State Rep. John Bel Edwards’ surprise showing in Saturday’s election gave hope to many that the Democratic Party could elect one of its own to a statewide office for the first time since 2008.
Edwards was expected to make the Nov. 21 runoff. What surprised many political professionals was that he polled 40 percent of the vote and outpaced Republican candidates in every region of the state in a low-turnout election.
Since Saturday night, PredictIt, a New Zealand website that sells shares based on individuals’ predictions, charted a 6-cent increase in the value of shares for Edwards becoming the next Louisiana governor. Chances of a win by U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the Republican candidate, dropped by 5 cents.
But pollsters and political professionals urge handicappers to take a closer look at the statistics before betting on changing Louisiana’s red tide to blue.
“True, this isn’t a normal cake walk to election for Republicans,” said Bernie Pinsonat, a Baton Rouge pollster who works primarily for GOP candidates. “Vitter has to be considered the favorite based on traditional patterns. He obviously can win, but he’s going to have to run a picture perfect campaign and put together the factions, which are pretty angry right now. That’s something Republicans haven’t had to do before in runoffs.”
As little as 90 days ago, Vitter was expected to waltz into the runoff, then easily win the election, based on his near universal name recognition and a campaign war chest that had more money than his opponents combined.
But a series of negative commercials and comments about Vitter’s character — one GOP opponent called him Sen. Pinocchio, another called him a liar — chipped away at his substantial lead. Vitter swung back, questioning the integrity of his GOP rivals. He won his spot in the runoff by 41,198 votes out of 1.1 million cast.
Ron Faucheux, a Washington D.C. pollster who once was Democratic state representative in New Orleans, said Vitter’s high negatives and relatively poor showing make a little more difficult a race that a few months ago seemed like a cinch.
“I think that opens an unusual opportunity for a Democrat to reach across party lines and win the election. That doesn’t mean he (Edwards) can do it.”
Faucheux likened the primary to the anti-Long, pro-Long election of the 1930s and 1940s. Three anti-Vitter candidates, together, gathered 77 percent of the vote. Viewed a different way, the results show that almost 60 percent of the vote was for a Republican.
Faucheux did the poll for The Advocate and WWL-TV that found Edwards had a shot to win a head-to-head contest, at least he did more than a month ago.
To win, Edwards needs to pick up about 29 percent of the voters who cast ballots for Angelle and Dardenne, assuming the African-American voter turnout remains the same.
That might be possible, but it’ll be hard, said Michael Henderson, LSU’s pollster. His polling shows that 70 percent of Dardenne’s supporters dislike Vitter, and while Angelle’s backers aren’t as ardent, as many of them dislike Vitter as like him.
Still, Henderson said, history shows that voters usually don’t cross party lines in a runoff, regardless of what happens in the primary.
Edwards won in every region of the state, according an analysis by Edward E. Chervenak, at the University of New Orleans.
Edwards, who comes from a politically prominent Tangipahoa Parish family, had his best showing in the Florida-River Parishes and the New Orleans Metropolitan region. His worst performance was in Acadiana, where Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, a Republican opponent, is a favorite son. Still, Edwards defeated Angelle by 2 percentage points, according to Chervenak. The third Republican candidate, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, did well in the Baton Rouge area.
Edwards also won a plurality, but below the 40 percent statewide total, in north Louisiana, which is dominated by Republicans.
Vitter’s best showing came in the New Orleans Metropolitan area, but he did very poorly in the Florida-River Parishes, Chervenak said. In the heavily GOP Acadiana, Vitter got only one of every five votes, while he took one of every four votes in north Louisiana.
Henderson said eight of the 10 most populous parishes had turnouts below the state’s average.
“It’s the cities that failed to show up,” Henderson said. “The days of regional variation in Louisiana are fading with each passing election … . But urban-rural still matters.”
That could be a benefit for Edwards, as the Democrat had few get-out-the-vote operations for the primary, and urban areas traditionally favor Democratic candidates.
“The fact that he was able to hit 40 percent in an election that looks like the traditional Democratic base wasn’t highly mobilized, suggests that he could get significantly more,” Henderson said.
Chervenak noted in his analysis, looking at turnout in heavily white and heavily black precincts, that Vitter won 32 percent of the vote in the white precincts and about 1 percent in majority black voting booths.
“We see the same pattern when examining vote choice for all the Republican candidates,” Chervenak wrote. “An estimated 5 percent of nonwhites voted for a Republican candidate, while 83 percent of whites pulled the lever for a Republican candidate.”
Henderson said more attack ads were aired during the 2015 primary than ran through the whole of the 2003 campaign, the last wide open gubernatorial race.
Almost all of the commercials were Republicans attacking fellow Republicans. The polls show falling support and rising negatives in correlation to the number and ferocity of attack ads.
However, Edwards has not been field-tested yet. Other than an attack ad paid for by the Republican Governors’ Association, the GOP pretty much left him alone.
Now that the primary is over, the Republicans will have a go at Edwards. The fairly high positives of the former Army Ranger who is anti-abortion and pro-gun, likely will suffer when he is repeatedly linked to the unpopular President Barack Obama.
“The personal history of Rep. Edwards probably helps because it helps establish the sort of image that plays into message that helps neutralize the kinds of things that traditionally drag down Democrats in southern states,” Henderson said. “I don’t know if it can help enough.”
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