Poll: Among David Vitter, John Bel Edwards, Scott Angelle, Jay Dardenne, two lead in Louisiana governor's race with fierce runoff looming

Once the presumptive frontrunner in the race to become Louisiana’s next governor, Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter would face a bitter uphill runoff battle against any of his three main foes, according to the latest independent polling.

Democrat John Bel Edwards and Republicans Jay Dardenne and Scott Angelle each bested Vitter in head-to-head match-ups in the new Advocate/WWL-TV poll. Edwards is a state representative from Amite, Dardenne is the lieutenant governor, and Angelle serves on the Louisiana Public Service Commission.

The poll was conducted by Ron Faucheux, of the Washington-based Clarus Research Group. A nationally recognized polling firm, Clarus is not affiliated with any of the campaigns for governor here.

The poll found that, among those surveyed, Vitter and Edwards are tied at 24 percent in the Oct. 24 primary. Angelle trails at 15 percent, followed by Dardenne at 14 percent.

About 18 percent of likely voters said they are still undecided with a month left until Election Day. A runoff will take place Nov. 21 if, as expected, no candidate takes more than 50 percent of the vote.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has held the title since 2008, cannot seek re-election because of term limits. He’s now running for president.

“I think there’s a lack of voter engagement,” Faucheux said of the findings and the large segment of voters still up for grabs.

In the breakdown of the undecided voters: Women are more undecided than men (23 percent to 14 percent); black voters are more undecided than white (27 percent to 12 percent); and Democrats and independents are more undecided than Republicans (25 percent and 23 percent to 9 percent). That could mean good news for Edwards, who polled best among each of those groups most likely to still be undecided.

Faucheux said he expects the race will come down to the wire.

“In some ways, this campaign still has a long way to go,” he said. “These next three to four weeks are going to be critical.”

In the head-to-head match-ups, Dardenne had a 7-point lead over Vitter, with the poll showing 42 percent for Dardenne to 34 percent for Vitter. Angelle polled 40 percent to Vitter’s 35 percent, and Edwards took 45 percent to Vitter’s 41 percent.

Faucheux said he was surprised by how competitive the runoff scenarios are.

“Regardless of who’s in the runoff, we could be in for a knock-down, drag-out,” he said.

Faucheux provided his analysis of the paths that candidates should take as the race continues.

“Edwards needs to avoid partisan rhetoric and run on a theme of change, contrasting with Jindal’s governing style and policies,” he said. “If Vitter wins a runoff spot on the basis of a polarized partisan coalition and doesn’t improve his positive ratings in the process, he risks winning the primary and losing the runoff.”

As for the two trailing candidates, Faucheux said Dardenne and Angelle are splitting voters who want a Republican alternative to Vitter.

“Dardenne and Angelle each have the same task: become the Republican alternative to Vitter and become the candidate who is perceived by Democrats and anti-Vitter independents as having the best chance to beat Vitter in a runoff,” he said.

Candidates have been quietly circulating favorable, politically linked polls throughout the campaign. Vitter’s opponents have frequently claimed that he was losing steam, while Vitter’s campaign has insisted that its own polling still showed him far ahead.

The Advocate/WWL poll is the first on the race that has been sponsored by the media. It was conducted last Sunday through Wednesday and surveyed 800 likely voters across Louisiana. The margin of error is 3.46 percent.

The race for governor, which slowly simmered through the summer, really began heating up after the Sept. 10 qualifying deadline.

Each of the four main gubernatorial candidates now has ads on television. Vitter, Dardenne and Angelle also have been targeted by negative ads.

Dardenne, Angelle and Edwards have participated in a forum that was televised statewide, while Vitter opted out, citing his duties in Washington. At least three televised debates are slated for October, and Vitter is expected to participate in one or more of them, depending on his senatorial schedule.

Vitter, who was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004 after serving four years in Congress, skated to re-election in 2010, despite a headline-grabbing prostitution scandal just three years earlier.

His opponents have not shied away from reminding voters about the “serious sin” Vitter admitted to committing. Television ads sponsored by the shadowy anti-Vitter Louisiana Water Coalition have been running for the past two weeks.

But Vitter, who said he’s done much of his campaigning on weekends so that he can still be in Washington for key votes and actions, has run a campaign that has had all the trappings of an incumbent’s.

He has consistently maintained the largest campaign war chest since announcing his run last year, and a political action committee backing him has been similarly flush with cash. The most recent campaign finance reports, however, showed that for the two-month period that ended Sept. 15, Edwards’ fundraising came in slightly ahead of Vitter’s.

Vitter polled best among men, Republicans, white voters and voters in the New Orleans area.

Edwards polled best among women, Democrats, black voters and voters in North Louisiana.

Angelle and Dardenne each polled best in their respective home territories — Dardenne in the Baton Rouge area and Angelle in South Louisiana.

Faucheux said he’s curious to see whether Angelle or Dardenne manages to “catch fire” in the final election stretch.

“That’s the big question at this point,” he said. “At this point, Vitter and Edwards have a lock on the runoff spots. Does Dardenne or Angelle have the ability to break that lock?”

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.

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