It’s a cliché to say an election will come down to turnout, but when the race is as close as Louisiana’s election for governor appears to be, the old expression is unavoidable.
A new poll by Baton Rouge-based JMC Analytics and Polling conducted Oct. 24-26 found incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, leading his Republican challenger Eddie Rispone, a first-time candidate, 48 percent to 46 percent. In a poll with a margin of error of 4 percent, that’s basically a dead heat.
The same poll found that, of the 6 percent who are undecided, 50 percent are leaning toward Edwards and 47 percent toward Rispone. The two candidates will face off in a televised debate Wednesday night, which is likely to be their last joint appearance before the Nov. 16 election.
In an interview, JMC founder John Couvillon said two main factors likely will determine the winner. The first is turnout among black voters, who overwhelmingly support Democrats.
The second will be how many supporters of Republican Congressman Ralph Abraham the Edwards campaign can pick up. In Louisiana elections, every candidate runs on the same ballot in the first round regardless of party; if no candidate gets more than half of the vote, the top two move on to the runoff.
In Louisiana’s Oct. 12 open primary, Edwards, an attorney and former Army Ranger, led with almost 47 percent of the vote. Rispone, the co-founder of a large industrial contracting business, earned a spot in the runoff with about 27 percent.
Abraham finished out of the running at 24 percent. Republican Patrick “Live Wire” Landry and conservative independent Gary Landrieu got about 1 percent each, while Democrat Oscar Dantzler also got 1 percent.
If Republicans get the same proportion of votes in the runoff as in the primary, Rispone wins. But Couvillon says that won’t necessarily be the case.
“If [Edwards] has a robust turnout operation, and let’s say you pick off a few Abraham voters, I see a path to victory for Gov. Edwards in the runoff, even if the numbers look slightly intimidating right now,” he said.
Some Abraham voters in north Louisiana may have supported him not for ideological or partisan reasons but because he’s from the same region of the state, and those votes won’t automatically transfer to Rispone, Couvillon said.
“I’m looking for 3 percent [of the Abraham vote],” Edwards said Monday during an appearance at the Baton Rouge Press Club. “Mr. Rispone’s looking for 23 percent.”
Asked about black turnout, he acknowledged it was down in the primary compared to his 2015 election but “only slightly so,” and professed feeling “very good” about the state of the campaign.
Republicans point to the primary results, with Edwards failing to get a majority, as a rejection of the incumbent. They say Republicans are united behind Rispone and expect continued attention from the national party will help them stay that way.
President Donald Trump visited Louisiana for a get-out-the-vote rally the night before election day. Vice President Mike Pence was in Baton Rouge for a fundraiser Monday, and state Republicans hope to see the president again before the runoff.
In a heavily Republican state where Trump is popular, Rispone has worked to tie himself to the president while Edwards has emphasized bipartisanship. Couvillon said Democrats’ impeachment inquiry helped motivate Republican turnout that started with early voting and was not necessarily tied to Trump’s election eve appearance.
Robert Collins, a professor of urban studies and public policy at Dillard University and former congressional staffer, said black turnout in the primary lagged behind white turnout by almost 10 percentage points. Almost half of white voters turned out, compared to a little more than 40 percent of potential black voters.
“That’s not a survivable number for a Democrat,” Collins said.
He believes the polarization of national politics has driven moderate rural whites away from the Democrats, and they’re not coming back. For Edwards, increasing black turnout may be the only way to win.
Collins wonders if the Edwards campaign will try to bring in a popular black figure, such as former President Barack Obama or Oprah Winfrey, to boost turnout in urban areas. That could alienate rural white voters, but if the Democrats have already lost those voters, they might not have anything to lose, Collins said.
He said the election might be seen as a “test case” by politicos nationwide. Edwards’ last victory was seen by some as an anomaly because he was facing former Sen. David Vitter, whose potential appeal was tarnished by a prostitution scandal.
If a pro-gun, anti-abortion Democrat like Edwards can’t win in Louisiana, some might conclude that Democrats should write off the South entirely.
“If [Republicans] are able to take John Bel out, I think the national Democrats are going to throw up their hands and say, ‘That’s it,’” Collins said. “'We might need to put our resources elsewhere.'”