What Goes around, Comes Around: Race, Blowback, and the Louisiana Elections of 2002 and 2003

By Bejarano, Christina; Segura, Gary | Political Research Quarterly, June 2007 | Go to article overview

What Goes around, Comes Around: Race, Blowback, and the Louisiana Elections of 2002 and 2003


Bejarano, Christina, Segura, Gary, Political Research Quarterly


The authors contrast the 2002 Senate and 2003 gubernatorial runoffs in Louisiana, noting that the margin and the breadth of victory were greater for a gubernatorial candidate who enjoyed less political resources than her copartisan. The authors argue that the GOP's southern strategy has constrained its ability to diversify its coalition and contributed to the defeat of its nonwhite candidate for governor. Using aggregate parish level data and individual survey responses, the authors demonstrate that the customary polarization of whites in favor of Republican nominees was undermined in the 2003 election. The authors offer some thoughts on the implications of the findings.

Keywords: race; gender; elections; Louisiana

In the span of a single year, Louisiana held two high-profile elections with national interest. In 2002, the GOP hoped to expand its new Senate majority from one seat by unseating incumbent Mary Landrieu in a runoff election that took place a month after all other races had been decided. In 2003, Louisiana held its off-year gubernatorial election to replace the retiring Republican Mike Foster. In both instances, the GOP had every expectation of success. George Bush had carried the state in 2000, and the partisan trends in the South have been solidly in the OOP's favor for some time. However, in both instances the GOP candidates lost, though by different margins and with different coalitions. Apart from their national visibility, these elections had other things that set them apart. First, three of the four candidates were female. second, and more to our point here, the Republican in the gubernatorial election was nonwhite.

In the fall of 2003, Democrat Kathleen Babineaux Blanco was elected governor of Louisiana with a comfortable margin over her Republican rival, Bobby Jindal. Blanco won 52 percent of the vote and defeated Jindal by fifty-five thousand votes. Moreover, she outpolled Jindal in fifty-two of Louisiana's sixty-four civil parishes, a very broad-based victory. Preelection polls had predicted a Jindal win.1 For a Democrat, let alone a female Democrat, facing a former Bush administration official who was the handpicked successor to the outgoing Republican governor, this was a remarkable outcome.

The outcome is even more remarkable when we compare her performance to Senator Mary Landrieu, the junior senator from the state, another female Democrat, who had been reelected just eleven months before. The vote percentages look similarLandrieu polled 51.7 percent of the vote. But the nature of the victory was quite different, primarily with respect to the electoral coalitions. Though she was a well-financed incumbent with nearly universal name recognition, Landrieu defeated her rival, Susan HaikTerrell, by a smaller margin, forty-two thousand votes, and won in only thirty-five of Louisiana's sixty-four parishes, a more geographically concentrated victory. Moreover, given that the GOP candidate was also female, gender was less of an issue. The same preelection polls had even predicted Landrieu's reelection.2 The scope of the differences in the two outcomes is illustrated in Figure 1.

In the post-Civil Rights era, New Orleans has been the source of Democratic votes in Louisiana. In the 2003 gubernatorial election, New Orleans was responsible for 90.6 percent of Blanco's margin of victory. By contrast, in the 2002 Senate runoff, the margin in the city for Landrieu was 188 percent of her victory margin. That is, outside of New Orleans, Blanco still wins the state by 5,133 votes, whereas Landrieu would have lost her reelection bid by some 36,888 votes.

Democratic electoral fortunes in the South have long relied on voter strength among African Americans, and Mary Landrieu's reelection was no exception. Voters in primarily-black Orleans Parish accounted for her victory. Though the size of her majority was essentially the same, Blanco's path to electoral success, one not reliant on the city to provide electoral viability, is decidedly different and worthy of investigation. …

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