Sunday, April 23, 2006
‘Crossover’ voting likely key to N.O. mayoral runoff
By Gordon Russell, Frank Donze and Michelle Krupa Staff writers
Mayor Ray Nagin is nothing if not unpredictable. Sailing toward an easy re-election just eight months ago, he was caught in the crosscurrents of Hurricane Katrina and left for dead by many political observers — only to rise, Lazarus-like, to a surprisingly strong first-place finish in Saturday’s primary, 9 percentage points ahead of runoff opponent Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu.
That said, Nagin is hardly a shoo-in for re-election. As many observers have pointed out, 62 percent of the 108,000 voters who cast ballots Saturday picked someone other than Nagin, a sign of serious trouble for an incumbent.
In a further complication for the mayor, it may be difficult for him to make additional inroads among black voters, who comprised the vast majority of his base in the primary. Although about two-thirds of black voters went with Nagin, most of those who didn’t — about 24 percent — cast their lot with Landrieu, according to an analysis by consultant Greg Rigamer.
The upshot, assuming that black voters stick with their primary selections, is that only 10 percent of the black vote is up for grabs in the runoff. Of that slice, Audubon Nature Institute chief Ron Forman took the biggest portion, with 4 percent, followed by the Rev. Tom Watson, who took 2 percent.
One possibility for Nagin would be to try to widen the pool of black voters, who were disproportionately forced to relocate after Katrina and whose participation in Saturday’s election was lower than usual.
“His challenge in the runoff is to expand the electorate: Bring in more, particularly African-American voters, (and) get higher turnout among the displaced and the African-American voters here, where he finished first,” University of New Orleans political scientist Susan Howell said Sunday on WWL-TV. “And that, I think, is his best chance.”
But expanding the black electorate may be an uphill battle.
Rigamer, for one, found the estimated black turnout of 31 percent impressive, given the displacement of tens of thousands of voters. In a typical mayoral election, the percentage of black voter participation usually runs in the low to mid-40s, he said.
Nagin already has renewed his call for Louisiana to set up satellite voting stations in out-of-state evacuee hubs. But with the Legislature having twice decided not to do so, Nagin’s remarks seem more aimed at making a rhetorical point than influencing policy. Landrieu also has endorsed satellite polling stations.
Unlike the black vote, the majority of the white vote — the portion nabbed by Forman and lawyer Rob Couhig in the primary — is ripe for the taking.
By Rigamer’s reckoning, Nagin polled just 6 percent among white voters Saturday, an astonishingly poor showing for a man who received about 90 percent of the white vote in the runoff four years ago against Richard Pennington, the former police chief and an African-American. But Landrieu hardly dominated the vote among white residents Saturday, claiming a 30 percent share.
That leaves about two-thirds of the white vote in play. And the story of the election will be who is able to reel in the bulk of it.
In Saturday’s primary, black and white residents voted in relative parity. Rigamer’s analysis shows black residents made up 52 percent of the electorate, with white residents and other races comprising the remainder. In a typical pre-Katrina election, black people generally made up 60 percent of the voting population.
In a nutshell, that means that Nagin will have to do about as well in the white community as Landrieu does in the black community. Assuming turnout remains relatively constant, Nagin’s share of the white vote would have to crack the 20 percent threshold for him to win, if Landrieu can hang on to the 24 percent share of the black vote that he won Saturday.
The runoff sets up a fascinating, and perhaps hopeful, scenario. Though New Orleanians have long voted along racial lines — a trend that one might expect to sharpen, given the balanced electorate and a runoff featuring a black candidate and a white one — the 2006 runoff could well break that tradition.
Never before in city history have a white candidate and a black candidate squared off and each received a “crossover” vote of at least 20 percent. The closest historical parallel would be the 1978 election, when Dutch Morial became the city’s first black mayor, propelled by about 21 percent of the white vote.
“I don’t think we’ll see a complete equilibrium, but it doesn’t take that much cross-racial voting to make a difference in the election,” Rigamer said.
Landrieu on Sunday touted his performance in the primary by repeating an election-night claim that is supported by an analysis of precinct results: His campaign drew support from a plurality of racial and ethnic groups across the city.
Landrieu, who sometimes faces the ire of those who detest the liberal leanings of his sister, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., also said he earned significant backing from business and labor interests and managed in a wide field to “represent the center” in a way “that does not polarize or divide anyone.”
Landrieu said Saturday night that he was not concerned that Nagin received the bulk of the black votes. “The truth of the matter is I got an equal amount of support in the African-American and white community, which I think speaks fairly large volumes about what direction the city wants to go in,” he said.
Indeed, the prospect of an election that is not a referendum on race appeared to delight Landrieu and Nagin, who broached the subject at his victory party Saturday.
“He’s a crossover candidate; I’m a crossover candidate,” Nagin said. “So I don’t think you’re going to have all one segment of one population voting for me and another segment all voting for him. We’re both going to be vying for crossover, so it’s going to make for a balancing of the message.”
Asked whether he thought that was good for the city, Nagin said he did.
