Voters skew away from mainstream parties

The number of registered Democrats continues a steady decline as 2014 Louisiana elections approach and U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu — the only statewide Democratic officeholder — runs for re-election.

A decade ago, registered Democrats represented 56 percent of the state’s then 2.87 million voters. Today, the number sits at 47 percent — 1.38 million voters out of 2.9 million registrants. More than 250,000 white voters have left Democratic ranks during the past 10 years, about 150,000 since Landrieu last ran in 2008. The Democratic Party is now majority black in terms of voter registration.

While Republicans are winning major state elections and gaining registrants, those registered as “other party” or not registered with any political party are climbing, too, as voters distance themselves from either of the mainstream political parties.

More of Louisiana’s increasing Hispanic and Asian populations are also opting for the “other party” category than either major party.

Election and voting trend analysts say those facts bode for a close November election as Republicans attempt to oust the veteran Landrieu in balloting that will likely be decided by nonaffiliated voters. It’s likely to be a philosophical vote, rather than along party lines.

“The biggest story is the shift. We have not seen a change in total (voter) numbers; it’s pretty much back to pre-Hurricane Katrina. The big thing has been the shift of party affiliation,” away from the Democratic Party, but not wholesale to the GOP, said Secretary of State Tom Schedler.

Schedler said the high number of voters opting for “no party” affiliation is significant. With 809,753 registered voters, Republicans now account for 28 percent of the state’s total voting population. Twenty-five percent, 724,643, are registered with another party or no party.

“The nonaffiliated voters will be the ones who decide. They have become the key,” he said. “If I was running in that (Senate) race, I would be targeting that other party affiliation. Those are the people who are going to put people over the top.”

New Orleans demographer Greg Rigamer said the person who is registered Republican is a pretty predictable GOP vote, just as African-Americans are pretty consistent Democratic votes. “The African-American vote and the Republican vote negate each other (in numbers), and then you have this big white Democrat, other party, other race” vote, said Rigamer, whose clients include the state elections agency and Landrieu.

Political consultant Elliot Stonecipher, of Shreveport, said the election fight will ultimately come down to 10 percent of the vote. “The rest is pretty forecastable,” he said.

About 45 percent of Louisiana voters align themselves with the Democrats and another 45 percent align with Republicans, Stonecipher said. “The rest are the 10 percent who really don’t know what they are going to do,” he said.

“The white independent is where the election is going to be decided. I think they lean conservative,” said political pollster John Couvillon, of Baton Rouge-based JMC Enterprises. “This election is going to be decided by 50,000 to 100,000 voters.”

Landrieu is accustomed to tough election campaigns. Her first U.S. Senate victory, by fewer than 10,000 votes, brought a challenge to her seating from losing candidate Republican Woody Jenkins. She was re-elected in 2002 and 2008, each time with 52 percent of the vote. Her 2008 race was buoyed by a 30 percent black vote as Democrat Barack Obama first won the presidency.

This time, Landrieu, so far, is facing a challenge from three Republicans: U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy of Baton Rouge, state Rep. Paul Hollis of Covington, and retired U.S. Air Force officer Rob Maness of Madisonville.

While the Democratic Party lost a significant number of white voters since Landrieu’s last election, it registered slight gains in black and other-race voters, which is an area where Republicans are faltering. Other parties are gaining on all racial fronts.

“Historically, the last 20 years or so, party registration probably means less in Louisiana than in any other state,” said Democratic political consultant Trey Ourso. “You have more and more people choosing to register no-party, independent because of the open primary system and a general frustration of the electorate with politics in general.”

As the no-party independents continue to grow as a percentage of the overall electorate, they are going to get more campaign resources directed at turning them out, said Ourso, a former state Democratic Party director.

Today, there are 724,643 Louisiana voters who aren’t registered as either Democrat or Republican. Sixty-eight percent of them are white, 23 percent are black and 9 percent are other races, including Hispanic and Asian, according to the latest statistics.

Their political leanings are subject to debate.

“They are not a group that’s cohesive. Some are very conservative and independent, anti-government. Then you will find a more socially moderate individual that’s fiscally conservative who is found in the New Orleans, Baton Rouge and St. Tammany triangle,” said political consultant Roy Fletcher, who works with Republican candidates. “The first group is not likely to vote for a Democrat. The second group is. It’s a growing factor in elections.” Fletcher is handling Hollis’ Senate campaign.

“Other-party voters are more likely Republican,” said Rigamer, a founder of New Orleans-based GCR Inc.

Southern Media and Opinion Research executive Buster McKenzie said election polling that includes questions about an individual’s “leanings” indicates that no-party male voters tend to be conservative and no-party female voters tend to be more liberal. There’s not a large enough group of “other race” within the polling to determine their political leanings, he said.

Ourso said voting history in Louisiana and other states indicates that “other race” voters tend to be Democratic.

But among them are the “truly moderate,” Stonecipher said. “These are well-educated people, and that’s the kicker. They truly do know something about the issues, and they really do understand that most of what you hear from established parties needs to be discounted and you need to make up your own mind.”

Fletcher said the role the other-party voters play will depend on the candidates and “how agitated they (voters) are. It’s a question whether they will be activated.”

People will get a sense of the dynamics by examining registration trends as the cutoff time approaches for voter registration, Couvillon said. Early voting will also give a clue, he said.

“This is a very much an enthusiasm-based election,” Couvillon said.

“It’s really about turnout. That’s the significant issue,” Rigamer said.