Why Is Mary Landrieu in So Much Trouble?

Why Is Mary Landrieu in So Much Trouble?

By Sean Trende - October 23, 2014

It happens like clockwork.  Every six years, observers start the cycle predicting the demise of Louisiana’s Sen. Mary Landrieu.  Every six years, they are proven wrong, as she somehow pulls off an improbable victory.

But this year might really be different.  For the first time, Landrieu trails badly as we approach the November primary.  Her saving grace in 2008 – historically high black turnout – seems unlikely to materialize this cycle, while her saving grace in 2002 – a runoff coalition that favored her – seems impossible to re-create.

To really understand this, we need to understand three basic things about Louisiana.  The first is that there is a historic Catholic/Protestant divide in the state, with Protestants occupying the northern half of the state and Catholics dominating the South:

Second, there is a black/white divide, with relatively heavy black populations in the parishes along the northern edge of the state, in the string of parishes along the Louisiana-Mississippi border, along the Mississippi River to New Orleans, and, to a lesser extent, in a diagonal across the state in the parishes abutting the Red River.

Finally, you need to put these things together to understand Louisiana political development. It might be helpful to watch this animated .gif tracing the Partisan Index of the state (that is, the Republican two-party vote share in Louisiana less the Republican two-party vote share nationally) across the last 80 years.  But here are the highlights:

Louisiana entered the Great Depression overwhelmingly Democratic:

But over the course of the Roosevelt/Truman years, it gradually shifted toward the Republican Party. By 1956, it was basically a swing state at the national level.  The basic political dynamic had become a Protestant North vs. a Catholic South, with some variation:

In some years, this divide was pretty strong, as in 1960 (which mirrored the national divide between Kennedy and Nixon),

or 1964:

Other years, the divide wasn’t as strong, though it was still identifiable. Born-again Christian Jimmy Carter did reasonably well in the northern part of the state, though not as well as he did in the Catholic South.  Also note that by this time, African-Americans had become substantial players in Southern politics, and they added a new dimension to the Democratic coalition:

This divide — north/south-black/white — defined the state in the 1980s.

It continued into the 1990s:

People might be surprised to learn that Bill Clinton carried Louisiana twice. It was very much at the center of the nation, politically speaking, in 1996; Clinton carried it by 12 points that year.  That was also the year that Mary Landrieu won the seat of the retiring J. Bennett Johnston by about 5,000 votes out of 1.7 million cast.

But the state was preparing to shift again.  In 2000, for the first time, the north-south divide broke down:

Landrieu was forced to run for re-election in 2002 in a state that had moved out from under her, when a president of the opposing party had a job approval in the 60s.  She failed to clear 50 percent in the primary and was forced into a runoff.  Perhaps most disconcertingly for Landrieu, Republicans totaled about 35,000 more votes than Democrats in the primary.

Yet by the runoff election, control of the Senate was no longer at stake.  Landrieu enjoyed heavy support in the African-American parishes along the Mississippi, but also ran well in Acadiana in the South and some of the parishes in the northwest.

In 2004, the north-south divide broke down even more, and the state moved further to the right:

The state also elected its first Republican senator since Reconstruction that year: David Vitter. More importantly, he won outright, avoiding a runoff.

Many people thought that Landrieu’s goose was truly cooked at the beginning of the 2008 cycle. Indeed, the state moved further rightward at the presidential level that year:

Landrieu also had a stronger opponent than in 2002, when she had faced Suzanne Haik Terrell. Perhaps most importantly, Hurricane Katrina had dispersed portions of the state’s African-American population, which was a crucial portion of the Democratic coalition.

But Landrieu won yet again:

The heavily white parishes reddened somewhat. But Landrieu still managed to put together a winning coalition by riding a surge in African-American turnout accompanying the Obama campaign, and winning just enough whites in the remainder of the state.

So why should we believe that 2014 is different?  Couldn’t she reassemble her 2002 or 2008 coalitions?

There are a few “big picture” things to address. First, for the first time in her career, Landrieu is running for re-election with an unpopular Democratic incumbent president.  Second, her position in the polls is increasingly precarious.  In 2002, when she last faced a runoff, she still managed 46 percent of the vote in the primary. Today she polls around 38 percent and has struggled to clear 46 percent in runoff polling.

But the real problem Landrieu has is that her 2002 and 2008 coalitions seem nearly impossible to reassemble.  The 2002 runoff coalition suffers from the fact that the “normal” Democratic coalition is still down from 2002.  Consider: In 2000, the population of Orleans Parish was 484,674. In 2010 it was 343,829. So, there has been a huge drop-off of adults. If we assume that 40 percent of these adults would vote, this translates to 57,000 fewer voters.

Assume further that Democrats had a 60-point edge in this group (Obama received 80 percent in Orleans Parish in 2012). That's about 34,000 net Democratic voters lost from 2002. Landrieu won her 2002 runoff by 42,000 votes, so she would have no room for erosion in the rural areas of the state.  Of course, there are also other parishes outside of Orleans that lost population, but they tend to be from the more Democratic portions of the state.

Landrieu could also try for the 2008 coalition, but the problem there is generating sufficient turnout.  Consider: If we take Landrieu’s vote shares from 2008 (losing whites 29-65; winning blacks 96-2) and apply these numbers to the 2010 electorate (71 percent white, 24 percent black), Landrieu would still lose, albeit narrowly.

But the biggest problem – and this applies to both the 2002 and 2008 coalitions – is that it just isn’t clear that Landrieu can re-create her earlier performances among whites against a non-problematic Republican candidate.

In 2008, majority white Southern districts still elected moderately conservative Democrats to Congress on a pretty regular basis.  Alabama’s delegation consisted of three Democrats and four Republicans; Arkansas sent three Democrats and one Republican to the House; Mississippi had three Democrats and one Republican; Tennessee had five Democrats and four Republicans. Of those 14 Democrats, two were non-white.

Today, those states send a combined four Democrats to Congress, only two of whom are white (one of those two represents an African-American-majority district in Tennessee).  This trend has been replicated across the South. Polarization means that, just as it is more difficult for Republicans to win in New England, even in good years, it is very difficult for Democrats to win conservative Southern districts, especially in bad years.  This is why David Vitter managed to defeat a conservative Southern Democrat, who was a good fit for the state, by 20 points in 2010, despite suffering a prostitution scandal.

[Update: A reader has brought to my attention a poll that Democratic pollster Democracy Corps conducted of 1,000 Louisiana whites. It finds Landrieu winning 25 percent of the white vote. Had Landrieu won 25 percent of the white vote in 2008, rather than 33 percent, she’d have lost by four points or so, even with heightened black turnout.] 

Of course, it would be a mistake to write Landrieu off completely, at least until we get the primary results and some pre-election polling.  But given everything that has happened in the state over the course of the past decade, it’s hard to see how she pulls this one out.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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