Bernie Sanders's Illinois delegation is optimistic in the Illinois primary's final hours

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Bernie Sanders at his rally at the Auditorium Theatre Monday night - ASHLEE REZIN/SUN-TIMES
  • Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
  • Bernie Sanders at his rally at the Auditorium Theatre Monday night

"We're gonna win," Clem Balanoff told me in late February when I asked him how Bernie Sanders was doing in Illinois. Balanoff's directing the Illinois campaign for Sanders, so it's his duty to be optimistic, and I took his prediction with a grain of salt. Hillary Clinton was trouncing Sanders in the polls back then. And the previous time I'd spoken with Balanoff, he was directing Jesus "Chuy" Garcia’s campaign for mayor. Balanoff had told me they were gonna win that one too.

But things have changed radically in the last three weeks. And now, something might happen today that even Balanoff couldn't have sincerely expected three weeks ago: Sanders really could win Illinois.

"I've never seen movement in the polls like this," Balanoff said this morning at the Sanders campaign headquarters, at 600 W. Roosevelt. "A month and a half ago, we were 42 points behind in one poll, and 37 in another. Now we're neck and neck." (Attempts to reach the Clinton campaign in Illinois Tuesday were unsuccessful.)

The enthusiasm for Sanders was apparent again Monday night, when supporters packed the Auditorium Theatre for a rally starring the candidate. Balanoff said 4,000 people had to be turned away.

Sanders's surprise win in Michigan likely helped him build momentum here, Balanoff said. He also attributed the Vermont senator's rise in Illinois to the campaign's statewide organization, run through 43 offices. "We probably put together the best ground game in Illinois presidential primary history."

And it didn't hurt to have Donald Trump supporters blame the shutdown of his scheduled rally here Friday on Sanders, Balanoff said, even though the campaign wasn't behind that. "The narrative of us versus him, I'll take that any day of the week."

Balanoff got to bed at 1 AM after Monday night's rally, and he was up again at 4 AM. "And I'm an old man—I'm 62—and we've been doing this every single day," he said. 

He was "exhausted"—but excited. "Early voting [turnout] was high, and that's an indication of a good turnout, and a bigger turnout certainly helps us," he said—because it likely means more younger voters and newer voters, two groups that lean heavily toward Sanders. 

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