“I was worried about some other candidates, if they had gotten in, it potentially could have been very divisive,” he said. “If we’re going to have a runoff, that’s probably the best one for the city.”
Whether Nagin is able to woo back much of the white constituency that once adored him will hinge on the answers to questions such as:
How much of Nagin’s poor showing among white voters can be attributed to their disappointment in him, versus their infatuation with one of the several well-financed white candidates in the primary? Should Nagin’s 38 percent showing be seen as a rebuke? And even if some conservative whites disapprove of Nagin, will they gravitate to Landrieu, scion of perhaps the state’s best-known Democratic family? Or will they return to the fold of Nagin, a businessman whose loyalty to the Democratic Party has been less than absolute?
“The basic vote that’s out there is the white conservative, so you have to have two Democrats appeal to white conservatives to get the vote to put them in office,” said Ed Renwick, director of Loyola University’s Institute of Politics, on WWL-TV on Sunday.
Nagin has already signaled that he will attempt to win back some of the white business leaders who once championed him.
“A big section of my former base is out there,” he said Saturday night. “They looked at another candidate .¤.¤. and I think those (voters) are definitely in play for us. I’m not going to just stand here and say they’re going to automatically come. But there is some logic that suggests that is a group that will be very fruitful for us.”
Landrieu, meanwhile, said he thinks those voters have expressed dissatisfaction with Nagin and are likely to wind up in his camp.
In his first public appearance since earning a runoff berth with 29 percent of the total vote, Landrieu depicted himself Sunday not as the primary’s second-place finisher, but as the only surviving candidate who can represent the majority who cast ballots Saturday for one of Nagin’s 21 challengers.
“Change is never, ever easy,” he said. “But this city, this great American city, cries out for change. If it didn’t, our incumbent mayor would have gone the way of past incumbents and yesterday won overwhelmingly. But 62 percent of the people have a different idea.”
Both Nagin and Landrieu are certain to angle for the endorsements of the losing candidates, in particular those of Forman, who got 17 percent, and Couhig, the only Republican to draw double digits, finishing in fourth place with 10 percent. They were the only non-runoff contenders to draw more than 2 percent of the vote.
Landrieu said he talked with both candidates early Saturday night but stopped short of saying they had promised to throw their support behind him. Forman could not be reached Sunday, but a campaign spokesman said he plans to speak with both runoff candidates and could make an endorsement as early as today.
Though no one in the Forman camp would speculate on the record about his intentions, advisers said Landrieu appears to be the likelier choice. The reason, they said, was Forman’s oft-stated position that post-Katrina New Orleans is in dire need of fresh, new leadership.
Couhig said he plans to “sit down and think about” whom he might endorse today. He would not say which candidate he is leaning toward.
Nagin, who described himself late Saturday as “absolutely exhausted,” stayed out of public view Sunday, save for attending morning Mass with his family at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in Treme.
Landrieu began his first day en route to the runoff by attending Mass with his family at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in the Central Business District. He dropped by Congo Square in the early afternoon for the debut of Wynton Marsalis’ newest musical exposition, then headed to a crawfish boil in the Carrollton neighborhood.
Speaking to reporters at the Hilton Riverside Hotel about noon, Landrieu took an unusually overt, though somewhat vague, swipe at Nagin’s first-term performance. In the primary campaign Landrieu generally only pounced on opponents who hit him first, which Nagin seldom did. Sunday’s move may have signaled a shift in political strategy.
“The city is not any better off today than it was four years ago,” Landrieu said. “The lack of progress over the last four years, combined with the devastation of Katrina, calls for urgent action and makes the case for change at City Hall.
“It’s time we had a mayor who really listens and takes immediate action to make our neighborhoods safe. When I’m mayor, the buck will stop here.”
Though the candidates said they want the runoff campaign to focus on issues, both have made it clear that they won’t be shy about pointing out their opponent’s deficiencies.
“At end of the day, we want somebody who’s going to help restore our national credibility,” Landrieu said Saturday night in an obvious dig at Nagin’s habit of making unscripted remarks, sometimes to mixed reviews. Landrieu also alluded to Nagin’s reputation for failing to reach out to fellow leaders.
“We want somebody who understands and respects the legislative process of both the City Council and the Legislature, and (who) can speak to the business community locally, statewide and nationally.”
Though Nagin laid low Sunday, it was clear late Saturday night that he will start to challenge Landrieu’s work during his 16 years in the state House.
“Based upon what I know about my opponent now, he doesn’t have a good business-friendly record,” Nagin said.
Nagin advocated a halt to the “bickering” that he said has dominated the post-Katrina discourse, but said he is looking forward to tussling with Landrieu.
“It’s one-on-one. It’s mano a mano. There’s no place to hide,” he said. “You know they were playing these little games (in debates) where they would ask a question of another candidate directed at me. You can’t do that anymore. You have to stand up as a man and say what you’re going to do and tell it like it is, and then the public’s going to decide.
“I love this.”
Frank Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3328. Michelle Krupa can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3312. Gordon Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 652-0952.