What Foster Campbell Faces
One year ago this week, Democrat John Bel Edwards won the governor’s office in Louisiana, a very red state. The feat, which was unexpected by many in the early phase of the campaign (including me), must look awfully enticing to Foster Campbell’s U.S. Senate campaign today.
Edwards hit both components of the so-called 30-30 formula, Democrat's oft-cited path to victory in statewide elections throughout the Deep South. The two components are:
- Black voters cast at least 30 percent of votes in the election; and
- More than 30 percent of white voters support the Democrat.
The targets are based on simple arithmetic. Democrats in Louisiana tend to win 90 to 95 percent of votes cast by blacks. So, if blacks cast 30 percent of all votes in an election, then the Democratic candidate likely gets 27 to 28.5 percent of the total vote right there.
When blacks make up 30 percent of the electorate, the white share tends to be about 66 or 67 percent (with the remaining three or four percent of votes cast by individuals who identify as neither black nor white). So, winning 30 percent of these white votes, gives the Democrat another 20 percent of all votes. Then, a simple majority among non-black, non-white voters could be enough to push the Democrat over 50 percent of all votes.
In last year's gubernatorial runoff, blacks cast 30.3 percent of ballots (almost all of which went to Edwards) and about 40 percent of whites voted for Edwards. The Democrat came out with a 12 point win over U.S. Senator David Vitter.
Just a year earlier, however, Democratic U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu lost reelection when her share of the white vote was only about half the size of what Edwards won in 2015 - despite robust black turnout.
Today, Louisiana's elections turn more on the share of the white vote won by Democrats than on black turnout. Unfortunately for Campbell, what happened in to Landrieu in 2014 is far more typical than what happened to Edwards in 2015.
Blacks casting 30 percent of votes is feasible, but perhaps a little more difficult in 2016.
In recent Louisiana elections, black voters have done their part to assemble a winning Democratic coalition. Blacks make up 31 percent of the state’s voting age population and match this share in registration. However, because the turnout rate for blacks tends to be lower than whites, the black share of the electorate tends to under-represent the black share of the voting age population.
Since 2000, the black share of the electorate has been between 23.6 to 30.6 percent. When the gap between the black and white turnout rates is smallest – about three or four percentage points – blacks cast 30 percent or more of all ballots in the state.
This is exactly what happened in three of the last four final-round elections (i.e., excluding primaries that went to a runoff): The 2012 presidential election, the 2014 U.S. Senate runoff, and the 2015 runoff for governor. In fact, these are the only elections since 2000 in which the black share of the electorate hit 30 percent.
This year’s presidential election broke the streak when the black share of the electorate dropped to 28.5 percent. The drop in black turnout has drawn has been pointed out as something Campbell will have to turn around to win a runoff.
Yet, even this is not terribly daunting. The November 8th black share of the electorate falls right between the shares for the 2014 and 2015 primaries, both of which grew to over 30 percent for the runoff. In 2014, turnout dropped for both blacks and whites but by nearly twice as much for the latter as the former. In 2015, black turnout grew from the primary to the runoff even as white turnout remained about the same. This year the turnout rate will fall from the primary to the runoff for both racial groups because there will be no presidential contest at the top of the ticket. Campbell is likely hoping he can keep the drop smaller among blacks than among whites.
White votes are harder to get than ever for Louisiana Democrats.
Despite blacks making up 30 percent of the electorate in three recent Louisiana elections, Democrats have only won one of these contests. This is because they have stumbled over the second part of the 30-30 formula. White support for Democrats in the state has plummeted.
Consider presidential elections. Although Hillary Clinton appears to have done slightly worse among white voters nationally in 2016, the share of the white vote going to the Democratic nominee has remained close to 40 percent. In Louisiana, however, the share has fallen from about a third for Bill Clinton in the 1990s to the low teens for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Even when blacks cast 30.64 of votes in 2012, it simply wasn’t enough for Obama to carry the state when only 13 percent of whites backed him.
The drop in white support for Democrats is not limited to presidential elections. The career of Mary Landrieu in the U.S. Senate illustrates this nicely. From her initial election in 1996 through her reelection bids in 2008 and 2012, Landrieu captured about a third of the white vote – enough for her to win relatively close contests by less than a point, four points, and six points respectively.
Then in 2014 – despite a relatively strong turnout from black voters – Landrieu lost in a runoff to Republican Bill Cassidy when she secured only about 20 percent of the white vote.
No doubt, the Campbell campaign would prefer to look to the 2015 win for Democrat John Bel Edwards, perhaps contending that 2012 and 2014 were unusual for Democrats because of the unpopularity of President Obama among whites in the state. Perhaps, but the results for Hillary Clinton in Louisiana - and all the Democratic U.S. Senate candidates in the primary combined - suggest otherwise. It's also worth remembering that if any election is unusual it is probably the one that featured an exceptionally flawed and unpopular Republican candidate (that would be 2015).
A Democratic win in a statewide race is an increasingly rare accomplishment in Louisiana politics - it's happened only three times in the last 25 tries (counting all presidential, U.S. Senate, and statewide elected offices for state government in Louisiana since 2007).
Trends over the past two decades in the white vote are why and they suggest 2014 is a more likely outcome than 2015.