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GOP wins, Democrats lose with new closed primaries

Oddly, Gov. Kathleen Blanco signed SB 18 into law. I write “oddly” because it reduces more than ever the political clout of what she purports to be, the white presumed conservative, Democrat, and increases the electoral fortunes of Republicans running for federal offices everywhere in Louisiana.

The new law creates a closed primary system for federal elections for U.S. representative and senator. Accordingly, only people registered with a party and any no party (independent) voters if not prohibited by the party will be able to vote in a party primary the first Saturday of September. If no candidate receives an absolute majority, a runoff will be held the first Saturday in October among the two highest finishers. This is in contrast to the present blanket primary system (often incorrectly called an “open” primary; an open primary is one where the state allows independents or any voter to choose a single party primary in which to vote) which has no party primaries so all candidates run together that for federal elections will end after the 2006 election cycle.

Heretofore, partisanship has meant nothing in Louisiana when registering to vote since there was no reward or punishment associated with the choice. This situation has changed, and the following alterations to the electoral environment will occur, according to the voluminous research in the political science discipline.

First, neither party will prohibit independents from voting in their primaries, for two different reasons. Understand that parties in open primary states often do not like the situation where non-party members get access to influence a party nominee. However, independent registrants are the least likely to turn out, all other things equal, and Republicans in their core white constituency are half again larger in number than such other party members in the state (and this imbalance will continue to grow in the party’s favor over time, as noted below). Hence, the GOP will not fear “raiding” and by opening its elections may even use them to gain converts: people who are not of a certain party label but who begin to consistently vote in that party’s primaries are extremely likely to change their registrations after time. This also includes Democrats as well, and conditions their response to the new electoral environment.

Second, Democrats’ reason to keep their elections open will be fear by the whites who currently control the state party to prevent loss of influence by them and their candidates. Reviewing the statewide situation by the latest official statistics shows that only 54 percent of Democrats now are white, and that doesn’t reflect voting behavior on the ground where probably half that total consistently votes Republican at the federal level. Starting in a few months there will be a mass exodus of white Democrats into the GOP because they will want to have a say in voting for federal nominees. State white Democrat leaders now are forced to count on (more like “hoping”) white independents can take up the slack, since whites outnumber such blacks almost three to one in the party. They also hope this leads to conversion.

Third, among new registrants, independent registrations will rise somewhat although at a slower rate, but the main beneficiaries will be Republicans (and thus Democrats will suffer a loss). This is because, attitudinally speaking, to an individual who places any importance on political self-conception, they will wish to choose a label consistent with that. Now that the labels are infused with more meaning because they confer a benefit or cost (ability or inability to vote for a preferred candidate), the label relevancy makes a choice more likely, especially because politics for most people is an enterprise of sporadic salience. And, for the above reason, the Republican label will become, relative to the past, disproportionately favored.

In other words, a new voter not very interested in politics (the typical situation) now facing increased label salience no longer will be likely to pick a label just because his parents always were that, or for some other trivial reason (the only benefit or cost presently associated with party labels in Louisiana, voting in a presidential preference primary every four years, is hardly that given the virtual meaninglessness of those contests in the state the last few elections and the low turnouts associated with them). They also are less likely to choose “no party” for the same reason (some might think strategically enough to choose the label to maintain flexibility, but these are very much the exception among those who call themselves independents, not the rule, research shows).

Therefore, over the next few years we can expect to see a surge of Republican registrations, a decline in Democrat registrations, and probably a minor decline in “no party” number in Louisiana. How will this specifically affect the parties and their candidates? Please return to this space tomorrow to find out.

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