Can a Democrat win this year’s Louisiana governor’s race? Not likely

Screenshot 2015-05-16 13.08.32

By Robert Mann

At the risk of kicking a dead donkey, I will expound upon my recent controversial column in the Times-Picayune | NOLA.com, in which I argued that a Democrat almost certainly cannot win this year’s Louisiana’s governor’s race. If Democrats want to defeat David Vitter — a questionable proposition considering the amount of self-delusion I’ve witnessed in the past five days — I believe they must get behind one of the other Republicans in the race, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne or PSC Commissioner Scott Angelle. That’s not likely to happen, but the numbers suggest it’s the best chance of stopping Vitter from being sworn in as Louisiana’s 56th governor next January.

On Wednesday, Rep. Edwards has published a response to my column in the form of a letter to the editor of the Times-Picayune. I urge you to read it and note that he does not actually refute my argument with facts (if, by “facts,” we mean statistics or evidence). He simply repeats his boilerplate campaign message (and it’s a very good message) and suggests that my column was “offensive.”

“To say that . . . voters won’t care because of the letter behind my name, is offensive,” Edwards wrote. “Louisiana wants and deserves change, and that won’t come from candidates who want to duplicate the same broken policies that got us here.” Edwards is also thankful that “Louisiana’s future is not determined by the opinion of political pundits, it’s determined by the people. I firmly believe the people of Louisiana see more than just a letter behind the candidate’s name.”

I agree that pundits don’t decide election. If this pundit had the power to decide the governor’s race, I would anoint Edwards as the winner. Sadly, I don’t have that power and my column was not an attempt to do anything more than point out some obvious facts that Democratic voters might consider if they wish to keep Vitter out of the Governor’s Mansion.

First, let’s review the basis for my argument, which I briefly mentioned in the column. Since 2000, white Democratic Party voter registration has declined by 362,000 (and by about 225,000 in the past 10 years). Overall Democratic Party voter registration during that period (whites, blacks and other) declined by almost 300,000.

That means that white voters have abandoned the Louisiana Democratic Party in alarming numbers while the numbers of black voters increased by about 50,000.

Screenshot 2015-05-17 15.28.27 Overall, the Louisiana Democratic Party has gone from being a majority-white party to its current status as a majority-black party.

One reason Democrats like John Breaux, Bennett Johnston, Edwin Edwards, Mary Landrieu and Kathleen Blanco were once able to win statewide elections is that they consistently received 90 percent to 95 percent of the black vote, while earning 30 percent to 40 percent of the white vote.

For decades, that was a winning combination that made Louisiana a fairly solid Democratic Party state. Contrary to current popular opinion, Barack Obama’s election as president did not start the sudden decline of the Democratic Party in Louisiana, nor did Hurricane Katrina.

The voter registration numbers suggest that the exodus of white voters from the party began long before Obama and Katrina. From 2000 to 2004, the numbers of Democratic white voters in Louisiana dropped by almost 100,000. During that same period in which overall Democratic registration was dropping, Republican registration was increasing. From 2000 to 2015, the numbers of Republican voters in Louisiana rose by almost 200,000.

Screenshot 2015-05-16 13.13.08 As Republican ranks were growing and Democratic ranks were dropping, the ranks of “no party” — or independents — grew by 250,000 voters from 2000 to 2015. Screenshot 2015-05-16 13.14.26 To summarize, in 2000, almost 60 percent of the state’s voters were registered Democrats. Twenty-two percent were Republican and 17 percent independent. Today, Democrats represent 46 percent of the state’s voters; Republicans, 28 percent and independent 26 percent.

Ah, you say, the Democrats still maintain a large advantage, despite their losses. Their numbers are still roughly twice those of the GOP or independents. That is correct, although that observation does not account for one important fact: The steepest decline in the Democratic Party’s ranks has been among white voters.

Even those white voters who remain registered as Democrats are increasingly voting for Republicans in statewide elections. This is, perhaps, where President Obama’s election and the perceived leftward shift of the Democratic Party has done the most damage in Louisiana. In 2008, according to the exit polls, Obama received only 14 percent of the white vote in Louisiana.

Screenshot 2015-05-18 20.53.11 During that same election, Sen. Mary Landrieu earned 33 percent of the white vote (and 96 percent of the black vote). In all, she earned about 200,000 more votes than Obama in Louisiana as she defeated Republican state Treasurer John Kennedy.

