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The Louisiana Governor’s Race Looks Really Close

If you thought there weren’t any major elections until the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3, guess again. On Saturday, Louisiana will choose between incumbent Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and Republican businessman Eddie Rispone for governor. And the race down in the Bayou looks increasingly close, so it’s an open question whether Edwards can once again overcome Louisiana’s deep red hue to win reelection. Here’s where things stand heading into Election Day.

First of all, thanks to the odd quirks of Louisiana’s jungle primary — in which every candidate runs regardless of party — Edwards and Rispone are now in the midst of a runoff, as they were the top-two finishers from the Oct. 12 contest. In that initial race, Edwards won about 47 percent of the vote while Rispone edged out Rep. Ralph Abraham, the other notable Republican in the race, 27 percent to 24 percent. Neither Edwards nor Rispone won an outright majority, though, which is why they’re now facing off again.

This could spell real trouble for Edwards, too, as it was Republicans in that October contest who won a majority (52 percent) of the combined vote. So in other words, if most voters stick with the same party in the runoff, Rispone might well win. Edwards holds a slim lead in the polls, but as you can see in the chart below — it’s tight, just about 2 percentage points, on average.

The polls show a very tight race in Louisiana

Public polls of the Louisiana governor’s race conducted since Nov. 1

Dates Pollster Sample Edwards (D) Rispone (R)
Nov. 12-13 JMC Enterprises 600 LV 47% 46%
Nov. 7-13 Targoz Market Research 640 LV 50 46
Nov. 11 Edgewater Research 661 LV 49 49
Nov. 7-9 Cygnal Political 800 LV 50 48
Nov. 5-7 Mason-Dixon 625 LV 48 46
Average 48.7 46.9

Source: Polls

This means Edwards likely will need to win over at least some portion of the state’s conservative electorate, with those who voted for Abraham in October as a prime pick-up opportunity. To that point, Edwards has run ads in Abraham’s congressional district that focus on the testy battle between Abraham and Rispone in an attempt to win over some disgruntled voters who might be unhappy with Rispone. He’s also campaigned as someone in tune with Louisiana’s cultural conservatism, highlighting his military service and West Point education, his support for the Second Amendment and his family’s background in law enforcement. Edwards has even played to Louisianians’ love of LSU football, touting his friendship with LSU football Head Coach Ed Orgeron, whose Tigers are undefeated.

On the Republican side, however, Rispone has made inroads to try to win over conservative white voters, whom Edwards needs to win reelection. Rispone has done this by connecting himself to President Trump — who is quite popular in Louisiana and has held two rallies for Rispone in the lead-up to the election — and by continuing to attack Edwards as a liberal who is out of touch with the state’s values. But, of course, while election forecasters like Sabato’s Crystal Ball estimate that Edwards needs about 30 percent or so of the white vote to win reelection, that’s not the only thing that matters for Edwards’ candidacy. He also needs black voters to turn out.

In a state like Louisiana, where the voting patterns are incredibly racially polarized, black voter turnout can make or break a candidate, too. And so far, black voter turnout is slightly down for Edwards. In the initial vote, 27.6 percent of all voters were black, according to data from the Louisiana secretary of state, compared to 28.1 percent in the first round of the 2015 gubernatorial election. That doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but when you consider that Democrats win more than 90 percent of African American voters in the state, slightly lower black turnout matters a lot in a race this close.

Luckily for Edwards, though, there is usually a bit more interest in the runoff when it comes to turnout in Louisiana’s gubernatorial contests — including turnout among black voters, which has hit about 30 percent in recent runoffs for governor and U.S. Senate. In fact, in every election since 1975, when Louisiana first used its jungle primary system, more votes have been cast in runoffs whenever they’ve been necessary. Given this historical pattern and high turnout in other elections during the Trump era, there’s a good chance there’ll be more voters this time around as well, which could be good news for Edwards.

Turnout rises in runoffs for Louisiana governor

Turnout in initial and runoff elections in Louisiana gubernatorial races that featured runoffs, 1975 to present

Voter turnout
Election 1st round Runoff Change
2015 1,114,336 1,152,864 +3.5%
2003 1,362,524 1,407,842 +3.3
1995 1,475,896 1,550,360 +5.0
1991 1,549,354 1,728,040 +11.5
1979 1,364,769 1,371,825 +0.5
Average +4.8

Runoff elections in Louisiana only occur if no candidate wins a majority of the vote in the first round of voting, which is an open primary system in which all candidates run at the same time regardless of party (often called a “jungle primary”).

Source: Louisiana Secretary of State, Louisiana Almanac

Just who shows up on Saturday, though, matters. National Republicans also are making an effort to boost GOP turnout, as demonstrated by Trump’s two appearances and the Republican National Committee’s putting more money into the race just ahead of the vote. And having just lost one governorship in Kentucky this month, the president and his party are very much hoping to gain one back Saturday. Democrats, of course, are anxious to hold onto one of their few red-state governorships by reelecting Edwards. At this stage, though, it’s hard to know which way the race will go — the polls and the electoral environment show it’s going to be a close one.

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Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.