If current polling trends hold, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s path to a fourth term is extraordinarily narrow, although she is clinging to a slight advantage in the race as an incumbent and chairwoman.
Open primary polls consistently show Landrieu falling short of a majority needed to avoid a December runoff, while recent polling of runoff scenarios between the New Orleans Democrat and Congressman Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, show a tight race within or near the margin of error.
This will not be Landrieu’s first close election. She coasted to a 6-point victory in 2008 over Treasurer John Kennedy and her first re-election campaign in 2002 ended with a 4-point win over Suzanne Haik Terrell, who was serving as the state’s last election commissioner.
Both election results represented an incremental expansion of Landrieu’s constituency beyond the 50.1 percent she won in her historically tight 1996 victory over Woody Jenkins.
A closer look at the parish-level results from these three elections, along with the 1984 and 1990 Senate races won by Democrat J. Bennett Johnston, reveals some dynamics that could be factors this fall. There are a wide range of other issues at play in this race that transcend geography, including President Barack Obama's dismal popularity among Louisiana voters, Landrieu's endorsement of health care reform and the prospect of lower black turnout in a midterm election than in 2008.
Louisiana Democratic Party and Landrieu campaign officials aren't publicly offering any insights into their parish-level strategy this fall.
"We're focused on targeting and talking with individual voters about the issues that matter to them, and we're building the grassroots infrastructure to do just that," said Landrieu Campaign Communications Director Fabien Levy. "A voter in Tensas Parish counts the same as a voter in Orleans Parish, and we're going to make sure every single Landrieu voter turns out this November, no matter where they live."
Here are a few things that jump out when focusing on election returns at the parish level:
— Landrieu’s 1996 win was geographically narrow, with the Democrat claiming only 25 parishes to Jenkins’ 39. She has expanded her reach throughout the state since, particularly in rural parishes, carrying 38 parishes in 2008. However, her share of those rural parishes declined in 2008, as John Couvillon with JMC Enterprises of Louisiana notes in his April analysis of Landrieu’s chances. Couvillon argues that Landrieu's 2002 results in rural parishes were also likely bolstered by her opposition to an unpopular Bush administration deal to increase sugar imports from Mexico. Whether she can maintain support in these parishes this fall is an open question.
— The 2008 election was the first time Landrieu carried the parishes of Jefferson, Plaquemine and St. Bernard. In 1996, Jenkins roundly defeated Landrieu among Jefferson voters, who favored the Republican candidate by a margin of 26,424 votes. Landrieu closed the gap six years later but still lost the parish to Terrell by more than 14,000 votes. In 2008 Landrieu, who was by then the state’s senior senator, reversed the trend in Jefferson and took the parish by a 12,000-vote margin. That’s a 20-point swing in one of the state’s most populous parishes over three election cycles. It’s worth noting that such a dramatic shift came in a parish that favored John McCain over President Barack Obama by 26 points. Many close observers, including Couvillon,
— Over time Landrieu has managed to turn blue 10 parishes that David Duke carried in his infamous 1990 run against incumbent Sen. J. Bennett Johnston. She has won Avoyelles, Webster, Red River and Concordia (each in 1996, 2002 and 2008); Catahoula (2002); Evangeline, Washington and Morehouse (2002 and 2008); as well as Jefferson and St. Bernard (2008).
— Acadiana has been a mixed bag for Landrieu. She’s never carried Lafayette or Acadia parishes and she has both won and lost in St. Landry, Vermilion, Iberia, St. Martin and Evangeline.
— Landrieu has never lost Calcasieu Parish. Former President Bill Clinton’s 1996 campaign stop in Lake Charles may have helped her narrowly defeat Jenkins in the southwest Louisiana parish later that year, and she has increased her advantage ever since — outperforming Obama in Calcasieu by 14 points in 2008.
— The 2008 election represented the height of Landrieu’s federal electoral popularity around the state. Her 38 parishes and 988,298 votes were the most she has ever received in a Senate election. Yet Landrieu’s victory that year was not the most decisive ever earned by a Louisiana Democratic in a Senate race. That honor belongs to Johnston, who swept all 64 parishes in 1984.