Screenshot 2015-05-18 20.55.24 Six years later, as whites continued their exodus from the Democratic Party, Landrieu’s fortunes with those voters had changed dramatically. In the November 2014 primary, she earned just 18 percent of the white vote (and 94 percent of the black vote.) There were no exit polls conducted during the 2014 runoff election, which Landrieu lost decisively to Sen. Bill Cassidy, but it’s not likely her white percentage was much higher given the election results.

Screen shot of November 6, 2014, Louisiana exit poll from CNN.com
Screen shot of November 6, 2014, Louisiana exit poll from CNN.com

Almost as striking as the collapse of Landrieu’s white support was that the election returns almost perfectly mirrored voter registration. Democratic registration in November 2014 was 46 percent. Landrieu got 44 percent of the vote. The combined GOP-independent registration was 54 percent. Cassidy got 56 percent of the vote.

In that election, at least, it appears that voter registration and voter behavior were almost identical. That is not always been the case, but it is not unusual. In 2003, Democrats were 57 percent of voters, and Republicans and independents were 43. In that year’s governor’s race, Kathleen Blanco received 52 percent of the vote to Jindal’s 48. In other words, in 2003, Blanco underperformed Democratic registration by 5 percentage points. In 2014, Landrieu underperformed by only 2 points. But, in both cases they underperformed actual Democratic voter registration.

Then, there’s what these voters tell pollsters about their opinion of the two parties regardless of registration. Landrieu’s problem in 2014 was clearly represented in these two exit poll questions.

Screenshot 2015-05-18 21.18.16 Screenshot 2015-05-18 21.18.27

Before the Senate election, Public Policy Polling asked a sample of Louisiana voters for their party identification (not registration). The answers perfectly mirrored the eventual election results.
Screenshot 2015-05-18 21.21.30
In the most recent annual “Louisiana Survey,” conducted this spring by LSU’s Public Policy Research Lab, Louisiana citizens (not only registered voters) were asked about party identification (not registration). The results were striking. Only 35 percent called themselves a Democrat.
Screenshot 2015-05-18 21.25.59

Any way you slice it, the Democratic Party is in deep trouble in Louisiana. It did not happen overnight. The perception of the national Democratic Party, particularly that of Obama, may have made matters worse, but the beginning of the party’s decline preceded Obama by more than eight years.

Most significant, of course, is the almost total abandonment of the party’s candidates by white voters. A party whose candidates can muster no more than 18 percent of the white vote cannot win, even with a massive black turnout.

That was the basis for my column in which I suggested that no Democrat stands much of a chance in this year’s governor’s race. That’s an opinion which with many readers took exception. Some Democrats took it as a traitorous statement. The problem with that criticism is that my commentary is not a criticism of the party or its candidates. It is simply a matter of stating the math.

Perhaps it would be useful for me to point out all the ways that the party could regain its popularity among white voters, but that is a subject for another column. And, in any event, nothing is likely to change the voters’ perceptions of the party in the next six months. Rebuilding a party’s reputation is something that will take years, if not more than a decade.

For now, the question is simply this: is is likely or even possible for Edwards defeat Vitter in a runoff? My opinion, based on the evidence I have just presented, is no. There is nothing to indicate that a Democrat can win a statewide election. (Remember, Landrieu’s defeat meant that for the first time in more than 145 years, Louisiana does not have a single Democratic serving in a statewide elected office.)

So upon what do hopeful Democrats base their optimism for winning the governor’s office? Is it mostly this: that Vitter is an awful, divisive person. Although voters returned him to office in a landslide in 2010 (just three years after his prostitution scandal), they will now suddenly be persuaded that he is unfit for office.

That is wishful thinking, at best. Counting on white conservatives to suddenly abandon Vitter because he was once embroiled in a prostitution scandal is engaging in the same kind of fantasy that afflicted many Romney supporters in 2012. Even Karl Rove could not possibly imagine that American voters would re-elect President Obama. Surely, they would suddenly come to their senses and throw him out of office. When the polls said otherwise, they ignored them, questioned their veracity or claimed the sample was skewed. Conservatives viciously attacked Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com for confidently predicting an Obama victory.

Here’s some hard news for yellow-dog Democrats who believe that 2015 is the year when voters will finally become outraged by scandalous news that emerged eight long years ago: many of you, perhaps most of you, would have voted for Bill Clinton in 2000 if he had been able to seek a third term.

The fact that Clinton had lied about having sex with a White House intern and was impeached by the U.S. House would have made little difference to you because of your affinity for him and, more importantly, his political ideology. (I count myself among those who would have voted for a third Clinton term.) Not many Democrats would have voted for George W. Bush simply because they were repulsed by Clinton’s sexual escapades.

