'Flying a little bit in the dark': Louisiana's Republican primary Saturday could be wild one

Louisiana’s Republican presidential primary is getting more attention in the run-up to Saturday’s vote, but the race has largely been ignored by outsiders and pollsters, leaving little indication which way the state will go or how competitive it remains.

Two leading Republicans who are angling for another state to add to their “win” columns — front-runner Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — are scheduled to hold rallies in Louisiana on Friday night across Lake Pontchartrain from each other. Cruz will be at the Castine Center in Mandeville, and Trump will be at the Lakefront Airport in New Orleans.

Several political experts say either of the two candidates, who have emerged as fierce rivals in the nomination race after a mostly friendly start, could win Louisiana on Saturday night.

Cruz, the Texas senator who won his home state earlier this week, would be in line with how Louisiana Republicans have voted in recent races. Louisiana sided with social conservatives Rick Santorum in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2008.

But a win for Trump, the New York billionaire who has become a surprise leader in the race, would put the state in lock-step with its Deep South roots. Trump swept five of the six so-called “SEC Primary” Southern states this week, losing only in Cruz’s Texas.

“We’re flying a little bit in the dark,” said Michael Henderson, director of the LSU Public Policy Research Lab. “We just don’t have any real data on Louisiana.”

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich also remain question marks in the untested race here.

Rubio was initially scheduled to stump from the Galvez Plaza stage in downtown Baton Rouge’s Town Square on Friday night, but his event was abruptly canceled on Wednesday. Kasich, who has trailed in recent contests but remains in the race, campaigned in Metairie last week.

Political experts here say they are surprised that Louisiana has remained off the radar enough to leave in question who the front-runner is here or how close of a race it will be.

“I think we’re kind of slipping between the cracks in terms of national attention,” said pollster John M. Couvillon, of Baton Rouge.

The last independent poll taken on the GOP presidential primary in Louisiana was conducted for The Advocate and WWL-TV ahead of last fall’s gubernatorial election. It had Dr. Ben Carson with a slight edge over Trump.

On Wednesday, Carson signaled an end to his campaign, announcing he won’t take part in Fox News’ GOP debate Thursday night. Carson emailed supporters that, after failing to gain traction in states that have already held their primaries, he does “not see a political path forward.”

Louisiana voters will get the chance to cast their ballots from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday. Unlike the state’s typically open primaries, only registered Republicans can vote in the Republican primary.

Democrats will also vote in the primary contest between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, but Clinton is seen as a clear front-runner here, based on polling and demographics in that race.

“It would be mind-boggling if it went the other way because the demographics are just to her advantage here,” Henderson said.

Ed Chervenak, director of the University of New Orleans’ Survey Research Center, agreed that Clinton likely has a lock on Louisiana.

“But it seems like there is enthusiasm on the Republican side,” he said.

Louisiana’s primary, which both political parties agreed to move up in the nominating process to gain more attention and impact, falls between the delegate-rich Super Tuesday battle across 12 states and the March 15 races in high-stakes states like Florida and Ohio. That may have contributed to the lack of polling on the race.

“I think the national entities that poll were just more drawn to Super Tuesday than to Louisiana,” Couvillon said. “It’s easy to look past Louisiana where it falls.”

But that apparently hasn’t translated to waning interest among voters, based on early voting tallies from the Secretary of State’s Office. More than twice as many people voted early in the GOP primary here than did in 2012. The Secretary of State’s Office is predicting a 20 percent to 25 percent voter turnout.

Experts agree that the closed-primary rule and the fact that not quite 30 percent of Louisiana voters are registered to the Republican Party create several unknowns that, without traditional polling, have left questions in the race.

“Louisiana now has assumed a much higher level of importance than I initially thought,” Chervenak said. He said t the UNO Survey Research Center planned to conduct an overnight robocall on the presidential race, with results to be released Thursday.

With 47 delegates up for grabs, Louisiana doesn’t have enough pull to decide the GOP race.

“Where it does matter is we’re another contest that the press will give attention to,” Couvillon said.

It also provides an opportunity for an all-important “win” or “loss” for the campaigns as they try to build — or hold onto — momentum.

Henderson said that’s especially true for Cruz, who has built a base on social conservative and evangelical voters who dominate the South.

“Louisiana may be one of the last bites at a state that is most friendly to him,” he said. “He’s running out of states that he should have a built-in chance of winning.”

With a strong showing across the South, including in South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama, Trump rolls into the Louisiana election with the most momentum.

“Louisiana tends to behave a lot like other Southern states — particularly Deep South Southern states in presidential primaries,” Henderson said.

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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