The 2015 race for Louisiana governor enters its final week looking very much like it has looked for months — with frontrunners John Bel Edwards and David Vitter ahead of the four-man field of major candidates. Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle trail, each hoping for a Hail Mary to catapult him into the Nov. 21 runoff.
Although the primary returns may wind up looking fairly predictable, the campaign has taken some interesting turns throughout. Super PACs have dominated the fundraising scene and accounted for the vast majority of attack ads on television and radio. And despite the heated commercials, voter interest remains below that of last year's hotly contested race for U.S. Senate.
Another interesting twist: Early Republican frontrunner Vitter, the state's senior U.S. senator, fell from a once-commanding lead of 38 percent in springtime surveys to somewhere in the mid-20s by September — trailing lone Democrat Edwards, who started far back in the pack but now looks to finish first on Saturday with more than 30 percent of the vote. Dardenne and Angelle are Republicans.
Vitter also has seen his voter approval rating turned upside down in the last few months — as voters were reminded of his past scandals. In July, his 41 percent "favorable" rating easily outpaced his 30 percent "unfavorable" number. Now those figures are reversed. A survey released last week by the Louisiana State University (LSU) Public Policy Research Lab showed Vitter with just 30 percent "favorable" compared to 41 percent "unfavorable" ratings among voters statewide.
The other three candidates continue to draw mostly favorable reviews from voters, though all have seen their "unfavorable" numbers increase in the wake of a torrent of attack ads — most of them from the Vitter camp.
"I think it's mostly going the way that we would expect," says LSU pollster and political scientist Michael Henderson, director of the Public Policy Research Lab at the Reilly Center for Media and Public Policy. "You have a prominent candidate — Vitter — with a lot more early name recognition than his opponents as well as a strong organization and deep pockets. He's in position to make a strong play in the primary. He's still polling reasonably well and he's definitely in the running. The fact that he's been able to maintain that advantage is not surprising. Nor is it surprising that recent polls show the race getting closer. That often happens. We don't know yet if that tightening effect is enough to take him out of the contest. The typical pattern is the frontrunner more often than not remains the frontrunner."
University of New Orleans pollster and political scientist Ed Chervenak agrees that Vitter had a good shot at making the runoff going into the final week.
"Vitter is playing it strategically, but he's leaving himself open to attacks," Chervenak says of the senator's decision to severely limit his public appearances. "His behavior is just like [Gov.] Bobby Jindal's — absent at critical junctures, such as debates — and voters are not happy with Jindal. It's going to be interesting to see who the bigger bogeyman is going to be in the runoff, assuming it's between Vitter and Edwards: Will it be Jindal for Vitter, or President Obama for Edwards? Both are very unpopular."
A late September survey for WWL-TV and The Advocate by Washington-based Clarus Research Group showed Jindal even more unpopular in Louisiana than Obama. The Republican Governors Association Super PAC has already started airing TV ads tying Obama to Edwards. It remains to be seen if — and when — Edwards will try to hang Jindal around Vitter's neck. Vitter endorsed Jindal for re-election in 2011 in glowing terms, describing him as "honest and competent." Edwards, meanwhile, has been able to conserve most of his resources. "He has a pretty easy path into the runoff," Henderson says. "He's likely to get his votes, so it makes strategic sense for him to preserve his resources for the runoff."
University of Louisiana-Lafayette political scientist G. Pearson Cross agrees. "The governor's race demonstrates that the fundamentals of Louisiana politics remain intact," he says. "African-Americans won't pull the lever for a Republican, geographical regions still count for something, and name-recognition trumps all."
Polls consistently show Edwards getting the lion's share of black votes — in increasing amounts as the primary draws near. "What the race presents are two candidates most identified by their party — Vitter and Edwards," Cross says, "while Angelle and Dardenne struggle to expand their regional strength — Acadiana and Baton Rouge, respectively — statewide."
Interestingly, surveys also show Edwards leading Vitter by increasing margins in head-to-head runoff matchups. However, polls cannot predict this far out how people will vote six weeks hence, especially after attack ads hone in on just two candidates. Louisiana is, after all, a decidedly "red" state.
The wild card in a Vitter-Edwards runoff is Vitter's controversial past — his prostitution scandal and rumors of other possible scandals — and his longstanding refusal to subject himself to media interviews or to more than one or two live, unscripted debates.
Another twist in the governor's contest is the sudden importance of Super PACs, which came into being after a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing corporations, unions and individuals to contribute unlimited amounts of money to "independent" political action committees. Super PACs have since turned even local elections into national contests, upending the late Tip O'Neill's time-honored maxim, "All politics is local."
"This is the first time in the long history of Louisiana politics that Super PACs have played in a governor's race," says Jeremy Alford, publisher of the weekly digital LaPolitics.com report. "They've changed the tone of the race in that candidates now have someone else to sling mud instead of having to do it on their own. I think it also has affected the mood of the electorate in that negative ads may be wearing thin. In the last few weeks we've seen Vitter, Dardenne and Edwards go a little softer in their own ads after weeks of either being on the attack or responding to attacks."
When it comes to fundraising, Alford says, it's tough to compete with the pro-Vitter Super PAC known as the Fund for Louisiana's Future. "They have completely changed the fundraising landscape for generations to come," says Alford, who has tracked Super PACs in the governor's race from day one. "Forty percent of all money being brought into this race for governor has been raised by Super PACs — from January 1 of 2014 through the latest reporting period."
Cross minces no words in his assessment of the negative impact of Super PACs. "We're entering a very different political future when raising money from the general public for spending by the candidate directly becomes far less relevant to political success than support from a Super PAC," he says. "This may be a lot of things, but one thing it's not is good for democracy."
Chervenak adds that challengers will find it more difficult than ever to raise money because Super PACs tend to favor incumbents. "It's always been easier for incumbents to raise money, but now they can raise unlimited amounts of money, giving them even more of an advantage," he says.
How does all this affect voters?
Polls consistently show relatively low voter interest in the race, despite a barrage of advertising — mostly Vitter attacking his two GOP rivals, with Angelle and Dardenne returning fire in recent weeks.
LSU's Henderson says voter interest at this late stage of the campaign is still 10 points lower (at around 40 percent) than it was just before last year's red-hot U.S. Senate race. UNO's Chervenak describes voter interest this year as "tepid."
"The tone of the campaign for governor has turned a lot of people off," says Chervenak. "The Republicans are in a circular firing squad launching one attack after another."
Early voting ended this past weekend. Polls open Saturday at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.