March 08, 2012

Voters weigh in on Cook County, the wealthy

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Nearly half of Southern Illinois voters favor having Cook County broken off into its own state, while more than one-third oppose the idea, according to the latest poll from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

The poll of 400 registered voters from throughout the 18 southernmost counties in Illinois was conducted February 23-28, and underscores some of the sectional divisions in the state. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent.  Poll results are available here.

There were 49 percent who either favored or strongly favored the Cook County proposal, while 39 percent either opposed or strongly opposed the idea.

Charles Leonard, a visiting professor at the Institute who supervised the poll, said, “This notion that downstate Illinois somehow does not belong with Cook County is consistent with the results of our 2010 Southern Illinois poll, in which large numbers of respondents also expressed antipathy toward Chicago.”

The poll also showed voters in the Southern Illinois region do not believe they are getting their fair share of state government spending.  Almost eight in 10 (79 percent) said Southern Illinois gets “less than its fair share,” while only 3 percent said the region gets “more than our fair share.” About one in eight (13 percent) said the area gets “about the right amount.”

John Jackson, a visiting professor at the Institute and one of the authors of the poll, said: “Given that many political leaders and others constantly complain about Chicago, and about how badly Southern Illinois is treated by the state, and that significant portions of the media in Southern Illinois routinely echo that complaint, the belief in a downtrodden Southern Illinois has become a part of the conventional wisdom in this region.

“The belief is so embedded in the political culture that it undoubtedly is a root cause of the dominant attitude toward Cook County reflected in this question,” Jackson continued.

The poll also measured attitudes toward the wealthy in America.  Half (52 percent) said the well-to-do were wealthy because they know the right people or were born that way.  Another third (31 percent) said most of the rich are wealthy because of their own hard work, ambition or education.

A closely related question asked, “Do you feel that the distribution of money and wealth in this country today is fair, or do you feel that the money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed among a larger percentage of the people?”  Some 59 percent of Southern Illinois voters said the distribution of wealth “should be more even,” while 31 percent said it was fair now.

Asked if the federal government should do something about the distribution of wealth in the nation, half (51 percent) said the government should pursue policies that would reduce the gap between rich and poor, while four in 10 (38 percent) said that the government should not pursue such policies.

“For an area like Southern Illinois, which is often described with a shorthand, ‘conservative’ label, these results are quite surprising, since they certainly do not reflect a dominantly conservative view.  This is a classic case of many people being symbolically conservative, that is, calling themselves conservative while at the same time holding some incompatible views which can only be described as ‘liberal’ on these two issues,” Jackson said.

Finally, the poll tapped a couple of hot-button social issues.  In response to a standard question on abortion, almost one in five (18 percent) said, “abortion should be legal in all circumstances”; about a quarter (24 percent) chose “abortion should be illegal in all circumstances”; and a little over half (54 percent) chose “abortion should be legal in certain circumstances.” Though access to abortion is often presented as a polar social issue, most Southern Illinois voters reject the two extremes, Jackson said.

While there are 6 percent more pure pro-life than pure pro-choice people in the sample, more than a majority are in the middle category of allowing abortions under certain circumstances.  Essentially this middle ground is what public policy currently provides. In all three Southern Illinois polls conducted since 2010, a majority has opted for this moderate option.

Another potentially divisive issue is same-sex marriage. Asked their position on same-sex marriage in Illinois, a little over one in five (22 percent) chose the option “gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to legally marry.” A third (32 percent) chose “gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to form civil unions, but not to legally marry”; and four in 10 (40 percent) chose “there should be no legal recognition of relationships between gay and lesbian couples.”

“Interestingly,” said Jackson, “Southern Illinoisans’ opinions may be more progressive on this issue than they were just two years ago.” In 2010 the combined “legally marry” and “civil unions” responses were 45 percent.  In 2012 the combined support for some legal recognition of same-sex unions was 54 percent.  This may be a case where the change in the law has led to changed social attitudes on the part of the voters, since Illinois recognized civil unions in the intervening period.

The poll of 400 registered voters covered the 18 southernmost counties in Illinois:  Alexander, Franklin, Gallatin, Hamilton, Hardin, Jackson, Jefferson, Johnson, Massac, Perry, Pope, Pulaski, Randolph, Saline, Union, Washington, White, and Williamson.  Live phone interviews were conducted February 23-28.  The sample of 400 has a margin of error of 4.9 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.  This means that if we conducted the survey 100 times, in 95 of those instances, the result would be within plus or minus 4.9 percentage points from the results obtained here. We also included a special sample of cell phone users to ensure greater accuracy.

The poll was conducted by Issues & Answers of Virginia Beach, VA.  It reports no Illinois political figures as clients. The poll was paid for with non-tax dollars from the Institute’s endowment fund. 

For more information contact Jackson at 618/453-3106.

Note:  The “Simon Poll” and the “Southern Illinois Poll” are the copyrighted trademarks of the Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University.  Use or publication of these polls is encouraged -- but only with credit to the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.