Decision 2019: Comparing John Bel Edwards’ (2019) and Mary Landrieu’s (2002) races

Picture this runoff scenario: an incumbent statewide Democrat who according to conventional wisdom would win in the primary, and who bragged about voting with the President 74% of the time. Yet on primary day, this incumbent Democrat received 46% of the vote. The second place finisher/runoff opponent was a Republican who received 27% of the primary vote. The third place finisher was a Republican Congressman from the 5th Congressional district who not only lived in northeast Louisiana, but was a doctor. Yet in the runoff, this incumbent Democrat defied initially low expectations to with 52% of the vote. While this recitation has many similarities to the Louisiana Governor’s race, it actually describes the 2002 Senate/primary runoff that saw former Senator Mary Landrieu win with 52% of the runoff vote.

So how did Mary Landrieu exceed expectations to get re-elected in the 2002 runoff? Several factors cumulatively worked to her benefit during the runoff, and some of those factors are as applicable to this year’s runoff as they were back in 2002:

  1. Increased black turnout: In the November 2002 primary, 26% of the electorate was black, and Mary Landrieu received 46% of the primary vote. However, it is not generally remembered now that another 2% of the primary vote went to a black Democrat named Raymond Brown. In other words, Mary Landrieu really started off the runoff with 48% of the vote (or a vote deficit of 36K against the aggregate Republican vote). Then in the runoff, black turnout (in absolute terms) increased 2%, while white turnout simultaneously decreased 4%, In other words, the black percentage of the electorate increased from 26 to 27% between the primary and runoff. JMC estimates this demographic shift alone erased half of her primary vote deficit, and increased her baseline vote from 48 to 49%;
  2. Lagging GOP runoff intensity: even though 51% of the 2002 primary vote went to one of the three Republican candidates, Republicans had a less than united party base, particularly with the vote going to Congressman John Cooksey (who represented the 5th Congressional District). Because while statewide voter turnout (in terms of votes actually cast) decreased 1% between the primary and runoff, it decreased 7% in the 5th Congressional district. Furthermore, overall turnout for Republican candidates in the 5th Congressional district dropped even more substantially: while the statewide vote for Republican candidates numerically dropped 5% between the primary and runoff, in the 5th Congressional district, it dropped 15% – that alone increased Mary Landrieu’s margin 26K;
  3. “Mexican sugar”: This was an issue specific to the 2002 runoff, yet it benefited Mary Landrieu/hurt the Republican nominee: an alleged “secret deal” by the Bush administration allowing Mexican sugar imports to come in at the expense of Louisiana sugarcane farmers was discovered by the Landrieu campaign and made an issue near the end of the campaign. This revelation clearly had an impact in “sugar belt”: Mary Landrieu’s percentage in those parishes increased from 49 to 56%, thus giving her an increased margin of 11K (14K if you include the “sugar belt” parishes in the 5th Congressional District).

So how do these factors apply to the upcoming gubernatorial runoff ? Below are the similarities:

  1. While Governor Edwards received 46.6% of the primary vote, inclusion of the vote going to fellow Democrat Omar Dantzler puts him at 47.4% – very similar to the 47.9% Mary Landrieu and Raymond Brown received in the 2002 primary;
  2. Black turnout in the 2002 primary was 26% of the total electorate, while in this year’s primary, JMC estimates that it was 26.5% from an examination both of the early vote and precinct vote on Election Day;
  3. One of the eliminated candidates (Ralph Abraham) was, like John Cooksey, a Republican Congressman and a doctor from northeast Louisiana (although it is true in terms of vote percentage that Congressman Abraham received 24%, while John Cooksey received 14% of the vote);
  4. Governor Edwards, like Mary Landrieu did in 2002, will certainly work to increase black turnout from anemic primary levels;
  5. It is not yet certain to extent to which the Abraham vote (in terms of intensity) will line up behind the Rispone campaign, but every Republican vote is crucial, as the primary Republican vote of 52% is almost identical to the 51% Republicans received in the 2002 primary.