Three polls show John Bel Edwards leading David Vitter in stunning turn of events surrounding governor's race

Three polls released in the past week show Democrat John Bel Edwards with a commanding lead over Republican David Vitter in their Nov. 21 runoff.

It’s a startling turn from just a few months ago, when political observers seemed to have anointed Vitter as Louisiana’s presumptive next governor.

“I was among those people, probably out front coronating Sen. Vitter as Gov. Vitter,” said Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “He seemed so strong and was riding a wave of seeming invulnerability.”

But three polls, from three different polling firms and for three different clients, conducted since the Oct. 24 primary show Edwards with a double-digit lead over Vitter and above the crucial 50 percent threshold.

Michael Henderson, research director of the LSU Public Policy Research Lab, said the polling doesn’t mean that the race is going to be a slam-dunk for Edwards. With two-and-a-half weeks until election day, the trend instead should be seen only as an indicator that the race is going to be much tighter than it was once thought to be, he said.

“It is surprising,” he added.

Henderson said enough time has passed for polls to start reflecting a wave of Vitter winning support from those who backed another Republican in the Oct. 24 primary. The conventional wisdom is that those who supported Republicans Scott Angelle and Jay Dardenne would stick with the party, he said.

“I feel like we should be seeing that starting right now in the poll,” Henderson said. “That leads me to suspect that this is really going to be a closer than expected race.”

Polls at this point, he said, should start to be seen as predictive of outcome.

“This doesn’t look like it’s breaking back to the usual trend,” he said. “There’s a collection of factors that aren’t usually in place, and we’re seeing a pattern that’s not a normal pattern.”

Vitter’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment on the latest voter polls or for additional details about whether its internal polling matches the trend.

Edwards’ campaign, not surprisingly, has touted all three polls in emails to supporters and potential donors as proof of his momentum in the race. “The string of positive polling over the last week is encouraging, but the only poll that truly matters is on Election Day,” he said in a statement.

The latest poll, conducted by Market Research Insight pollster Verne Kennedy for an independent group of businesspeople that includes John Georges, CEO of Georges Media Group, which owns The Advocate, found Edwards leading Vitter 54 percent to 38 percent or 51 percent to 40 percent, depending on black voter turnout (25 percent or 20 percent, respectively).

On Monday, WVLA-TV of Baton Rouge released a poll conducted by JMC Analytics that showed Edwards at 52 percent to Vitter’s 32 percent.

And last week, the anti-Vitter Gumbo PAC unveiled a poll conducted on its behalf by Obama-pollster Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, that showed Edwards besting Vitter 52 percent to 40 percent.

Each of the three had a margin of error between 3.7 percent and 4.1 percent.

Individually, the polls could be brushed aside, but political experts say the closeness of their findings means Edwards has picked up stronger-than-expected support among Republican and white voters.

“These polls have been pretty consistent,” Henderson said. “The question now is whether they stay consistent or, in the last two weeks, flip back.”

Louisiana currently has no Democratic statewide officeholders. Former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a three-term incumbent who in 2008 was the last Democrat elected statewide, suffered a crushing defeat in her re-election bid last year against Republican Bill Cassidy.

The loss was seen by some as a death knell for Democrats’ hopes of winning statewide office.

“I think people may view the Senate in a different way than they do the governor,” Cross said.

He said he also suspects that hard feelings over a wave of negative campaign ads directed at Angelle and Dardenne may be hurting Vitter in the transition from primary to runoff.

“I think where everyone went wrong was in thinking there would be an immediate rush to support David Vitter,” he said. “That’s not the scenario that we’re seeing.”

The JMC poll showed Edwards pulling in 41 percent of the white voters surveyed and 24 percent of Republicans. It also found him leading in all regions, except Alexandria.

Henderson said low voter turnout would likely help Vitter’s chances.

“At the end of the day, to be competitive, Edwards has to manifest his support on Election Day,” he 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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