Stephanie Grace: 2016 presidential primaries bring traveling political circus to Louisiana _lowres

A sign points voters to where to cast ballots for the Republican nomination for president primary Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016, in Aiken, S.C. (Todd Bennett/The Augusta Chronicle via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

People often compare the presidential nominating process to a traveling circus, but has the analogy ever been as apt as it is this strange year?

And here’s the good news, Louisiana, or maybe the bad news, depending on your tolerance level: The circus is coming to town.

States that vote earlier and big states that offer huge caches of delegates tend to play an outsized role in choosing presidential nominees. But with colorfully contested races in both parties, Louisiana’s March 5 primaries, for which early voting is already underway, are shaping up as somewhat major events.

At least the candidates are starting to pay attention.

On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is hoping the South will finally help her pull away from unexpectedly strong U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, and polls suggest this is a promising strategy. Surveys by Public Policy Polling in the six Southern states that vote in the March 1 “SEC primary” give Clinton leads of 22 percent or more over Sanders. In the Louisiana contest four days later, the poll shows Clinton leading 60 percent to 29 percent.

If these blowouts materialize, Clinton will be able to thank African-American voters who make up a large proportion of Democratic voters in these states, including 53 percent here in Louisiana (Sanders has yet to break through in states with large minority populations). So it’s no accident that she’s talking about topics such as institutional racism a lot these days.

Nor is it a surprise to see some major Democratic players from Louisiana playing vocal roles in her campaign. When Sanders gave a speech at U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond’s alma mater, the historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta, Richmond criticized Sanders for pitching free tuition at public universities while not focusing on HBCUs. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu not only endorsed Clinton last week but also touted her record of “fighting for underserved, predominantly African-American communities, like New Orleans” and traveled to South Carolina to meet with volunteers and speak at African-American churches — none of which is likely to quell suspicion that the mayor might like a position in a Clinton administration.

Clinton may also benefit here from the fact that registered Democrats must vote in the Democratic primary. Forty-six percent of Louisiana voters are registered as Democrats, a higher percentage than generally vote that way in presidential contests. To the extent that more conservative-leaning voters take part, they’re more likely to go to Clinton than Sanders.

Lots of voters who tend to back Republicans in general elections won’t be eligible to partake in the GOP primary, since only 28 percent of all voters are registered party members. In the recent past, the limited GOP electorate has gone with the most socially conservative candidate in the race, people like Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012. Based on that record, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, might seem best positioned here on paper, and indeed, one of the state’s most prominent Christian conservatives, Family Research Council leader Tony Perkins, a former state representative, is on board.

South Carolina seemed tailor-made for Cruz as well, but instead, the race’s true wild card — and lead carnival barker — pulled out an easy win. I’m talking, of course, of showy billionaire Donald Trump, who drew thousands to a recent rally in Baton Rouge and who has the support of Perkins’ onetime mentor, former state Rep. Woody Jenkins, another longtime leader of the state’s religious right.

Trump may be the GOP’s establishment’s worst nightmare, but he’s making inroads with some more mainstream leaders in Louisiana — people such as Public Service Commissioner Eric Skrmetta, who joins Jenkins as Trump’s state co-chairman. It’s hard to say how many are signing up, though, since the Trump campaign has claimed support from some recognizable names who say they never committed, including former New Orleans City Councilman Jay Batt and former Jefferson Parish President John Young. Just put that down as one more way his campaign is creating chaos.

Meanwhile, some of the state GOP’s elder statesmen, big fundraisers like Boysie Bollinger and Joe Canizaro, have already watched their standard-bearer Jeb Bush drop out and will presumably switch to another candidate not named Trump.

A local group has been mobilizing behind Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, too, led by state Sen. Bodi White. Former Gov. and presidential candidate Bobby Jindal has campaigned for his former rival in South Carolina, which has tongues wagging about whether he hopes to join a Rubio administration as well. Ohio Gov. John Kasich isn’t ceding the establishment lane to Rubio, though, and he’s scheduled a New Orleans fundraiser and Metairie town hall meeting for Wednesday.

Kasich will be the first to visit since the early states spoke but he surely won’t be the last. So grab the popcorn and peanuts, folks. It’s not that often that states like Louisiana get a front-row seat.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Follow her on Twitter @stephgracenola.