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A Fight for the Middle 

A lot of Democrats are looking at the turnout figures from the Oct. 4 open primary and scratching their heads. Voter turnout overall was low -- below 50 percent statewide -- and lower still among African-American voters. GOP strategists, meanwhile, are licking their chops at the prospect of another low turnout in the Nov. 15 runoff.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, the Democrat in the runoff, needs a strong showing among black voters to clinch victory. Otherwise, Republican Bobby Jindal has a better-than-average chance to win.

A lot of folks have weighed in as to why black turnout was so low in the primary. Truth is, the lower turnout on Oct. 4 was merely the latest example of a trend that has developed since the mid-1990s. It's traceable to several factors:

1. The Motor Voter Law. Over the past decade, a lot of new voters have come onto the rolls because of the Motor Voter Law, which practically forces people to register when they get their driver's licenses. Before that law, roughly a third of those eligible to vote didn't even register -- mostly because they just didn't give a damn. Now just about all of them are registered ... but they still don't give a damn. So they don't vote. Never did. But now when they don't vote, it "counts" in tabulating turnout.

But that's only part of the explanation. The fact is, even by previous standards, turnout has declined, particularly among black voters. Other factors help explain why.

2. Fewer Housing Projects. Until the late 1980s, huge clusters of poor, undereducated black voters lived in public housing developments in large cities. In New Orleans, various political organizations sprang up to galvanize and organize voter turnout in and around the projects -- and in black neighborhoods in general. Over the last decade, many of the projects have been demolished and their residents have scattered. The organizations' "base" has thus dispersed, and many of the votes they once could deliver are simply not there.

3. The Growing Black Middle Class. One of the bright spots on New Orleans' social and economic fronts over the last 20 years has been the emergence of a strong black middle class. Middle-class voters, regardless of their color, are chronic voters -- but they don't need anybody telling them how to vote. This does not explain low turnout, but it does explain the organizations' loss of power and influence.

4. Multiple Choice. In every statewide election since 1971, black voters knew up front who their friend was in the governor's race. It was either Edwin Edwards or a black congressman (Cleo Fields in 1995 and Bill Jefferson in 1999). Not this time. Four Democrats ran for governor, and each had a legitimate message in black precincts. Thus, black voters were not galvanized behind a single candidate with a crusader-like appeal. Faced with multiple choices, many simply stayed home.

5. No Bogeyman. This factor is closely related to the one immediately above. In addition to having several friendly faces in the crowded field, African-American voters also had no obvious enemy -- that is, no David Duke. With no dragon to slay, the palette of relatively milquetoast Democrats failed to inspire a major turnout.

6. Passed Them By. A number of African-American leaders were said to be handsomely rewarded for their endorsements of Democrat Buddy Leach in the primary. It was not money well spent. The black leaders and groups Leach retained failed to take note of the first few factors listed above, and the end result is that the game has evolved -- and passed them by. They simply don't matter any more.

Looking ahead to Nov. 15, is there reason to think that things will be different?

Maybe.

For starters, the choice for African-American voters is clearer now. The race is down to one Democrat and one Republican. Each candidate's positions and philosophy will get more attention and will be more familiar to all voters. The Democratic Party also will be weighing in with a "unity" message in support of Blanco, and much of the party's efforts will be focused on turnout in black precincts.

Still, there are no guarantees.

That means the real fight in this runoff could be for the middle. If Blanco cannot be absolutely sure of a major black turnout, she'll need an even larger share of the "white middle" than she got in the primary. So far, Jindal does not appear to be making much of a case for himself as a moderate, but that should change soon.

The field is wide open.

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