, 2016). In Illinois’ case, the vast majority, 75% to be precise, believed that their state was headed in the wrong direction according to a poll conducted by Loras College in mid-September. This poll should be disturbing to Senator Kirk since as the incumbent, voter dissatisfaction could be directed at him. In fact, Hernnson’s studies show that “the political setting in a given election year has an impact on [an] incumbents’ prospects for reelection.” (Herrnson, 34) Thus, it is clear that the voter mood in Illinois will play an important role in determining who will win the seat in the Senate, but it is unclear whether this level of dissatisfaction among Illinoisans is enough to oust the incumbent.

In hopes of maintaining his seat in the Senate, Kirk has sought to make the congressional election ‘localized’ rather than ‘nationalized’ (Herrnson, 27). Given that status quo elections give the advantage to the incumbent, Senator Kirk is attempting to shape his campaign in this way (Herrnson, 27). Kirk has repeatedly sought to make this election be about the “major concern[s] to local voters” by “[holding] governmental events throughout [the] week in Chicago” instead of attending the Republican National Convention in Ohio (Herrnson, 27). Senator Kirk is well aware of the political uncertainty in Washington, given some Republicans, including Kirk himself, have not supported the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump. Making the election about Illinois, rather than the nation, will potentially shield the incumbent from the ‘tidal wave’ that threatens to remove Republican incumbents from office in states that largely support the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton.

Although Mark Kirk benefits from localizing the campaign, another strategic context, the coattail effect, might hurt his attempt to seek election. Hillary Clinton’s favorability was 13 points ahead of Trump according to one poll in the Prairie State, and this might pave the way for Duckworth to secure the Senate seat. Given that “a presidential candidate’s popularity can become infectious and lead to increased support for the party’s congressional contestants,” it would make sense for Duckworth to experience an advantage in November (Herrnson, 26). However, an astounding 59% of respondents were either “very dissatisfied” or “somewhat dissatisfied” with the candidates in the presidential election. Perhaps voter frusteration with the presidential nominess might counteract Duckworth’s apparent advantage of running for election in a state that heavily favors Clinton.

In addition to the strategic context forming both individuals’ campaigns, the professionalization of both Kirk and Duckworth’s campaigns is notable and could affect the election outcome. In particular, Kirk and Duckworth both have professional websites which greatly benefit the candidates. Herrnson argues that these websites provide a relatively inexpensive way for candidates to “communicate with and organize voters, raise money, disseminate press releases,” and many other benefits (Herrnson, 78). Kirk and Duckworth have similar website formats that contain: brief biographies to introduce themselves to voters, means of donating to their campaigns, a news section that highlights recent press releases and endorsements, and ways to “take action” such as volunteering ( and Given the extent of the websites and the services that they offers to visitors, it is clear that the candidates hired professionals to create and implement the webpages, and this could help both individuals reach more voters. When examining any political race, understanding the strategic context and professionalization of campaigns can give one insight into the factors that shape the outcome of a competitive race.




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