October 2011 Election Preview (Part 1 of 2)

Primary election day in Louisiana is less than 72 hours away. On the ballot this year are the statewide races, all eight elected seats for BESE (Board of Elementary and Secondary Education), all 144 legislative seats, and a myriad of local races. What is our assessment of these races?

Since Governor Jindal faces nine minor opponents, his challenge is that of the expectations game: how much over 50% will he get? In these types of races, it’s not unreasonable to expect that eight of the nine challengers will pull 2-3% apiece, while his most relatively visible opponent (Tara Hollis) will get 15-20% of the vote. Assuming this happens, this puts Governor Jindal at about 60% of the vote, which for a Republican in Louisiana is not unreasonable.

The Lt Governor and Secretary of State races are next. Both races are Republican on Republican challenges, although the Lt Governor’s race has been the higher wattage one. In that race, you have a well known incumbent (Jay Dardenne) facing a well financed opponent (Billy Nungesser). While polls taken show Dardenne with varying leads, it is the Democratic vote which will determine the winner. For Secretary of State, Democratic voters are similarly in a position of influence: their choice is either low key incumbent Tom Schedler (who assumed the job when Jay Dardenne was elected Lt Governor last year) or term-limited House Speaker Jim Tucker.

Beyond that, the Republican incumbents for Agriculture (Mike Strain) and Insurance (Jim Donelon) face minor opposition and, like Governor Jindal, face the “expectations game” of what percentage of the vote they can receive as incumbent Republicans.

Meanwhile, 7 out of the 8 BESE races are competitive as, for the first time, business interests are taking a serious interest in BESE elections. Three of the races (District 3 in south Louisiana, District 5 in northeast Louisiana, and District 7 in southwest Louisiana) will definitely be settled this Saturday because only two candidates are running. There is a strong possibility that the two black majority districts (District 2 in New Orleans and District 8 between Baton Rouge and Lafayette) will go into a runoff. Beyond that, Republican incumbents Chas Roemer of Baton Rouge and Jim Garvey of Metairie may or may not face runoffs in a multicandidate race. Their challenge is simply that of name recognition – BESE races traditionally got “crowded out” on the ballot because statewide and legislative races on the ballot typically got the lion’s share of a voter’s attention – until this year.

So what will turnout be? There are two predictive models we have developed and used. We initially predicted a statewide turnout of 27-29%. Our basis for that prediction was the relatively small number of last minute voter registrations: in a “high wattage” election, it’s been shown that the number of people wanting to register to vote spikes before the deadline. If you go back in time to the Edwards/Duke runoff in November 1991, 67,000 individuals registered to vote at the last minute (the volume of last minute registrants was a tamer 8,600 this year).

The second metric we used for predicting statewide turnout was early voting volume, since in the recent past, you have had a fairly consistent percentage of the voters who prefer to vote before Election Day. Using that metric, we are predicting a 37% statewide turnout.

So which metric is more accurate? In the analysis we performed on the second metric , we noted that both parties pushed to get their voters to vote early. Additionally, you have the complication of a 2:30 home game between LSU and Auburn, which will add some unpredictability as to voter turnout in and around Baton Rouge for most of the day. For these reasons, plus the very high turnout in rural parishes (three small parishes have seen over 20% of the vote already cast, while in 20 more parishes, 10% of the vote has already been cast), we’re thinking that 20% of the vote cast being early/absentee voters is not an unreasonable assumption. In “wonk free” English, that ratio equates to a 29% statewide voter turnout. Which model is most correct? That will be something that we can’t assess until all votes are counted Saturday night.

In the next installment, we will discuss what to look for with regards to (1) how to gauge Governor Jindal’s strength early on, and (2) legislative races worth watching.