The 2016 presidential race has already seen lots of interesting twists, and another one is coming Saturday, March 5: Louisianans will cast ballots in national party nominating primaries in which their voices mean much more than usual. The Democratic and Republican nominations are far from settled, which is causing some heartburn in both parties (particularly the GOP). This year it means six states — Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Nebraska and Louisiana — will be heard this coming weekend.
Consider that in 2012 Louisiana Democrats easily coalesced around incumbent President Barack Obama, while Republicans chose between former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (the eventual nominee), and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Nearly half of Louisiana Republicans backed Santorum, who had the evangelical vote sewn up.
This year, things are a lot less certain, thanks to bombastic GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, whose no-holds-barred campaign has confounded pundits and left his opponents flummoxed — and jockeying for position. Both Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz would love to corner that evangelical vote this time around, while Ohio Gov. John Kasich hopes to gain visibility by staying on the high ground and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson struggles to remain relevant.
Cruz is as nakedly ambitious a presidential candidate as we've seen since North Carolina's former Sen. John Edwards sought the Democratic nomination. Rubio may indeed be, as he claimed early on, "the future of the Republican party," but it's not clear yet if his future is now. Despite Trump's lack of traditional evangelical bona fides, he's shown surprising strength among self-identified Christian voters. That could help him in Louisiana.
On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hoped to have the nomination locked up by now, but Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has electrified the party's progressive wing, vexing insiders and forcing Clinton to shore up her left flank at a time she'd rather run toward the center.
A Feb. 17 survey by Public Policy Polling showed Clinton with a 31-point lead over Sanders in Louisiana (due largely to her support among African-Americans). Still, Clinton is taking no chances — hence her high-profile endorse-ments from U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo, former Sen. Mary Landrieu and Mayor Mitch Landrieu (who referred to Sanders' "tooth fairy ideas" when endorsing Clinton). Sanders leads among young voters, who historically vote in smaller numbers — but he inspires staunchly liberal Democrats.
This Tuesday — March 1 — is "Super Tuesday," when 12 states will vote or caucus. By the March 15 primaries, we may have a better idea of who the nominees will be. If Trump still leads the GOP field, it will be interesting to see if some Republicans begin to talk openly about a brokered convention.
No matter what happens, this year's presidential nomination process has been historic. That's why it's more important than ever that Louisianans who are registered Democrat or Republican show up in force this Saturday.