But, somehow, we are to expect that voters who have already re-elected Vitter in a landslide in 2010 will suddenly become outraged over something they’ve known about for eight years?

Please hear me: I don’t like the fact that Democrats running for statewide office have lost the support of white voters. And I certainly don’t think — although some have suggested it — that the party should fold its tent and go home. I’m not arguing that Edwards should withdraw from the race.

Democrats will start winning statewide elections again when at least one or two things start happening: the Republicans ruin their brand with white voters (there is no evidence that is happening, even with Jindal’s disastrous misrule) or white voters will become marginally more moderate or liberal and, therefore, more accepting of moderate Democrats.

Someday, the pendulum will swing back, which is why Democrats cannot stop running for office and making their case, as Edwards is valiantly doing. But that is not the same thing as saying that a Democrat can defeat Vitter in 2015.

If Democrats simply want to feel good about themselves and send a message that they hate the last eight years of Jindal’s rule, then they should vote for Edwards. It will almost certainly put him in a runoff with David Vitter. The polls and the demographic trends strongly suggest that Vitter will win. It is clearly the runoff that Vitter wants.

Now, there are those who say that voting for any Republican is worse than voting for a losing Democrat. Perhaps that is true. If you think that Jay Dardenne and Scott Angelle are likely to be just as bad for Louisiana as David Vitter, then you should vote for Edwards. But I think you are misguided. Angelle and Dardenne are not Washington-style, hard-right conservatives. They are — compared to Vitter and Jindal — conciliatory and consensus builders. In style and approach to governing, they are almost the polar opposites of Vitter.

Ideologically, I also believe both men are more moderate than Jindal and Vitter. I believe they would generally govern more like a Gov. John Kasich of Ohio than a Jindal of Louisiana. Perhaps I am wrong, but I know both men fairly well and I can attest to their personalities and governing styles. That’s not to say that I prefer Dardenne or Angelle over Edwards. It’s that I think Vitter would be so disastrous and corrosive to our politics, that I am willing to cast a strategic vote in order to keep him from winning the Governor’s Mansion.

It has nothing to do with anything more than the fact that I strongly believe — and the available evidence supports me on this — that Edwards will not win a runoff with Vitter.

Maybe I’m wrong. I wouldn’t be the first time. And, believe me, nothing would make me happier than to eat crow on this question in November. But I see no evidence that Edwards or any other Democrat is going to suddenly find a way to win twice as much of the white vote as Mary Landrieu earned. Consider all Landrieu had going for her in the way of organization, experience, power and money. The best she could muster was 18 percent of the white vote while getting 95 percent of the black vote.

Believe me, Edwards is not about to do better than Landrieu among black voters, so his only path to victory is to double Landrieu’s white percentage. Put me down as more than doubtful that this is even possible, much less likely, in the current political environment.

Perhaps some people who don’t know me well will question my credentials as a liberal. Someone made that very charge against me in a Facebook post the other day, suggesting I left the Democratic Party because I had become a conservative. Not true. I left the Democrat Party because of the moral bankruptcy of its collective decision to endorse Edwin Edwards for Congress in 2014. It was a protest against a party that I believe has lost its way.

I predicted at the time that Edwards had no chance of winning and I relied upon nothing more than the demographics of the 6th congressional district. I don’t believe I once argued that Edwards would lose because he was a convicted criminal (although I did say that the endorsement of a convicted criminal was a big mistake for the party). My argument for the impossibility of an Edwards’ victory was based on the simple fact that in a district with only 22 percent black registration, Edwards would need more than 35 percent of the white vote, at a time when Mary Landrieu was winning about 18 percent of that same vote.

My views about that race emerged from the same math that informs my views on the current governor’s race. A Democrat who cannot win at least 30 percent of the white vote will lose.

Maybe there is a magic potion or fairy dust for turning that around overnight. If so, I hope the Edwards campaign finds it. But it does Democrats no good to pretend that they don’t have a serious problem with white voters.

If pointing out that sad fact makes me a traitor to the liberal cause, so be it. I don’t wish it to be so. I’m simply pointing what I believe to the reality of the situation facing the party.

Filed under: Louisiana Politics, Politics Tagged: Bill Cassidy, Bobby Jindal, David Vitter, Edwin Edwards, Jay Dardenne, John Bel Edwards, Louisiana governor’s race, Louisiana politics, Scott Angelle

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