In handicapping New Orleans' upcoming mayoral runoff, let's start with the obvious: 39 percent is a lot closer than 30 percent to the magic number of 50 percent-plus-one. So City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who finished Saturday's primary with a surprising nine-point lead over former Municipal Judge Desiree Charbonnet, starts off the second phase of the race a lot closer to the finish line.
The next thing to consider is where the voters who backed other candidates are likely to land. The contest's third-place finisher, Michael Bagneris, drew 19 percent of the vote last weekend, and those voters are now up for grabs. Voting patterns, though, suggest more of them may settle in Cantrell's camp.
One variable to consider is race. According to a precinct study by University of New Orleans political scientist Ed Chervenak, the two runoff candidates performed about evenly Saturday among the African-American voters who make up the city's majority, with each taking 40 percent. But Cantrell did twice as well among nonblack voters, earning 41 percent of the total to Charbonnet's 20 percent.
Although he too is African-American, Bagneris performed considerably better among non-black voters than with black voters, 27 percent to just 9 percent. If you reapportion that 27 percent according to Saturday's vote, Cantrell's lead grows.
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Then there's geography. Cantrell represents Council District B, which includes parts of Uptown, the Garden District, Central City, the Central Business District and her home base of Broadmoor, where she got her start in public life during the neighborhood's robust post-Katrina recovery drive. And she finished first not only there but in most precincts in Uptown's broad expanse, with the exception of several that Bagneris won. Keeping with the pattern, those precincts are likely to shift in her direction.
Charbonnet, whose family has deep roots in the city's downtown neighborhoods, wasn't as dominant there. While Charbonnet was clearly the favorite in the 7th Ward, Cantrell won a number of precincts in areas such as New Orleans East, the home base of one of Charbonnet's biggest backers, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond. The disparity gives Cantrell another advantage.
And then there's the substance of the campaign itself. Charbonnet drew aggressive attacks from two outside groups, a secretive one that turned out to be backed by some of the city and state's best-known business figures, and one fronted by trash magnate-turned-reality-television-star Sidney Torres. The attacks, which generally alleged that Charbonnet would run a patronage-laden administration, seemed to have drawn some blood, and they also suggest that some of the people behind them would support anyone who could beat her. In the primary, there were several options. In the runoff, there's just Cantrell.
What all this leaves out, of course, is what will happen over the next four weeks. Voters will get a closer look at the two candidates vying to be New Orleans' first woman mayor. They'll both have to get a little deeper into the issues, where the discussion so far hasn't revealed many significant differences in philosophy.
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And Charbonnet, who so far has spent much of her time warding off attacks from the outside groups and sparring with Bagneris, will have to see what she can do to eat into Cantrell's support.
It's worth noting at this point that, while Charbonnet has faced plenty of attacks, nobody has laid a glove on Cantrell. That will now change, and all kinds of topics are fair game, from her council record to her old tax lien that became public earlier this year. Charbonnet has taken some heat for some of the many inside figures around her and her big contributions from people who do business with the city, while Cantrell attracted fewer endorsements and high-dollar donors. Now that she's the front-runner, more money and political backing is likely to flow her way, and she'll have to answer for the people around her, too.
Whether any of that is enough to change the current trajectory is the campaign's big question. If Charbonnet hopes to wind up in the mayor's office, she'll need to figure out how to shift the momentum, and soon. Cantrell's got the easier job: She just needs to try to stay the course.