All along, the chattering classes have assumed that Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao cannot hold onto his Second Congressional District seat, a Republican in a district where only one in nine voters are and two-thirds are Democrats. In light Saturday’s party primary election results, it’s time to reassess that conjecture.
Cao’s only real competition will come from state Rep. Cedric Richmond, securer of the Democrats’ nomination, who racked up 60 percent of the just over 24,000 votes cast in that primary. A colleague of mine estimates that Richmond picked up two-thirds of black votes, estimated at nine percent turnout, and almost half of white votes, estimated turnout at seven percent. Cao did not have challengers for his nomination.
Three things must be considered to extrapolate these results to November. First, Cao will benefit from an enthusiasm gap, where supporters of Republican candidates will be more likely to turn out than those supporting Democrats, as other Saturday results showed. Second, on the baseline white voter turnout for elections in this district historically is a little higher than black turnout, again favoring Republicans since blacks vote overwhelmingly Democrat. Third, only Democrats and no-party registrants could vote in the primary; Republicans were absent. They get their shot obviously in a general election, and no-party registrants can get a chance to vote for a Republican.
That last point explains the racial turnout figures in the primary. While blacks comprise only 13 percent of GOP registrations and whites over three-quarters, the figures are for Democrats over three-quarters and 15 percent, and for none and other parties 43 and 40 percent, respectively. With no conservative candidates in the primary that would be more likely to appeal to white Democrats and independents, they disproportionately sat this one out. Come November, not only should the historical gap of 2-4 percent white over black emerge again, it probably will be greater given the enthusiasm gap.
Estimating that very roughly can be accomplished by looking at the Senate primary voting patterns in the larger of the two parishes that comprise the Second, Orleans (about 278,000 registered voters; Jefferson contributes around 111,000). Backing out the tenth or so of Orleans precincts not in the district and then comparing turnouts, the hot House race got 8.3 percent turnout, the sleepy Democrat Senate primary picked up 7.7 percent, and the overhyped Republican Senate contest (the only one on the ballot for them) got 7.4 percent.
These numbers ought to encourage Cao, because if a high-stimulus Democrat House race marginally outdraws a low-stimulus GOP Senate contest, it does show an enthusiasm gap in his favor. Further, perhaps part of the reason why House turnout did not much exceed the Senate’s was some Democrats and independents not wanting to vote for any of the Democrat candidates, but willing to vote for Cao in November. This hypothesis finds additional support when looking at the party primary in 2008, when turnout was almost three times what it was this time. While there were additional contests on the ballot then – mostly judicial, one being for the state Supreme Court, but also a Public Service Commission spot and, most stimulating, for Orleans District Attorney – it’s a stretch to say those additional contests were that much more incentive to draw out voters.
Instructive here is that no-party registrants came out below 10 percent for that primary in 2008, but when the general election came along two months later, despite that contest being the only one on the ballot, their turnout jumped five percent. It was noted at the time that this very likely represented disproportionately Cao voters. In addition, in 2008 in the first primary election white turnout exceeded black by about one percent, contrasted to down about two percent this year, so the effect of whites sitting out the primary waiting for the general election to vote for Cao may be felt to a greater degree this year. Again, all signs point to an enthusiasm gap strongly favoring Cao despite his natural constituency being far fewer in numbers.
However, in 2008 that enthusiasm gap was magnified by disgust with his main opponent former, convicted Rep. William Jefferson, even as national tides worked against that for Cao. What may give Cao more hope this time are results from Jefferson Parish, now about 30 percent of the district, where enthusiasm seems even stronger. There, the House race drew only 4 percent participation while the GOP Senate contest brought over 50 percent to the polls. Some of that is due to Sen. David Vitter being from Jefferson, but most has to be ascribed to much greater enthusiasm.
Jefferson, the parish as well as the opponent, also was a key to Cao’s win in 2008. While white participation was about 11 percent higher in Orleans than black voting, it doubled up at almost 29 percent in Jefferson, nearly five points higher than in Orleans. Put its figures the same as Orleans, and the race is a toss-up. If anything, enthusiasm among Cao’s constituency – recalling there is a much higher proportion of Republicans in this part of the Second and almost as many whites as blacks – in Jefferson is likely to be even higher relative to Orleans than in 2008. Also helping him potentially here is that Jefferson is going to have some high-profile municipal, parish, and school board contests decided on that date, driving turnout higher.
To put it into boilerplate, Cao’s situation is far from hopeless. He can win, following the formula of 2008, modified to current conditions. Rather than depend upon depression of his opponent’s turnout because of his opponent being under indictment, he has to hope this time around greater enthusiasm among his supporters takes up that slack. This time out turnout should be double the 2008 general election’s, around 35 percent if following historical norms. Cao can win if he can get at least 40 percent white turnout in Jefferson, which also doubles black turnout there, and if white turnout exceeds black turnout in Orleans by at least five percent whose total turnout is only two-thirds or less of the district’s (it was 68.5 percent in 2008).
For this to happen, Cao must create, through enthusiastic turnout of his supporters, as big a gap in participation as in 2008 when it was disgruntlement over Jefferson that depressed his vote. This will not be easy, especially as Richmond can expect closer to 90 percent of the black vote rather than Jefferson’s 80 percent. But the macro electoral conditions are there for him to pull it off. Thus, electoral obituaries written about him almost two years gone may turn out premature.