Because of the state’s blanket primary system, where all candidates regardless of party label run together with a runoff if necessary if no candidate secure half plus one of the vote, and federal law and court rulings that call the initial contest a general election, the runoff if needed must be done later in the year, in 2014 on Dec. 6. This creates an unusual situation when it occurs district- or statewide with few, if any, local contests scattered around, when almost all other races for national offices elsewhere in the country have been settled.
As a result, conventional wisdom holds that runoff turnout with few, if any, other candidates or issues on the ballot should decline. And reviewing the two instances of House election runoffs in Decembers of non-presidential election years (it wasn’t until 1998 that the state had to schedule them then, and 2010 was the brief period during the closed primary experiment for federal offices that didn’t require a runoff), in one instance turnout dropped by 30 percent, and in the other, the Fifth District contest of 2002, by 7 percent.
Yet interestingly in that same year of this race between Democrat state Rep. Rodney Alexander and Republican political operative Lee Fletcher, which Alexander won by fewer than 1,000 votes, in the Senate contest, between Democrat incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu and Republican state Elections Commissioner Suzie Terrell, turnout from the general election fell less one percent. Even more intriguing is the reason why.
Then, the Fifth District contained 18 parishes in full and parts of others, which naturally also cast votes for the Senate. In comparing the general election and runoff in these (with no reason to believe the precincts in the partial parishes saw anything different, given the overall drop), turnout fell 7 percent in the Fifth, and 7.5 percent for the Senate contest – meaning the Fifth actually did slightly relatively better in preventing turnout erosion in these 18 than for the Senate, and also that the erosion for the Senate was much higher there than it was in the rest of the state.
In fact, when taking parish-level data for the Senate contest and trying to predict turnout change between races, three factors significantly affected that. In terms of their effects, turnout declined less the lower the proportion of whites, the fewer contests were on the ballot, and the more urbanized the area. This points to the heart of the strategy that Landrieu will attempt to secure her reelection.
That is, to concentrate on the places potentially with the richest hauls of votes for her, metropolitan areas that as a matter of course have higher proportions of non-white registrants. It seems also there is deemphasizing of targeting areas generally with other elections, with the thinking perhaps that the other campaigns will shoulder the load of trying to keep their voters coming back for seconds and will allow the Senate campaign to concentrate in areas without such a backstop.
That means her Democrat ally running in the Fifth, Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo, a likely runoff participant, will be depended upon to perform double duty in the hopes of improving upon the 2002 numbers, where Senate turnout in Ouachita Parish dropped only a quarter of a percent while it declined nearly a full point for the House race. She could really use the help in Rapides Parish, where it dropped about a percent for the House race but nosedived over 11 percent for the Senate contest – a reflection of the fact that Fletcher was from the Monroe area and Alexander nearby. Similar assistance from another almost certain Democrat runoff participant in the Sixth Congressional District, Prisoner #03128-095, also will be sought, and given that the man once known as former Gov. Edwin Edwards has legendary campaign skills, his presence may help improve upon the nearly two percent uptick in East Baton Rouge Parish from the Senate general election to runoff a dozen years ago. For her part, she will train her guns on Orleans, Jefferson, and Caddo Parishes (with spillover into Bossier, but making no real effort there as it has been rather unfriendly to her in the past.)
It also explains why Landrieu was willing to make controversial statements last week that in effect said that white Louisianans allowed racial prejudice to affect negatively their judgment about Pres. Barack Obama. She’s clearly is trying to set the table to spur black turnout and for her, by spreading the impression that white racism is such that blacks from Obama on down get treated unfairly and that by her acknowledgment of that alleged attitude and defense of Obama it is vital for the welfare of blacks to get out and vote for her. Whether the tactic creates a backlash from undecided whites who otherwise might have voted for her or who would have sat it out, providing dog whistles of that nature to the constituency you want mobilized is essential.
Republicans hoping for the ouster of Landrieu can’t get too comfortable thinking that the turnout dynamics onDec. 6 automatically will favor their highly probable runoff candidate Rep. Bill Cassidy. The 2002 election demonstrates that Democrats to some degree can swim against that tide by making explicit appeals to their base, now majority black, where the majority of blacks in Louisiana live, in large urban areas, at the expense of a unifying message aimed to persuade the public as a whole. If Republicans recognize this and respond through active mobilization strategies, they can close the deal and combined with Democrats’ efforts may even get more people out to vote in the runoff than will have in the general election.