Crowded field muddies polling in Louisiana Senate race

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BATON ROUGE, La. — In Louisiana, the race to replace the outgoing-Sen. David Vitter is heating up and proving to be a gumbo of possibilities that is baffling pollsters and political observers alike.

Vitter, who is retiring following his defeat in last year’s gubernatorial election to Democrat John Bel Edwards, once wielded considerable power in conservative circles around the state. However, his decision to not to seek re-election created a power-vacuum which has drawn together a field of 24 hopefuls vying to succeed him. Of these 24 hopefuls, only seven — five Republicans and two Democrats — are legitimate contenders.

The crowded field presents an impossible situation for pollsters, whose attempts to accurately gauge the pulse of this election is reminiscent of the old Abbott & Costello “Who’s on First” comedy routine.

{mosads}In November, Louisiana voters will see all 24 candidates for Senate — Republicans, Democrats and the rest — on the same ballot as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, each hoping for a top-two finish to secure a spot in the December runoff. According to conventional political wisdom, one Republican and one Democrat should emerge from this “jungle primary.” However, with such a crowded field, a two-Republican or two-Democrat runoff is not outside the realm of possibilities — and this is just one reason why polling in this race has proven to be remarkably difficult.

David Duke also presents a major problem for pollsters in Louisiana. Although Duke is an unabashed neo-Nazi and former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, he secured a spot in the gubernatorial runoff in 1991. He is a wildcard candidate who is bound to shake things up in this race.

Early polling, prior to Duke’s announcement and before many other candidates jumped in the race, showed State Treasurer John Kennedy leading among Republicans and Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell ahead on the Democratic side. Following Duke’s entry, polling showed him with 13 percent of the vote, accompanied by another 20 percent willing to consider him. Of course, Duke’s unfavorability was through the roof, but 13 percent is well within striking distance of a spot in the runoff in such a crowded race. Moreover, Duke has a history of underperforming in polls for the same reason that his unfavorables are so high.

Essentially, we will not have a clear picture of Duke’s support until Election Day.

Nevertheless, there is some early evidence of Duke’s impact on the race, as GOP front runner Kennedy’s numbers noticeably dropped after Duke declared his candidacy. However, there is also evidence that Kennedy’s lead may have been inflated from the start, with the crosstabs in one recent poll indicating 21 percent support among Democrats for the conservative Republican. Just as Duke has traditionally underperformed in polls, Kennedy has always overperformed because many Democrats identify his name as that of former president John F. Kennedy. Duke’s impact has also been felt by the other Republicans hoping to stand out in the field. Congressman John Fleming and Col. Rob Maness, both positioning themselves as right-wing outsiders, have seen their numbers take a hit. Congressman Charles Boustany has been a major beneficiary of this, as Duke has siphoned off support from his more conservative rivals.

Right now on the GOP side of the equation, it appears that Kennedy is losing ground, Boustany is gaining momentum and the right-wing candidates — Fleming, Maness and Duke — are cancelling each other out.

On the Democratic side, Campell remains the frontrunner and appears to be picking up steam — as well as some important endorsements, having secured the backing of Gov. Edwards, the AFL-CIO and several prominent black political organizations. His main opponent is Caroline Fayard, a young attorney and former candidate for lieutenant governor in 2011, whose campaign has been fueled by her father’s considerable wealth as well as the political operation built by former U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, who lost her bid for re-election in 2014. Throughout the campaign, Fayard has been dogged with questions about her experience and lingering allegations of serious ethics violations involving her father’s money being illegally laundered into campaign accounts during her previous bid for public office.

In the shadow of a far-from-normal presidential contest, it will also be smart to keep an eye on the two Libertarian candidates in this race. Depending on Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson’s showing in Louisiana on Election Day, a bump of just one or two percent in the Libertarians’ favor could have major implications in this race.

Much like the recent flooding that devastated Louisiana, the race to replace David Vitter in the Senate has turned out to be a huge mess. It is a gumbo of possibilities that has left pollsters flummoxed. However, it is also a political junkie’s dream — a fête akin to Mardi Gras for people like me. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Bergeron is a 40-year veteran of Louisiana politics and currently works as a political strategist and communications consultant.


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Tags Charles Boustany David Duke David Vitter David Vitter Donald Trump Election 2016 Gary Johnson Hillary Clinton John Fleming Lousiana Mary Landrieu Senate race
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