By Robert Mann
It’s a safe bet that every day someone advises Sen. Mary Landrieu to move further to the right if she wants to win re-election in 2014.
But are any advisors telling her Republican opponent, Rep. Bill Cassidy, that he should move a bit leftward?
If they’re smart, they will.
It’s an article of faith that in a reliably red state like Louisiana, Democrats must run as “Light Republicans” to stay in office.
No doubt, Louisiana is a very conservative state. President Barack Obama lost the state’s nine electoral votes in 2008 to John McCain and again in 2012 to Mitt Romney, earning roughly 40 percent of vote each time. In his 2010 re-election bid, Sen. David Vitter trounced Charlie Melancon. Gov. Bobby Jindal, of course, cruised to victory in 2011 against token opposition.
So, it is reasonable to say that the surest way to win a Louisiana election is to move as far right as possible?
If you’re running for a U.S. House seat in Shreveport, Monroe, Metairie or Baton Rouge, that might be good advice. But in a statewide race, it’s not that simple.
This is a state, after all, in which Obama is now more popular than Jindal.
Jindal’s extreme version of conservatism appears to be wearing thin with voters who liked his conservative rhetoric but aren’t quite as fond of his conservative policies — like privatizing health care, blowing up the tax system and slashing education funding.
Of course, running for the U.S. Senate isn’t the same as running Louisiana government. The latter is much more difficult.
But Jindal’s recent experience with public opinion might offer Cassidy an important lesson: it’s easy to forget that voters aren’t always quite as conservative as some politicians assume.
For instance, consider the issue of universal background checks for gun purchases. When Landrieu announced her support for the Manchin-Toomey amendment, conservatives fiercely assailed her vote.
Typical of the attacks was this commentary in a Louisiana political site, The Hayride:
Louisiana is no less jealous of its gun rights than Alaska, Arkansas and Montana are. We just have a Democrat senator who’s a bit less in tune with our voters than those states do – despite Landrieu’s protestations to the contrary.
One suspects Mary will pay the price for that tone-deaf attitude when she goes up for re-election. After all, her vote didn’t decide the outcome; she did nobody any good with today’s “yes” on the Manchin-Toomey bill.
Cassidy himself commented on Landrieu’s vote, telling the New Orleans Times-Picayune
At this point in our history, when Americans feel their freedoms are under assault by the federal government, the Manchin-Toomey proposal should have been opposed. Law abiding citizens should not be treated as part of the problem. Therefore, Congress should act thoughtfully and not pass legislation that expands the scope and size of government.
So, was Landrieu’s vote that unpopular with her constituents?
PPP’s newest round of polling finds that [North Carolina Sen.] Kay Hagan and Mary Landrieu helped their cause for reelection with their recent votes in support of background checks for gun sales. More than 70% of voters in each of their states support such checks, and their constituents say they’re more likely to vote for them next year because of their votes.
In Louisiana 72% of voters say they favor background checks to only 20% who are opposed. There is strong bipartisan backing with Democrats (81/13), independents (73/20), and Republicans (61/29) all expressing at least 2:1 support. 45% of voters in the state say they’re now more likely to support Landrieu for reelection because she voted for background checks, compared to only 25% who say they’re now less likely to vote for her. Landrieu has also seen a 6 point improvement in her net approval rating from the last time we polled the state in February, from +2 then at 47/45 to now +8 at 49/41.
The poll was really no surprise to anyone who follows public opinion on this issue. Even NRA members overwhelmingly support background checks.
So why do so many people believe Landrieu’s vote was so risky and potentially deadly to her re-election chances? (I argued strongly at the time that it was not.)
One explanation for this mistaken belief might be found in a fascinating new study, “What Politicians Believe About Their Constituents.” In their research, political scientists David E. Broockman and Christopher Skovron found that
[p]oliticians consistently and substantially overestimate support for conservative positions among their constituents on these issues [universal health care and same-sex marriage]. The differences we discover in this regard are exceptionally large among conservative politicians: across both issues we examine, conservative politicians appear to overestimate support for conservative policy views among their constituents by over 20 percentage points on average. In fact, on each of the issues we examine, over 90% of politicians with conservative views appear to overestimate their constituents’ support for conservative policies. This misperception is so large that nearly half of sitting conservative ofﬁceholders appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than the most conservative legislative district in the entire country despite the fact that over half of these ofﬁceholders actually support positions more conservative than their own districts’ median voter. Comparable ﬁgures for liberal politicians also show a slight conservative bias: in fact, about 70% of liberal ofﬁceholders typically underestimate support for liberal positions on these issues among their constituents. These differences by elite ideology persist among all varieties of politicians: those from highly professionalized legislative bodies, those running in competitive elections, and those who have been in ofﬁce for many years.
This does not mean that Cassidy and his supporters are wrong to believe that Louisiana a very conservative state. It is to suggest, rather, that Louisiana may not be quite as conservative as they believe.
For the same reason that I argue Landrieu should not move too far to the right, I would also argue that Cassidy cannot move too far to the left. Such moves by either would undermine support among their base voters, votes that make up the foundation of any electoral victory.
However, there are still enough swing voters, even in Louisiana, that the outcome of the 2014 Senate race is far from decided.
Whoever wins those voters will win the election. And those voters are not hardcore conservatives. They vote for the Democrat candidate one time, the Republican the next.
If Cassidy were smart, he would work hard to find issues on which he could declare some independence from far-right conservative orthodoxy and appeal to more moderate swing voters.
That he refused to give an inch even on background checks – a commonsense proposal that enjoys overwhelming support among Republicans and Democrats in Louisiana – suggests that Cassidy might be overestimating the conservatism of his electorate.
It might also suggest that he is incapable or unwilling to make the smart strategic decisions necessary to win a very tough race against Landrieu.
To be fair, it might be too early – and too costly — for Cassidy to support such legislation. Support for Manchin-Toomey might cost him precious NRA support and could lure into the race a more conservative challenger like Family Research Council President Tony Perkins or former U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry.
At some point, however, Cassidy will need an issue or two where he can exert a little independence from GOP orthodoxy.
Keeping the base happy while appealing to swing voters is a delicate balancing act. It also the hallmark of a successful candidate.
- Hagan, Landrieu gun votes could help in 2014 (publicpolicypolling.com)
- Mary Landrieu’s politically smart vote on background checks (bobmannblog.com)
- Poll: Gun vote boosts Hagan, Landrieu (politico.com)
- Louisiana Politics: The next four years will be a wild ride (bobmannblog.com)