updated 7/16/2008 5:13:56 PM ET 2008-07-16T21:13:56

At the beginning of the 20th century Chicago seemed destined to be the center of America. This brash new city on the lake had grown from 112,000 residents in 1860, when it was host to the Republican Convention that nominated Illinois’s Abraham Lincoln, to 1.4 million when it hosted the Columbian Exposition in 1893 and 1.7 million in 1900. “Make no little plans,” Chicago architect Daniel Burnham exhorted. And Chicago was making vast plans: building grand parks on the lakefront, erecting America’s first downtown of skyscrapers, building expansive retail palaces, becoming the headquarters of the new American Medical and American Bar Associations, creating a great university from scratch on the Exposition’s Midway Plaisance, housing union agitators and their liberal advocate Clarence Darrow as well as corporate leaders and attorneys who bested them, hosting the Democratic Convention of 1896 that nominated 36-year-old William Jennings Bryan after his “cross of gold” speech, and becoming the headquarters of the brilliant campaign Mark Hanna waged for William McKinley that beat Bryan in the fall. Chicago started with the advantage of a great location, where the Great Lakes meet the prairies of the vast Mississippi Valley, and Chicago’s entrepreneurs made it the hub of the nation’s railroad network and the center of the nation’s trade in lumber, grain and meat, as William Cronon describes in Nature’s Metropolis.

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A century later, Chicago is the nation’s third-largest metropolis, sometimes overshadowed by and often ignored by the media of coastal New York and Los Angeles, but still a productive and creative world-class city. Illinois, after near-zero population growth in the 1970s and 1980s, saw its population rise 12% from 1990 to 2006, more than other big states like New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio or Michigan. In commerce, Chicago remains a prime producer and processor of food products, the nation’s number one manufacturing center with the strongest white-collar and service economy between the coasts, the home of the world’s greatest commodities exchanges and futures markets. O’Hare Airport, promoted and nurtured by longtime (1955–76) Mayor Richard J. Daley and long one of the world’s busiest airports, is one of its great hubs of commerce. But for the most part Chicago was established not by government but by markets; it has always been a free enterprise city, settled by pioneers from New England and Kentucky, by immigrant Irishmen who dug the first canal connecting Lake Michigan and the Illinois River, and by railroad promoters who saw its potential as the great connecting point between East and West, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Valley. Its factories, built where iron ore from Great Lakes freighters and coal from inland hills came together, attracted migrants from near and far. Today many of the old factories have been closed or demolished, and some of the Chicago area’s biggest corporations have had problems. But Chicago’s economy, based on finance and commodities, manufacturing and food, and undergirded by thousands of small firms, continues to thrive. The O’Hare area rivals downtown Chicago in number of jobs; central city neighborhoods north and south of the Loop are attracting new affluent residents, many to houses worth over $1 million; Latinos are thronging to the Chicago area and adding vitality to tired old neighborhoods; in April 2007, Chicago was selected to be the host city for the U.S. bid for the 2016 Olympics.

Chicago and Illinois produced no presidents in the 20th century, but they have produced crucial votes and pivotal politicians. The list starts with Charles Dawes, a 30-year-old lawyer sent to Chicago by Hanna to manage McKinley’s campaign—later he was a World War I general, the first director of Budget Bureau (now Office of Management and Budget) and vice president under Calvin Coolidge. Next comes Chicago lawyer Harold Ickes, who was Franklin Roosevelt’s great Interior secretary. Prominent Illinois Republicans have included House Speaker Joseph Cannon, Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen, Senator Charles Percy and House Republican Leader Robert Michel; prominent Democrats have included Governor Adlai Stevenson, Mayor Richard J. Daley and Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski. But it has not produced a serious presidential candidate in the half-century separating Stevenson and Senator Barack Obama.

