Though Louisiana was one of a handful of states to give John McCain a higher percentage of the vote than George W. Bush received in 2004, East Baton Rouge moved towards the Democrats and, to many people’s surprise, voted for Barack Obama – one of only 10 parishes in Louisiana to do so. How did this happen? In this article, we will analyze the factors that led East Baton Rouge to trend perceptibly Democratic between 2004 and 2008, and then we will assess whether we think this was a onetime event or part of a longer term trend.
(1) Demographic changes and the Obama candidacy: Historically, there has been a “turnout gap”, meaning that white voters tend to vote at higher percentages than do black voters. In the 2000 and 2004 Presidential races, whites turned out at rates 10% higher than black voters. In 2004, this meant that even though blacks made up 36% of the registered voters at that time, their electoral influence was only 33%. This changed between 2004 and 2008 (particularly in 2008), as the enthusiasm created by the candidacy of Barack Obama helped the Democrats in two ways in East Baton Rouge: (a) increased black voter registration – between November 2007 and November 2008, the black percentage of the electorate increased 3%, from 38 to 41%; (b) reduced “turnout gap” – the turnout gap of 10% from the 2004 was cut in half to 5% in the 2008 Presidential election. The overall impact of this was an increase in the influence of the black voting population from 33 to 40% between 2004 and 2008. When you add this 7% increase to the 45% of the vote that John Kerry received in 2004, the Obama candidacy created a turnout surge sufficient for Democrats to carry the parish for only the third time since 1960;
(2) The early vote: Unlike many states, there was no evidence of weakened support for McCain in the predominately white areas of East Baton Rouge Parish compared to George W. Bush’s showing in 2004. The GOP base in Central, Southeast Baton Rouge, and Zachary (which together cast 37% of the vote) voted 74-24% for McCain, which was almost identical to George W. Bush’s 75-24% showing in 2004. Similarly, in the more moderate areas of the Garden District and Highland/Perkins (17% of the parish wide vote), McCain and George W. Bush received the same 61-38% margins in 2004 and 2008. Barack Obama’s victory was truly a case of energizing the base, as well as demographic changes: in Baker/Choctaw/Inner City precincts (29% of the vote), Obama’s 86-13% lead was an 8% improvement over John Kerry’s 2004 percentage. But it was with the absentee vote where the election was decided. Historically the East Baton Rouge Parish absentee vote was heavily Republican, and in 2004, the 11,000 absentee voters voted 61-38% for George W. Bush. Between 2004 and 2008, however, the legislature instituted early voting, which gave voters a whole week to vote before Election Day and, unlike absentee voting, did not require that the voter be absent from the parish on Election Day. This resulted in a 204% increase in the absentee/early vote over 2004, and those early voters (which represented 17% of the total vote) went 60-38% for Obama. In other words, the election was essentially decided in October, as those who voted on Election Day still voted 50-48% for McCain. When you compare this to the 2004 “Election Day” vote of 54-45% for George W. Bush (incidentally, this was identical to the final result), you can see that the Democratic absentee vote made a difference in East Baton Rouge Parish; Click here for a description of the regions of East Baton Rouge Parish
(3) More on the early vote: So who were the early voters? The nearly 34,000 who early voted in East Baton Rouge Parish were a heavily Democratic group: 51% of them were non-white (compared to 43% who voted early or on Election Day). And it appears that the Democratic efforts were successful in getting the Democratic vote out in nearly every region of the parish except for Central – in fact, the Highland/Perkins region (a marginally Republican area) had 24% of its vote cast before Election Day (the attached spreadsheet shows the early vote influence by parish).
(4) Could East Baton Rouge go Democratic again? While it’s not a certainty that Democrats in East Baton Rouge can repeat the huge success they had with the 2008 early vote, it IS likely that not only will the black voter base continue to increase, but at the same time, the white voter population in absolute numbers and percentage-wise has steadily decreased over the last decade. In fact, the white voter population peaked in 2000, despite the fact that the registered voter count increased 9% between the 2000 and 2008 elections. Ascension and Livingston Parishes, on the other hand, saw 39 and 26% increases in their voter populations in that same timeframe. These trends guarantee that it will become successively more difficult with each election cycle for a Republican to carry East Baton Rouge Parish.