The Campaign Spot

Don’t Count on Lower Turnout In a Louisiana Runoff

Louisiana’s Senate race is likely to go to a runoff after Tuesday night.

Incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu has led a lot of the pre-runoff polling, but by increasingly small margins, and with a percentage of the vote that’s particularly ominous. Anywhere else, if you’ve been in office and only 36 percent of the likely voters say they want to vote for you, that means you’re toast. Yet it’s quite possible that on Election Night, a finish in the high 30s would make Landrieu the “frontrunner,” and off into a runoff with Representative Bill Cassidy, who is polling in the mid-30s.

The bad news for Landrieu is that she trails Cassidy in all head-to-head polls since July. If there is a runoff, it will be held December 6.

One would expect that the turnout would be lower in the runoff, but past Louisiana elections show a quite mild drop-off. Back in 1996, Louisiana held its “jungle primary” election September 21, with the runoff in November. Landrieu had only 21 percent of the vote in the first round, but won with 50.17 percent in the runoff. Turnout jumped from 1.2 million to 1.7 million that year, as one would expect, as most people think of Election Day as the first Tuesday in November.

In 2002, Landrieu won 46 percent in the first round against multiple Republican opponents, and then won 51.7 percent in the runoff against Suzanne Terrell. Turnout dropped by only about 10,000 votes, from 1.24 million to 1.23 million.

Then in 2008 — helped along by the Obama wave — Landrieu won outright in the first round, 52.1 percent to John N. Kennedy’s 45.7 percent. That year she never trailed in the head-to-head polling.

Still, Louisiana has drifted in a more Republican direction in recent cycles. Romney won by 57 percent to 40 percent in 2012; Bobby Jindal won the governor’s race with 65 percent in 2011, Senator David Vitter won reelection with 56 percent in 2010, McCain carried the state with 58 percent in 2008, and Jindal won the governor’s race with 53 percent in 2007.

Georgia is the other state requiring a winning candidate to get 50 percent. Neither Republican David Perdue nor Democrat Michelle Nunn has hit 50 percent in recent polls. In 2008, Georgia’s Senate race went to a runoff, and turnout dropped from 3.7 million on November 4 to 2.1 million December 2; Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss won.