By Rick Pearson, Bill Ruthhart and Becky Schlikerman, Chicago Tribune –
CHICAGO — Despite a closely contested Illinois presidential primary, early voting among suburban Republican voters is up only marginally from four years ago — a sign that turnout Tuesday may be lackluster.
The preliminary figures, compiled from area election authorities on Thursday, the final day of early voting, also could portend a close race in Illinois where Mitt Romney had figured to do well in suburban areas with rival Rick Santorum expected to garner downstate support.
Overall, the number of early ballots cast in the Chicago region was down significantly from 2008. Back then, the state held its presidential primary in February and headlining the ballot was a Democratic presidential battle between then home-state Sen. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But with President Obama unopposed, fewer Democrats cast early ballots this year. Republican early voters represented a bigger share of the early ballots cast this year outside Cook County.
Take Will County. Republicans cast 36 percent of the 5,391 early votes four years ago, but made up 63 percent of the 3,331 ballots cast this year. The increase in GOP early votes cast from 2008 to 2012 was a mere 152 ballots.
“I’m surprised because I thought a lot of people would come out because of the Republican presidential primary, plus all of our county board members are on the ballot and our county executive has a primary,” said Will County Clerk Nancy Schultz Voots. “But you can’t force people to come out.”
In DuPage County, long known as a Republican bastion, GOP votes made up 77 percent of the early ballots cast. But the actual number of Republican early ballots was up only 710 from four years ago.
Republicans did better in Lake County, where 4,069 more GOP ballots were cast early and absentee than four years ago. The Republican percentage also increased: nearly 60 percent of the 17,881 early and absentee ballots cast this year, up from the 29 percent of the 22,419 early and absentee ballots cast in 2008.
In Kane County outside Aurora, Republicans cast 79 percent of the 6,937 early votes this year. Overall, the early vote total was down from 9,193 cast in 2008. In the city of Aurora, 55 percent of the 724 early votes cast this time were Republican, compared to 38 percent of the 910 early ballots from 2008.
In suburban Cook, Democratic early votes continued to outnumber Republican, though the overall number of ballots dropped from 51,067 in 2008 to 36,990 this year. Still, 4,372 more GOP ballots were cast early this time compared to four years ago.
The early voting figures could prove troubling for a Romney campaign that had promoted its organizational strength in Illinois, including its get-out-the-vote efforts. Romney has done well in suburban areas in other major states and had been expected to do the same in the Chicago suburbs while Santorum enjoyed the backing of more conservative rural voters.
Early voting in the state closed as another candidate in the race, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich concluded his second consecutive day of campaigning in the suburbs, including a tour of Otto Engineering in Carpentersville. The firm’s founder, longtime conservative activist Jack Roeser, said later he was endorsing Gingrich’s bid.
“We’re in dire straits and we need somebody who’s smart and forceful,” Roeser, who had earlier supported the presidential bid of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, told the Chicago Tribune. “I like Gingrich for his intellect. He’s a fighter. He’s smarter than hell.”
But Gingrich told reporters he believes the race in Illinois “largely will be Romney and Santorum,” according to ABC News. Still Gingrich said he would continue in the race.
On Friday, campaigning becomes more high-profile with the first appearances of Romney and Santorum.
Romney will stop at a Rosemont diner before heading to Puerto Rico, which holds caucuses Sunday. Santorum is scheduled for two stops in Arlington Heights: an afternoon speech to students at Hersey High School and a nighttime rally at Christian Liberty Academy. After spending Saturday morning in Missouri, which is holding caucuses, Santorum has a southern Illinois swing on his schedule.
Meanwhile, Obama will make a quick Friday stop in downtown Chicago to attend fundraising events.