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Another Cliffhanger 

Given the relatively short time span that candidates were given to mount citywide campaigns, it's no surprise that Ray Nagin and Mitch Landrieu -- the two best-known candidates -- led the pack in the April 22 mayoral primary in New Orleans. What was surprising to many was the lead Nagin put between himself and the rest of the pack.

Hizzoner got 38 percent of the vote to Landrieu's 29 percent. Ron Forman received 17 percent and Rob Couhig just under 10 percent. The rest got about 6 percent between them.

Although Nagin was obviously buoyed on election night by his first-place finish, he's still an incumbent who got less than 40 percent of the vote. Sixty-two percent of the voters wanted somebody else. The results thus hold plenty of good news and bad news for everyone, and both Nagin and Landrieu have a lot of work to do to win the May 20 runoff.

Their specific tasks are quite different, however.

For Nagin, it's mostly about turnout. For Landrieu, it's mostly about crossover votes.

In the primary, the overall turnout was just over 36 percent -- but that doesn't tell the whole story. There was, by most accounts, a significant "differential" between black and white turnout, with whites voting in proportions that were almost 20 percent higher than blacks. Historically, whites tend to turn out in higher proportions than blacks in primaries, but the gap generally narrows (or disappears) in runoffs -- particularly when runoffs feature black candidates running against white candidates.

While the historic differential concerns many black leaders, in recent elections it has not made much difference because black voters account for 63 percent of the city's electorate. Even with a typical differential of 8 to 12 percent, blacks still cast most of the votes by far on Election Day, and therefore black candidates rarely have to sweat the proportionately lower black voter turnout.

This time, however, the larger-than-average differential led to the anomalous scenario of blacks constituting only about 53 percent of the votes cast, with whites and "others" making up the difference. Nagin got roughly two-thirds of the black vote but only about 6 percent of the white vote. Assuming he increases his share of the black vote in the runoff to at least 75 percent and his share of the white vote to at least 15 percent, what Nagin really needs to do to win is pump up black turnout and eliminate -- or substantially reduce -- the differential. Conversely, the more white votes he gets, the less the differential matters. So far, it appears Nagin's campaign has concluded that it will be easier to increase black turnout than to get 20 percent of the white vote -- although Nagin will certainly aim to do both.

Landrieu's task is to stay the course and continue to get at least 25 percent of the black vote, which is roughly what he received in the primary. If he can increase his black vote to 30 percent, he can concede 15 percent or a little more of the white vote to Nagin and still win, regardless of turnout.

His campaign got off to a good start when he picked up Forman's endorsement last Monday -- the first full day of campaigning. The interesting thing about Forman's support, however, is that a significant number of the Audubon CEO's supporters really don't like Landrieu and will seriously consider supporting Nagin. That's ironic, because Forman's backers generally viewed him as the city's savior. Their fervor was such that they would have followed him to the ends of the earth -- but not necessarily into Landrieu's camp now that he's out of the running. We'll see if he can soften some of those attitudes in the coming weeks. If he can't, Landrieu will have to rely more on endorsements from credible black leaders than from his felled white opponents.

At this point, it appears we're headed for another classic New Orleans cliffhanger.

click to enlarge Ray Nagin's task is to close the gap in turnout. Mitch - Landrieu's is to hold or increase his crossover appeal.
  • Ray Nagin's task is to close the gap in turnout. Mitch Landrieu's is to hold or increase his crossover appeal.
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