Stephanie Grace: Election is a story of two “tracks”

People who take polls for a living have developed a shorthand description of what they often consider the most reliable predictor of how an election will turn out. They call it the right direction/wrong track ratio.

The idea is simple: To determine whether voters are inclined to stay the course or throw the bums out, look at how they think things are going. Are they optimistic or pessimistic, content or frustrated? In short, do they think things in general are moving in the right direction or off on the right track? Figure out the answers to those questions, and you’ve got your odds-on favorite.

Strong personalities notwithstanding, the contest to see who will be New Orleans’ next mayor is shaping up as a classic right direction/wrong track election.

Incumbent Mitch Landrieu is obviously the “right direction” guy. It’s in his platform, which largely calls for a continuation — in some cases, acceleration or refinement — of the policies he’s already implemented. It’s in several of his go-to slogans, “New Orleans is on a roll,” and “Let’s keep it going.”

Former Judge Michael Bagneris, Landrieu’s best-known and best-funded opponent, is running a textbook “wrong track” campaign.

He started off assembling a coalition of insiders who’ve had various conflicts and confrontations with the mayor over a whole range of issues, whether they be personal, political or policy-oriented. But his best hope for expanding the coalition is to play to whatever negative impressions voters at large have toward the mayor. Hence his focus on areas where things could certainly be better — principally crime, economic development and blight. And hence his rebuke to another Landrieu slogan, “One team. One fight. One voice. One city.” Bagneris insists Landrieu’s first term is actually a tale of two cities, those who’ve thrived and those who haven’t.

There’s a lot to suggest Landrieu’s “right direction” message is the one that will resonate. Last fall’s University of New Orleans Quality of Life survey didn’t put the choice in exactly those terms, but it got at the same idea. About three-quarters of those interviewed said they were “satisfied” with life in New Orleans. Nearly half said the city has become a better place to live over the past five years, while 20 percent said it’s become worse. And just over half predicted that things would improve still more in the next five years, while nine percent said they expected the opposite.

There’s fodder for the Bagneris “wrong track” point of view in the poll as well. Sixty-two percent said that crime remains the biggest issue facing the city. And half said the amount of crime has increased in recent years — a gut feeling that directly conflicts with the statistics Landrieu touts. Just 24 percent labeled the quality of police protection in the city good. And despite Landrieu’s impressively fulfilled promise to rehabilitate 10,000 blighted properties, 73 percent deemed the city’s record of controlling abandoned houses poor.

Numbers like these point to just how impressionistic campaign politics can be. Bagneris insists Landrieu likes to cook his numbers, but even if you accept them as reliable, personal experience and anecdotal evidence can matter. Sure, murders are down, it’s easy to think, but what about that child who got caught in the crossfire and that armored car driver killed in broad daylight? And yes, there’s less blight, but what about that dilapidated eyesore across the street?

But so, of course, do the overall assessments that despite these ongoing problems, progress is happening, and New Orleanians are generally in a pretty good mood about the state of the city. That, experience suggests and the mayor certainly hopes, would put them in a pretty good mood about the current occupant of City Hall too.

Stephanie Grace’s email address is sgrace@theadvocate.com.