For most of the 20th century, Illinois was a key political battleground, closely divided between (usually) Democratic Chicago and (mostly) Republican Downstate, with the growing ring of suburbs around Chicago becoming increasingly pivotal. Its mixture of blacks and whites and Hispanics, immigrants and pioneers, city-dwellers and suburbanites and farmers, the affluent and the impoverished, heavy industry and high-tech, make it a rough proxy for the nation. For a century Illinois was a political bellwether, voting only twice for losing presidential candidates between 1896 and 1996—in 1916 and 1976. But in the 1990s Illinois became steadily more Democratic than the nation. In 2000 Illinois was one of Al Gore’s best states. He won 55%-43%, running even ahead of Clinton in winning metro Chicago by 61%-37%; he did slightly worse Downstate, which George W. Bush won 51%-46%. This was in line with the national trend toward Clinton and Gore in the suburbs and slightly away from Democrats in rural areas; if Democrats’ stands on abortion and gun control hurt them in rural areas, they clearly helped in the suburbs of Chicago. Illinois was not a target state in 2004, and it voted pretty much as it did in 2000—55%-44% for John Kerry, with Kerry leading in metro Chicago 60%-39% and Bush leading Downstate 55%-45%. Bush ran 3% ahead of his father’s 1988 showing in Downstate Illinois, but Kerry ran 11% ahead of Michael Dukakis in metro Chicago.

It may seem strange that a state whose politics since Abraham Lincoln’s time has mostly been run by political machines should be transformed by a change of opinion in the suburbs. Illinois’s party machines were already up and going when they rallied thousands of partisans to cheer and boo at the debates between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858. Machine politics continued through the Gilded Age as politicians in a closely divided state competed for public jobs and as politicians of both parties courted the immigrants who came streaming into Chicago. Both Chicago and Downstate had a thriving two-party politics in the early 20th century; it was not until the Depression of the 1930s that Chicago became reliably Democratic. In the decades that followed, the suburbs, wary of Chicago, became Republican and developed machines of their own. Starting in 1950, Illinois’s political trends were set by reactions to the political officeholder most visible to the voters, who was not the governor off in remote Springfield and certainly not the senators who have to work “out of town” in Washington, but the mayor of Chicago. It was only through the herculean efforts of mayor and party boss Richard J. Daley that John F. Kennedy was able to win Illinois by exactly (or so it was certified) 8,858 votes out of 4.7 million cast—a turnout that has been exceeded since only in 1984, 1992 and 2004. In the 1970s, reaction against Daley was key to the rise of James Thompson, who as U.S. Attorney successfully prosecuted machine denizens and served as governor from 1976 to 1990. For most of the 1980s the dominant figure was Mayor Harold Washington, the able black mayor who was vociferously opposed by white politicians in the “council wars.” Suburbanites, repelled by the hubbub and out of fear that Chicago’s demands might increase their taxes, voted heavily Republican.

The dominant figure since his election in 1989 has been Mayor Richard M. Daley. Like his father, he seems to know the city block by block, and has worked to beautify it—planting thousands of trees and encouraging handsome wrought-iron fences. The old political machine which his father so ably led is no more, but Daley has used the powers of office to propitiate the black politicians who at first seemed to be obdurate opponents; he has been reelected by overwhelming majorities. He has kept on good terms with presidents of both parties. Daley’s luster has extended to his party. His example as the state’s leading Democrat undoubtedly helped ease the way for suburbanites to move toward Democrats over the last 15 years.

The last dozen years have seen a turnover of state government from Republicans to Democrats. In 1994 Republican Governor Jim Edgar was reelected and Republicans won majorities in both houses of the legislature. They lost their House majority in 1996 and their Senate majority in 2002. Democrat Richard Durbin was elected to the Senate in 1996 and easily reelected in 2002. In 1998 Republican Secretary of State George Ryan was elected governor and Republican Peter Fitzgerald beat ethics-challenged Senator Carol Moseley Braun but both had political problems. Ryan’s top aides in the Secretary of State office were implicated in a bribery scandal; Ryan prudently decided not to run for reelection in 2002 and was convicted on racketeering and fraud charges in April 2006. The Republican nominee to succeed him, Attorney General Jim Ryan, was no relation, but having the same last name did not help him; he lost to Chicago Congressman Rod Blagojevich, who had the advantage of a name that no one could confuse with Ryan, 52%-45%. Blagojevich carried metro Chicago 57%-40% while losing Downstate 52%-46%: the key was the suburbs. In 2003 Fitzgerald, who had criticized George Ryan and many other Republican leaders, decided not to seek reelection; Democratic state senator and University of Chicago Law Professor Barack Obama won the seat by 70%-27%, the most one-sided Senate victory in Illinois history. In 2006 Blagojevich was reelected by a 50%-39% vote over state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka; he carried metro Chicago 56%-34%, while losing Downstate 48%-40%. Democrats increased their margins in the state Senate to 37–22 and the state House to 66–52.

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