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GOP statewide looks to benefit from disaster displacement

One of my professional colleagues recently released a paper estimating the changing dynamics of both New Orleans and the state in distribution of partisan voting. They echo a paper that readers may not have heard about (unless they listened to an interview on Eric Asher’s “Inside New Orleans” on WIST-AM) that I presented at the Southern Political Science Association annual meeting which was in New Orleans back in January.

Part of the paper dealt with the effects of term limits on the partisan composition of the Legislature resulting from the 2007 elections. I discovered that the majority of the seat gain for the Republicans (seven of 12, chambers combined) came from the imposition of term limits. That the minority party picks up seats in a term-limited environment is consistent with theory: incumbents appear to have advantages in reelection campaigns over challengers by virtue of their elective office and status, which term limits eliminate.

But appropriate to changes in the electorate, statewide I discovered the impact of displacement from the 2005 hurricane disasters had shifted to the advantage of Republicans. As the 2007 elections approached, only three parishes had nontrivial impacts still present in their electoral compositions, Orleans, Jefferson, and St. Bernard, all on the minus side (but not, as some had speculated, East Baton Rouge on the plus side).

Jefferson was almost back to normal, estimated at almost 96 percent of its July 1, 2005 population (adjusted by expected changes without intervention by the storms). But Orleans was at but half-strength, and St. Bernard was still reeling at less than a quarter. Altogether, they indicated over 290,000 had left the state, the adults of which who had been registered to vote would be expected only in small proportions to vote absentee in the fall elections..

Translated in actual expected voting, by comparing voting patterns in 2003 to 2007 it seems 61,000 fewer partisan voters from these three parishes participated in the 2007 governor’s contest, and about 4,000 more non-major party voters also had pushed buttons. (The total of around 65,000 was almost precisely the difference in total statewide turnout from 2003 to 2007 – meaning the lower proportion voting for governor in 2007 than in 2003 was almost solely attributable to the absence of displaced voters.) And of the partisans not present, over 54,000 were registered Democrats (of which around 41,000 were black) and only somewhat more than 6,000 Republicans, meaning an advantage of about 48,000 votes for GOP candidates statewide.

At the parish level, Orleans suffered the biggest losses, over 37,000 partisan votes including 60 percent of the total Democrats lost, although St Bernard endured the biggest proportional losses, losing about 60 percent of both its Democrat and Republican potential votes. To underscore the devastation in St. Bernard, it actually lost a few more total votes than all of Jefferson even though in 2005 it was estimated as one-seventh the total population of Jefferson.

The larger point here is that, for now, statewide Republican candidates are advantaged in this new environment compared to the old. The roughly 48,000 more votes relatively a GOP candidate can expect turned what would have been a razor-thin primary win into a comfortable one for Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, and it would have sent Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu to defeat in 1996 thereby mooting her 2002 reelection bid that would have been uncomfortably close.

While people still trickle back to the affected areas, and thereby disproportionately would be adding Democrats to the vote columns, sooner rather than later this will stop. Whether this becomes a major component to the ascendancy of the Republican Party as the state’s majority party will depend on how well the GOP does other things to win elections consistently.

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