In between gulps of fresh-squeezed lemonade on a hot and sweaty festival day, Scott Angelle lamented that he doesn’t speak better French.
“It’s an immediate connection,” said the Breaux Bridge Republican who, minutes before, was shaking hands, sometimes speaking French and looking Delcambre festivalgoers in the eyes. “It says, ‘I’m one of you. I understand you,’ a lot better than a thousand TV commercials and a million of these,” he said, waving the campaign fliers he had been handing out.
But Angelle’s foray into retail politics is unusual for this gubernatorial campaign, which gets started in earnest this week after the candidates officially sign up — qualify to run in the Oct. 24 primary — Tuesday through Thursday.
Angelle likely will be joined on the campaign trail by fellow Republicans Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, of Baton Rouge, and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, of Metairie, along with Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards, of Amite, and a number of lesser-known candidates.
Already, however, it is clear that this year’s campaign to replace term-limited Gov. Bobby Jindal will be much different from what Louisiana voters are accustomed to seeing.
“These candidates are going to be using more and more digital techniques over conventional media techniques and older-school face-to-face interactions,” said Martin Johnson, who teaches political communications at LSU. “We’re four years further along in the integration of a whole bunch of new technology for how people communicate. You see it walking down the street. People are locked into their smartphones. That’s how we communicate these days.”
Campaigns always have been about energizing supporters to cast ballots in greater numbers than opponents’, and that hasn’t changed even if the tools have.
While playing a greater role this year, social media are just one part of a bundle of weapons, Johnson said. Candidates will still include television and radio, meet and greets, handbills, bus tours, forums and, yes, the occasional unscripted visit to a public event.
Just how those weapons are deployed, how much emphasis is given one over the other, depends on individual personalities of the candidates and how much support they have, Johnson said.
Angelle, for instance, is the most gregarious of the four major contenders and relies more on shaking hands. As the acknowledged frontrunner, Vitter approaches campaigning as an incumbent who limits uncontrolled access. Edwards is methodically building his base among traditional Democrats while reaching out to a GOP electorate skeptical of crossing party lines. Dardenne is focusing on meetings with women and civic club speeches.
It’s a far less free-for-all style of campaigning.
Back in 1983, for instance, Edwin W. Edwards toured all 64 parishes, giving stump speeches at large rallies, stopping at restaurants and walking down town streets shaking whatever hand passed his way. He and incumbent Dave Treen attended every festival they could, sucking hundreds of crawfish heads and consuming pounds of jambalaya.
Now, however, the advent of the digital era has moved campaigns toward finding pockets of voters and tailoring messages to resonate with a specific demographic.
Economically, digital is more efficient, said Jared Arsement, a Lafayette media consultant with the John Bel Edwards campaign. “Campaigns are unfortunately getting away from retail politics because everybody puts so much emphasis on the Internet,” he added.
Users of Facebook, ubiquitous among older voters, and Twitter, which skews younger, self-identify their interest in a candidate by signing up to receive their messages. The digital profiles of these users allow candidates to feed their narrative directly, with a context that they author and none of those pesky alternatives that opponents might raise.
Vitter also leads on the Twitter front with about 31,000 followers to Dardenne’s 4,000; Edwards’ 3,000; and Angelle’s 1,000.
As the frontrunner, Vitter is pushing all the buttons that reverberate with conservative Republicans, said Robert Hogan, who teaches statewide campaigning at LSU.
Many of the polls these days are conducted to give credence to a particular political objective and thus render questionable results. Still, the results generally show, to varying degrees, Vitter ahead, followed closely by Edwards, the Democrat, then fellow Republicans Angelle and Dardenne.
Vitter wants to be the only Republican in a runoff. He is trying to contrast himself with Jindal, who is unpopular in the state, Hogan said. By doing so, Vitter also contrasts himself with Angelle, who served as Jindal’s secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources, the liaison responsible for pushing the governor’s voucher program through the Legislature, and the appointed lieutenant governor for a short time when the office was vacant.
“He’s setting things up in case Angelle starts to creep into Vitter’s numbers, he can parlay quickly into Angelle equals Jindal 2.0,” Hogan said.
This year’s race has featured dozens of forums that began in January.
Many of them include questions sent to the candidates in advance.
Vitter has attended forums hosted by the business community, law enforcement, locally elected officials and highway contractors. He’s also skipped the most, including forums held by the elderly and college students.
Vitter has relied heavily on smaller, often closed-door meetings with leaders around the state. He forbids reporters, but agrees to meet shortly with them afterwards.
Behind closed doors, Vitter answers questions in far greater detail than at the forums.
At a session hosted by the Louisiana Municipal Association for mayors and councilmen, Vitter showed a depth of knowledge about issues that barely register outside local areas. For instance, when asked about the expansion of a West Bank New Orleans train spur, he was facile with the facts, showing that he knew the nuances and could accurately articulate what both sides wanted. While not taking a position, Vitter promised that his staff would meet with both sides.
The annual Labor Day Petroleum and Shrimp Festival once was the traditional kickoff for the intense sprint to the primary. Candidates would ride in convertibles lobbing cups and waving to the tens of thousands lining Morgan City streets for the Sunday afternoon parade. This year, only Vitter planned to attend.
Angelle, instead, plans to attend another festival. He’s done several.
But Angelle is comfortable walking the grounds, chatting up festivalgoers, trying out their special dishes, answering questions, occasionally dancing and taking smartphone photos with all comers.
Mostly, the conversation was about hunting and fishing, family matters and the possibilities for area football teams.
“This isn’t about policy,” said Angelle, who serves on the utility-regulating Public Service Commission. “This is about, ‘Who are you? Can I trust you?’ ”
At the Delcambre Shrimp Festival, Angelle waited while shrimp and bacon kabobs were grilled. Langlois Brant, a 30-something professional, asked about establishing a commuter train between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, telling Angelle that the increased access and ease of transportation would help spur economic development that would translate to jobs for people like him.
Angelle said he’d like to see that commuter line extend to Lafayette and connect to the Gulf Coast. “But we’ve got to be able to pay for it,” he said, downing the kabob, then moving on.
Brant said he only vaguely knew who Angelle was and wouldn’t decide who would receive his vote for a few more weeks. But he said personally visiting with the candidate, even if only for a few minutes, would weigh heavily in his decision-making process.
While other gubernatorial candidates are tapping in to fairs and festivals, Dardenne hasn’t. He’s not a glad-handing, back-slapping politician. His campaigning has been more event-structured.
Dardenne is appealing to the women’s vote as he campaigns. So far, he’s had four fundraisers, $50-a-person events specifically aimed at women in four major cities, that have attracted more than 1,200.
He emphasizes his record on women’s issues, including combating domestic violence, and his lifetime achievement award from the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence. He promises to fight prostitution and human trafficking. He also taps into his tourism base, part of his state government job.
He’s giving civic club speeches. At a Rotary Club in Shreveport, Dardenne couldn’t do a political speech, but he did the next best thing. He told amusing stories about Louisiana’s rich and colorful political history.
Though waging his first statewide bid for office, Edwards said campaigning is different from what he remembers in years past.
He visited 22 towns in seven days during some of the hottest days in July. But that tour scarcely compares to the weeks-long events of gubernatorial candidates past.
“It has changed,” Edwards said. “The emphasis now is on raising money.”
That can mean days where the candidate spends hours making telephone calls pleading for financial support or returning late at night after a fundraiser like the one he attended in Shreveport on Tuesday evening.
“But you still have to get the balance right,” he said.
Elizabeth Crisp, Will Sentell and Marsha Shuler, of The Advocate Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report.