Thursday, December 4, 2014

A "firefight into a footnote." Why Mary Landrieu's Racially Tinged Runoff Strategy Won't Save Her

Sen. Landrieu appears with Hillary Clinton at a recent rally in Louisiana. Photo courtesy of Gerald Herbert/A.P. The quoted portion of the title of this article is courtesy of a recent Sean Sullivan and Karen Tumulty piece for the Washington Post.

Sen. Mary Landrieu's campaign is flailing. Her ominous performance in the 2014 midterm, and her panicked (some would even call desperate) attempts at turning out black voters for the runoff this Saturday provide clear evidence of the perilous position she's in.

Just one month ago, Landrieu racked up her worst performance in her state's jungle primary since initially running for the seat in 1996. She captured just 42% of the vote, compared to her two main Republican primary opponent's combined 55%. Then, recently, came even more daunting news of her predicament - she was down in early voting in the runoff, as was African American turnout. As added insult, the DSCC has apparently chosen to stay out of the race all together.

To boot, of the five runoff surveys released since the November 4th jungle primary, Landrieu has trailed by no less than eleven points, and by as much as twenty-one points. That's near-irreversibly awful, especially for a three-term incumbent.

So it's no surprise Landrieu's latest campaign tactics have turned from merely aggressive, to potentially inciteful. Look no further than comments she made at a campaign rally just Tuesday, as reported by the Washington Post's Sean Sullivan, in which she claimed her Republican runoff opponent had been "disrespectful" to the Democratic President.

The inference she is making is clear. She was addressing a largely black audience, and was echoing comments originally directed at African-Americans in an ad by Democratic Congressman, Cedrick Richmond, who is also African-American.

When pressed further for an explanation of her comments, Landrieu explained:

"[Cassidy] refers to [Obama] by his last name. Constantly."

She added: "If you are going to refer to the president of the United States, he's at least earned the title that the people gave him when they elected him."

For what it's worth, Landrieu has had her own brushes with Presidential disrespect, according to the always objective Daily Kos.

But I digress. While Landrieu's campaign tactics as of late may seem off-putting, there's a definite purpose behind the attacks. The Democrat, if she has any chance of pulling off a miracle in Louisiana, is in dire need of historical black turnout, well beyond what was seen in the 2014 primary - or any recent statewide Louisiana race, for that matter. Why? Because in the 2014 primary, blacks comprised 65% of Sen. Landrieu's vote total, vs. just 2% of Bill Cassidy's.

In the 2014 primary, 29% of the primary electorate consisted of African American voters, according to the Louisiana Secretary of State's office. Yet Landrieu still finished well below the 50% threshold she would need to avoid the runoff. Such a feat would have required black turnout to approach the 40% level. Unfortunately for Landrieu, polls just aren't finding that - in fact, they're finding nothing near what she will need in terms of black turnout to survive.

Consider the three tables below. The first documents primary vs. runoff racial turnout in Louisiana in three scenarios: 1) 2012, when no major contests took place following a much-hyped general election; 2) 2003, when a competitive gubernatorial runoff occurred, and 3) 2002, when a contentious senatorial runoff took place. The second table shows you the racial make-up of the December 6th runoff electorate, as found by the five pollsters to poll the race since the November 4th primary. The third table documents and averages Landrieu's and Cassidy's share of the vote among racial demographics in post-November 4th runoff polling.

As the first table above notes, the shift in racial demographics between a jungle primary and a heavily contested runoff tend to vary little, as was the case in the 2002 Senate race and the 2003 Governor's race. But racial demographics can vary wildly from primary to runoff in situations where the competitive contest is settled without the need for a runoff, thus depriving the runoff of a marquee match-up. An extreme example of this would be the 2012 election, where the main event (Obama vs. Romney) was settled in November, depriving the December runoff of a major, vote-attracting contest.

There was a time when the Louisiana Senate runoff was thought to be a vital part of the soon-to-be Republican Senate majority. But Republicans won on election night with room to spare. A Landrieu loss would merely add to the GOP's already solid-majority.  So there's reason to believe that a fair drop in turnout in the runoff is at least possible.

Just for fun, let's examine how Mary Landreiu's poll numbers would hold up in such a situation. The table below reweights the average of runoff polling to a 2012-style drop off among black voters from the November 4th electorate. In other words, below would be the results of the average of polls if the white percentage of the electorate increases 5.3 pts from the primary (as it did in 2012), and the black share of the electorate decreases 3.8 pts ( the "other" share of the electorate also drops 1.5 pts).

In the event the white share of the electorate rises while the black share drops to a degree seen in 2012, Landrieu's average 15-pt deficit against Cassidy becomes a 20-pt deficit. Such a loss would put her in the company of Blanche Lincoln, Mark Pryor, or Rick Santorum, in terms of terrible incumbent defeats.

On the other end, what level of black turnout would be required for Landrieu to pull ahead of Cassidy in the average of runoff polls taken since November 4th? See below.

As you can see, blacks would have to make up ~40% of the runoff electorate for Landrieu to poll ahead of Cassidy. As the tables above point out, that is incredibly unlikely to happen, at least from a historical perspective.

So while Landrieu may be following the advice of her hired hands in stoking racial fears and tensions, it's highly unlikely to motivate the number of black voters needed to return to the polls for Landrieu to survive. Her only real hope lies in the fact that no survey of the Louisiana runoff has been conducted in the last two weeks (at least, none that has been publicly released). That's a lot of time in politics. But the tone her campaign has taken recently doesn't portend a late surge in support.

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