By Robert Mann
Imagine that Sen. Mary Landrieu had run a perfect re-election campaign. Imagine that she had offered a sustained, effective defense of the Affordable Care Act and her vote for it.
Imagine that she had recognized early that building a campaign around her clout and seniority was a weak argument for her re-election. Imagine she hadn’t wasted the first two weeks of her runoff period pursuing the rainbow that was the Keystone pipeline.
Imagine that Democratic operatives had persuaded the news media to write about Rep. Bill Cassidy’s questionable financial arrangement with LSU in October, instead of late November. Imagine Landrieu had all the money she needed for her runoff.
In other words, imagine Landrieu ran a textbook campaign. If so, could she have won re-election?
The answer, I suspect, is no. Landrieu didn’t lose re-election because she was a bad candidate. She certainly didn’t lose because Cassidy was a better candidate. She didn’t lose because she was outspent or because Washington, D.C., Democratic leaders abandoned her. It wasn’t her message or even the messenger.
Mary Landrieu lost because Louisiana is now, almost completely, a Republican state. In fact, as one political scientist told me the other day, maybe Landrieu’s re-election in 2008 over John Kennedy was a fluke. Maybe it wasn’t that Landrieu was such a formidable candidate, but that Kennedy was such a flawed candidate that he delayed her inevitable defeat by six years. All this time, we thought she was a masterful politician, the Houdini of Louisiana politics, usually under water but always bursting free of her chains just before she drowned.
In 2008, Landrieu not only had the good fortune to run against a weak Republican opponent; she was on the same ballot with then-Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, which meant a huge African-American turnout to her benefit.
Obama didn’t carry Louisiana, but he carried Landrieu. In that race, Landrieu won 52 percent of the vote and out-polled the new president by more than 200,000 votes.
This time, Landrieu enjoyed none of the advantages that Obama once could offer. She couldn’t bring him to Louisiana for fear of alienating white voters (although it’s hard to see how Obama’s presence could have depressed her white vote any further).
She apparently didn’t believe she could vigorously defend her vote for Obamacare for fear of reminding voters of her fateful relationship with the president (although Cassidy had already performed that marriage).
This time, instead of the Obama magic, she got cursed with the Obama voodoo. Instead of running 10 points ahead of Obama, as she did six years ago, she received almost the same percentage in the primary as Obama got in Louisiana in 2012 (41 percent to Obama’s 41 percent).
In the voters’ minds, Mary Landrieu became Barack Obama’s running mate. She was his Louisiana proxy. I was clearly wrong when I wrote last year and earlier this year that Obama, on the downhill side of his time in the White House, wouldn’t be much of a factor in his midterm.
Obama wasn’t just a factor, he was the factor.
In short, this election, in Louisiana and elsewhere, was largely a referendum on an unpopular president. Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor, Kay Hagan, Bruce Braley, Mark Udall and Mark Begich – all of them paid the price for Obama’s unpopularity.
Sure, Landrieu could have made a stronger case for her support for Obamacare. Had she done so, however, she might have performed marginally better among whites. A stronger message would have helped, but it wouldn’t have mattered much in the end.
It wasn’t just Obama. Landrieu lost because the Democrats’ run as a strong force in Louisiana politics is over, for now, at least. Beyond the immediate damage of Obama’s unpopularity, nothing has undermined the Louisiana Democratic Party more than its collapse among white voters.
Consider these numbers:
In 2004, there were 833,000 registered white Democrats in Louisiana. Ten years later, in 2014, there are 608,000. That’s a drop of 225,000. In other words, the Democratic Party has lost more than one-fourth of its white registrants since 2004.
As a percentage of the overall electorate, the Democratic Party has lost significant ground in the past ten years. In 2004, Democrats were 55 percent of registered voters. (In 2004, GOP was 24 percent of registered voters. Independents were 18 percent.)
Ten years later, in 2014, Democrats are only 46 percent of the electorate. The GOP is 28 percent; Independents, 26 percent.
In other words, in 2002, 55 percent of registered voters were Democrats. Today, 54 percent of voters are Republican or no party.
Democratic Party collapse appears to be almost entirely due to the loss of white voters. In 2004, white Democrats made up 30 percent of registered voters in Louisiana. In 2014, they are only 20 percent of registered voters.
By contrast, in 2004, black Democrats were 24 percent of registered voters. In 2014, black Democrats are 25 percent of the electorate, their percentage virtually unchanged in 10 years. In fact, there are 72,000 more black Democrats in Louisiana today than in 2004.
Where you see the greatest black-white disparity is in the overall registration numbers. In 2004, blacks were 43.5 percent of registered Democrats. In 2014, that number is 53 percent.
Increasing — on election day, at least — the Louisiana Republican Party is the party of white voters. The Democratic Party is the party of black voters.
What difference does this make in voting patterns? In 2008, Mary Landrieu won reelection with 52 percent of the vote. That means she received 96 percent of the black vote and 33 percent of the white vote – a winning combination.
In November 2014, she got 94 percent of the black vote and 18 percent of the white vote – and earned only 42 percent of the overall vote.
In 2008, she ran more than 200,000 votes ahead of Obama. In 2004, she got almost the same percentage as Obama got here in 2012 – 41 percent.
In the voters’ minds, Landrieu became Obama.
Landrieu lost re-election because of profound demographic and ideological changes in Louisiana that were beyond her control. She might have made the race closer by running a flawless campaign, but it’s difficult to see what she could have done that would have earned her a fourth U.S. Senate term.