African-Americans turned out in big numbers during the early voting period, boosting the chances of Gov. John Bel Edwards against businessman Eddie Rispone in Saturday’s runoff election.
The race has been rated a tossup, but the governor’s odds may be improving because of a reaction against President Donald Trump, who has revved up supporters twice in Louisiana within the past month to try to pull Rispone, a Republican, across the finish line ahead of Edwards, a Democrat.
African-Americans accounted for 31% of all voters statewide during the seven days of early voting during the runoff, compared to only 25% of all voters during the primary early voting period, according to John Couvillon, a pollster and demographer in Baton Rouge. Early voting ended Saturday.
The governor’s race began unofficially 11 months ago, when U.S. Sen. John Kennedy released a written statement.
The surge in voting by black people means that registered Democrats had an advantage of 8 percentage points over Republicans during the runoff early voting period, compared to only 2 percentage points during the primary.
“It makes him the odds-on favorite to be re-elected,” Couvillon said of Edwards. “He’s in a much better position now than I would have thought a week ago.”
To be sure, no one can be sure that the high number of early black voters is a harbinger of equally big numbers on Saturday. Michael Henderson, a political science professor at LSU, has questioned the link between early voting numbers and election day results.
Edwards is confident that the early voting numbers portend a good outcome.
“When it’s a binary choice, it’s easy to focus,” Edwards said in an interview Sunday outside St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, where he attended the 10 a.m. service along with New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell.
Republicans are hoping that Trump’s popularity in Louisiana – and the unpopularity of national Democrats in the state – will put Rispone over the top.
Never before has a president of the United States campaigned so hard for a Louisiana gubernatorial candidate.
Trump’s rally in Monroe on Wednesday was his second in Louisiana within a month, and he is due back in Bossier City on Thursday.
Monroe’s event seems to have produced only a temporary Trump bump. Couvillon said 10,000 more black people voted on Saturday compared to Friday while 3,000 fewer whites voted on Saturday than the day before. “That white turnout went in reverse caught my attention,” Couvillon said.
Edwards believes the president is energizing voters in both camps.
“In this particular environment with the president, the law of physics that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction, I think that that has happened,” Edwards said. “I don’t know that it is stronger on my side than it is on the other side, but it’s at least equal. That’s just the nature of politics today.”
Early voting overall was the highest ever for a non-presidential election, up 31% during the runoff compared to the primary, Couvillon found. This prompted him to predict that turnout for the runoff will be at least 52% compared to 45.9% during the primary.
"If the Democrats figured out how to get turnout up from the primary to early voting, then they probably have the formula for next Saturday as well," Couvillon said.
Edwards led the Oct. 12 primary with 46.6% of the vote, compared to 27.4% for Rispone and 23.6% for U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, who was knocked out of the race.
Republicans have said they have the advantage in Saturday’s runoff because Republican candidates won slightly more than 50% of the primary vote. Plus, Louisiana is a red state, and over the last decade, Republicans have beaten Democrats in nearly every head-to-head race – with Edwards’ 2015 win an obvious outlier.
Rispone and his allies have been tagging Edwards as a tax-and-spend liberal who is beholden to the state’s trial lawyers.
But since the primary, black elected officials and leaders of civic organizations throughout the state have redoubled their efforts to elect Edwards. Their labors are key because black people account for 57% of Louisiana’s Democratic voters.
State Rep. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, organized a get-out-the-vote rally at the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union in Baton Rouge on the day before early voting began.
“People are more focused because they realize what’s at risk,” Barrow said.
State Rep. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, held an event on Saturday at the Renaissance Center in Baton Rouge.
Marcelle said she has arranged robo-calls by black pastors and ads on black radio stations to promote the governor.
Jefferson Parish has been good to Gov. John Bel Edwards on election days.
Standing on the sidewalk after Sunday’s church service, as well-wishers waited to greet her, Cantrell said she has canvassed door-to-door for Edwards and for citywide ballot initiatives that would provide more money for the city’s drainage system.
She noted that Rispone lobbied Republican legislators against the deal approved by the Legislature that will direct millions of dollars more per year to city’s infrastructure.
“For the city, it’s almost like we don’t have a choice based on wanting to move this city and state forward in a partnership with the governor,” Cantrell said.
Anthony Ramirez, who is Rispone’s spokesman, and Louis Gurvich, who chairs the Louisiana Republican Party, did not return phone calls on Sunday.
The Democratic formula for victory calls for Edwards to win at least 33% of the white vote and at least 90% of the black vote, and for black voters to account for at least 30% of the overall turnout. African-Americans accounted for only 27.6% of the overall vote in the primary.
Edwards also sought to boost his vote among New Orleans’ Vietnamese-American population by attending the 8 a.m. service on Sunday at Mary Queen of Vietnam, along with Cyndi Nguyen, the first person of Vietnamese descent elected to New Orleans’ City Council.
The entire service was in Vietnamese.
“I didn’t understand a word other than when the priest said my name,” Edwards said with a smile afterward. He added: “But a Catholic service is the same anywhere.”