Reflecting back on the campaigns waged by the major candidates for governor in Saturday's primary, one can see the uniqueness of this election. Much of Louisiana's political wisdom -- or what passes for it -- has already been turned on its ear.
Let's start with the basics. Our unique open primary system has consistently given us runoff elections between candidates from the two extremes. Our first gubernatorial contest under this election system in 1979 gave us conservative Republican Dave Treen and then-populist Democrat Louis Lambert in the runoff. The next wide-open race for governor was eight years later, in 1987, when Buddy Roemer landed a runoff spot against Edwin Edwards. Four years later it was EWE versus David Duke in the runoff, and in 1995 we got Republican Mike Foster and Democrat Cleo Fields.
In each of those contests, early polls showed moderate candidates in the lead. But, as each race wore on, the electorate polarized and the middle ground gave way. Typically, the leading moderate saw his or her base eroded as conservative white voters migrated to the right and African Americans shifted leftward. In most primary elections, the leading candidates from the far left and the far right garnered less than a majority between them (the exception being EWE and Duke in 1991), yet still enough to finish first and second. The "moderate majority" was usually Balkanized into warring camps and voters were left to choose between extremes in the runoff.
Will that happen again this time?
Most observers, myself included, expected that trend to continue this time. As of the latest statewide voter surveys, however, it has not. Moderate Democrat Kathleen Blanco remains the front-runner or virtually tied for first. The popular two-term lieutenant governor is the only woman in the contest -- and don't underestimate the emotional power of that fact on the state's women voters, who compose nearly 55 percent of the electorate. From the get-go, she has maintained her lead among women and across Acadiana, which has been the "swing" vote in statewide elections since Huey Long was selling snake oil door to door.
Blanco is now under attack, and she could fade in the closing days. If she does not, she'll defy the historic trend by running up the middle all the way to the runoff.
Another new twist to this election is the fact that there is no single candidate with a hold on the state's African-American voters. In prior governor's races, one candidate stood out as the favorite among Louisiana's black citizens. This time there are four -- all Democrats. That's a big factor in Blanco's continued lead. If Richard Ieyoub, Buddy Leach or Randy Ewing could unite black voters, he probably could pass Blanco for a runoff spot. That's what this week's attacks are all about.
Here's another interesting historic trend: If you examine the final outcome of every governor's race since 1979, you see the state shifting left and right in perfect synchronicity every time we get a new governor -- through Mike Foster's election in 1991. Foster is the first Louisiana governor to win re-election since we adopted the open primary system. But back to the pendulum-like shift every four years. Conservative Republican Dave Treen won in 1979; populist Democrat Edwin Edwards won in 1983; conservative Democrat-then-Republican Buddy Roemer won in 1987; Edwards won again in 1995; then conservative Republican Foster won in 1991.
Does that mean our next governor will be a populist Democrat?
Trends over time are interesting to talk about, but they aren't predictors. Anything can happen, which is why we run the race. In the end, one must never forget the only rule of politics: every election is a unique event.
This one is no exception.