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Myths dispelled about Orleans mayor vote: it was all about race

After having done this for two decades, it should not surprise me but it always does how myths about the causes and determinants of election results get propagated so quickly. The general election runoff of the 2006 mayor’s race appears to be no exception.

One myth appears to come from political convenience. From his concession speech on, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu has asserted that, from his perspective, the best things about his defeat was that it demonstrated the building of multiracial coalitions with crossover appeal. In an absolute sense, that’s ridiculous. A number of politicians have shown far greater crossover appeal (like this guy’s wins). But even if we start to put qualifiers in play, Landrieu makes quite a reach for us to buy that.

Let’s narrow the scope of the claim, to say that for a race where you had a white and black candidate in the deep South this showed relatively high cross-racial voting. All right, best we can tell (no surveys yet having been done) from surrogate voting results data and weekly registration reports, the division was in the neighborhood of 80/20 – 80 percent of whites voted for the white Landrieu, 80 percent of racial minorities voted for the black reelected Ray Nagin. That’s still around 4:1, and considering both ran as Democrats, not really remarkable.

In 1994, I conducted an exit poll concerning the Shreveport’s mayor’s runoff which was between a black Democrat and a white Republican. About 14 percent of white voters voted for the Democrat, while around 7 percent of black voters went for the Republican. Had both been Democrats, it’s possible crossover voting would have been higher. So it’s hard to argue that Saturday’s results in New Orleans reveal either candidate, absolutely or relatively, had some unusual crossover appeal.

Landrieu probably wished to have this established as conventional wisdom for his (and his family’s) political future. Landrieus will look less viable as candidates unless they create an expectation as Democrats that they can appeal to all racial segments of the party or electorate. Otherwise, white candidates who have a greater appeal or minority candidates become more likely to challenge them.

Another myth probably is more one of ignorance, that voting patterns show this election was “not unusual” that it was about “leadership” and that Landrieu failed to ideologically “distinguish himself from the opposition, from the incumbent.” (Note to reporters: just because you are a demographer does not make you in any way knowledgeable in understanding elections. Trust me, I’ve seen it time and time again.) In fact, the election was highly unusual, not at all in the mostly monoracial voting pattern, but in how Nagin won.

Typically, voting turnout declines in Louisiana’s blanket primary system from the primary to general election runoff, especially in New Orleans. (For example, in 2002, white turnout dropped about 3 percent and black turnout about 1 percent from primary to runoff.) Yet turnout increased about 2 percent overall in this contest. And (we can’t definitively tell yet without the post-election statistics) what probably will show up most remarkably is the bulk of this increase came from among the lower-turnout precincts which are heavily black.

As any political scientist who studies electoral participation will confirm, this is unusual. Which also tells us what really mattered in this contest: race. It wasn’t about leadership because that was a theme both candidates harped upon, that each was more competent than the other to lead the city’s recovery. If ever some survey data are collected about this contest, it’s likely that any perceptions of leadership are going to be filtered by race; simply, most blacks will judge Nagin as more competent, and most whites will have seen Landrieu as more competent.

You have to hand it to Nagin and the best campaign consultant in New Orleans, Jim Carvin. For them, the contest was all about getting out the black vote from the areas of town predominantly black, whether they actually presently resided in the city. They knew (perhaps because they read this months ago) that blacks would make up the majority of the electorate on the ground and, if they could get some with Landrieu’s baggage (the “dynasty” issue) into the runoff, they could pick off or get to stay home enough whites. Then it just began a matter of get-out-the-vote, and they succeeded.

Admirably, not only did they achieve this in the most difficult precincts in which to get out new voters (I think the post-election results will show), they largely did it without making pandering racial appeals. (Even more intriguingly, activist organizations who never would have supported Nagin were he not black came out of the woodwork to help his campaign through their own GOTV efforts.) So the atypical nature of the contest stemmed not from the prominence of race in it, but by the skill employed by the Nagin campaign to maximize the use of that advantage.

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