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Dick Simpson: How COVID-19 Shaped the 2020 Election

Last February, as the primary season for the Democratic presidential campaign was underway and the anxiety surrounding the 2020 election mounted, I found myself fortunate enough to be able to discuss my thoughts on this election cycle and electoral politics generally with Professor Dick Simpson, a former Alderman for Chicago’s 44th Ward and a political science professor who has been teaching at the University of Illinois at Chicago for more than fifty years. He has been actively engaged in studying and reporting on Chicago politics as well as participating in it; he worked on the transition teams for Chicago mayors Jane Byrne and Harold Washington and ran two campaigns, in 1992 and 1994, against former Congressman for Illinois’ 5th district Dan Rostenkowski. 

Although Simpson has not run for a political office since his own congressional bid against Rostenkowski in1996, he has remained engaged with both Chicago politics and is actively seeking to promote civic awareness and engagement amongst Chicago citizens. He is the moderator of the ‘Future of Chicago’ lecture series at UIC, which addresses different political, social, and economic issues that both Chicago and Illinois at large will be facing in the coming months and years. The lecture series in 2019, which ran from October 16 to December 4 and was held in Lecture Center C, featured such guests as former Illinois governor Pat Quinn and U.S. representative for Illinois’ 5th district Mike Quigley. The series has been running annually since 1976, and admission is free to all members of the public. 

Given the fact that I had the opportunity to speak with Professor Simpson during the midst of the Democratic primary season, I felt it would be remiss of me to not ask him of his current thoughts and opinions on the presidential primaries and general election. For reference, at the time of our discussion, the Super Tuesday primaries had just occurred where former Vice President Joe Biden managed to make an impressive campaign comeback propelled by his victory in the South Carolina primary. Simpson explained that Biden’s tendency to stumble over his words occasionally makes him seem less articulate, but as the results of the general election attest to, he managed to find his footing after South Carolina; people continue to know him as “old comfortable Joe [and he] seems more likeable than Trump.” On the other hand, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders made his campaign policy oriented and expressed his intent to create a new and revolutionary political system in Washington rather than modifying what already exists. 

When I spoke to Simpson back in February, he told me that, “the candidate who can best define what the election is about will win the election.” At the time, the COVID-19 pandemic was in its infancy in terms of its effect on American life, and the definitions of the 2020 election centered around Trump’s expressed anger towards outsider influence in politics and ‘draining the swamp’, Biden’s calm and moderated approach to a return to normalcy, and Sanders’ advocacy for a revolution and increased economic rights and security for the ninety-nine percent of America. 

I had asked Simpson about how he believed the COVID-19 pandemic might influence the election results, and he had said that Biden’s message of calmness and restoring order in the midst of an upheaval of daily American life was likely to register well with voters. Based on President Biden’s victory in the 2020 election, Biden’s calm and projection of moderated strength resonated with enough people in order to help him win. Biden’s strengths and history as a politician made him an apt candidate for a moment in American history defined by upheaval and unrest, including the protests for Black Lives Matter during the summer months in addition to the continued strain imposed by seemingly perpetual lockdowns across the country. Given Professor Simpson’s success at predicting this election, I’d love to interview him again in 2021 – I’d like to know how the midterm elections are going to turn out before the results come in.