For about 30 years, citywide elections in New Orleans had an air of predictability to them after its last white mayor, “Moon” Landrieu, left the office in 1977: the city’s (then) growing black population and voting majority split along racial lines, and the support of black voter groups (known as the “alphabet soup” organizations) was something that candidates fought over. This political reality made it very difficult for a white candidate to win citywide, although from time to time, a “moderate” black candidate could win by appealing to the more affluent white voters living in the Garden District, Uptown, Lakeview, or (back then) Algiers.
Why/How this began to change
All of this changed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005: its catastrophic destruction not only dislocated many residents, but also upset the existing political order. More specifically, the clout of black voter organizations began to weaken. And at the same time, white candidates began to be elected citywide.
The traditional order was put to the test in the 2006 mayor’s race. Despite being elected in 2002 with white support, (then) Mayor Ray Nagin put a racial cast on the election with his remarks in the immediate aftermath of the storm about New Orleans being a “chocolate city.” And Nagin had no ordinary white opponent – his main opponent (21 candidates ran against Nagin) was the (then) lieutenant governor Mitch Landrieu, son of the former mayor and brother to Senator Mary Landrieu. While Landrieu was able to get some black votes, racial polarization was fairly substantial in that race: blacks voted 77-23% for Mayor Nagin, while whites voted 78-22% for Landrieu. This was truly an unusual election: because of the sheer volume of displaced residents, this race was actually conducted in locales like Memphis, Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta, and 22% of the vote was cast absentee.
That race saw an electorate that was 56-39% white/black. Despite the pundits’ simplistic analysis of the black vote leaving New Orleans, the mayoral race proved that this electoral bloc was very much in the driver’s seat.
However, outside the mayor’s race, the political tide was already changing in New Orleans: for the first time in a generation, white candidates were being elected in citywide races and in black majority City Council districts. Furthermore, Mayor Nagin’s performance in his second term created a sense of buyer’s remorse, thus enabling Mitch Landrieu to win in 2010 with ease (Nagin was term-limited). Despite the fact that the 2010 mayor’s race had a crowded field with big spenders like John Georges, Landrieu clinched victory in the first primary with a 66% landslide. This was the first time in years that there was no racial polarization: Mitch received 69% of the white vote and 63% of the black vote in a citywide electorate that was 53-42% black.
Mayor Landrieu’s term in office was one characterized by economic recovery, as the harshness of the national economic collapse in 2008 largely spared New Orleans. This put Landrieu in the driver’s seat as he sought re-election to a second term. Not everybody agreed with his rosy assessment of the “state of the city”: there was grumbling from some black voters that they did not share in the city’s recovery, and Mayor Landrieu faced two black opponents in the February 1 primary.
Despite the fact that the traditional political and black voter groups all endorsed Landrieu’s main opponent (as did the police union), Judge Michael Bagneris, Landrieu (who, interestingly, received President Obama’s endorsement) swept to victory last night with 64% of the vote. What made this victory remarkable was that the vote was not as polarized as it might have been a decade ago: Mitch received 89% of the white vote and 50% of the black vote – itself remarkable against two black opponents and without support from the traditional black political organizations. Below is a graphical depiction of Landrieu’s victory:
Given the vote last night, we estimate that the electorate was 51-42% black, with 39% white turnout and 27% black turnout.
There are three immediate implications that are specific to New Orleans and to Louisiana:
- Decline in the “machine”: the power of the political organizations (especially the black organizations known as the “alphabet soup” oreganizations) has not been what it was since before Katrina, and last night’s results further reinforced their limited clout;
- The racial polarization that once characterized New Orleans races is similarly on the decline;
- Even though Senator Mary Landrieu has a tough re-election race, there is one thing she can count on – a secure New Orleans electoral base. In fact, Orleans Parish alone has always supported both Mitch and Mary with 3 and 4:1 margins. Of course, New Orleans has 24% less electoral clout than it did when Senator Landrieu was first elected in 1996, and the state has politically moved substantially to the right since then.