Unofficially, turnout for the governor’s race only reached 38.5 percent, with lower figures for other offices and ballot items. It does barely exceed the 2011 figure by about a point, but that was a 50-point blowout resulting in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s reelection. With four strong candidates, this year’s was supposed to excite the electorate into participating at a much higher rate.
This result has led to much musing about the causes of this quiescence, not all of it informed or accurate. Contrary to one report, which claimed that vote totals in gubernatorial contests have declined every election since 1983, that’s true only insofar as general elections. Runoffs typically see higher totals, because some Louisiana voters treat the general election as if it were (which it often is mistakenly called) a primary election and aren’t motivated enough to join the fun until the runoff.
But looking at raw vote totals can be misleading. They depend upon the size of the adult population, which can fluctuate through present migration and past birth rates. Better is to base turnout on the “voting age population” statistic, which is everybody 18 years old on up. It’s not the same as “voting eligible population,” which is slightly smaller because it excludes adults ineligible to vote such as felons and noncitizens, but more accurately captures participation than relying on registration figures.
Reviewing these, VAP turnout for 2015 doesn’t look much better, coming in at only 31.5 percent. Contrast this with elections from 1983 to 1995, where VAP turnout hovered around 50 percent, varying among 47 to 57. However, the bottom dropped out beginning in 1999 when it plunged to about 40 percent, stayed around there until 2011 when hitting the nadir of 29.6 percent.
Specific candidate qualities may help explain these numbers. Some candidates encourage voting by making specific liberal ideological policy appeals designed to benefit minorities or cite the conservative alternative of the necessity of reversing such policies that too negatively impact the white majority, or minority members running serve as symbolizing expectations of their governing according to these liberal prescriptions. Such candidates were Edwin Edwards in 1983, 1987, and 1991, David Duke in 1991, Cleo Fields in 1995, and William Jefferson in 1995. Note that no major minority candidates or white candidates that expressed ideological policy preferences specifically aimed at benefitting minorities, or against such policies, has run since 1999. Such candidacies should stimulate turnout, from many minorities responding to candidates to whom they feel a closer identification by virtue of skin color and/or policy and from some whites feeling such policies go too far that encourages voting for candidates (Duke) who articulate that or against those promising or representing this government support (the others).
Competitiveness of the contest also should induce increased turnout. This can be measured as the standard deviation of vote percentages received by at least the two highest-ranking candidates, and any other candidates up to five where incorporating a candidate’s percentage into the calculation would also include the next-highest candidate’s number if that candidate had at least half the proportion of the vote of the one immediately ahead of him, and so on. This computes the most competitive as the 2003 runoff decided by about four points and the least the 2011 blowout.
Thus, a multiple regression equation may be constructed where VAP turnout is regressed upon competitiveness, the number of racially referent candidates, and whether the contest is a runoff. This allows isolating the impact of one independent variable on the dependent variable (VAP turnout) holding the impact of all others constant.
Doing so shows racial reference is by far the strongest and only statistically significant term. Followed by whether the contest is a runoff and then competitiveness, neither of those are significant. In light of that, that there has been a paucity of quality candidates since 1999 who make explicit ideological appeals on racial issues or who are minorities themselves explains the reduced interest in voting.
But of these 12 elections, 2015 stands out as a real outlier because it ranked as the fifth most competitive of all time, yet had the second lowest turnout. In fact, by removing its data and just making calculations using the 1983-2011 data, the model itself became a noticeably better predictor of turnout, and using that model would have forecast 2015 turnout to be 40.3 percent.
So, factors particular to the campaigns themselves must explain the deviance. And the ways in which these have gone point to two possibilities on this account.
One, the candidates have done little to present ideological choices to voters. Democrat state Rep. John Bel Edwards has tried to sound more conservative than he is, while Republicans Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne (the latter more than the former) often echoed more than contrasted themselves to Edwards’ on issue preferences such as Medicaid expansion, review of tax exceptions, and higher education spending. These GOP candidates’ campaigns publicized little the areas where they differed with Edwards. Republican Sen. David Vitter, joining Edwards in a runoff, also did not provide much contrast on broader ideological themes, preferring to publicize very specific issues more related to competence in governing rather than with ideas.
This bland, uninvigorating campaigning also relied heavily on negative advertising, with the Republicans trying to ace each other out of an inevitable runoff with the lone quality Democrat Edwards in the field, and with Edwards taking shots at Vitter as well. No doubt some potential voters, particularly Republicans, simply determined every candidate unworthy of a vote, as indicated by the apparent very low turnout among registered GOP voters.
In sum, short-term, specific electoral factors unusually depressed turnout. The more enduring factor of racial referents from candidates also was absent, and the electorate seemed to follow a familiar habit of paying less attention to this kind of contest. Yet unmistakably over the long term, VAP turnout tells the tale of steady decline. Assigning the 2015 Louisiana general election as an indication of a disinterested public overstates, but the trend seems headed in that direction.