Louisiana Governor: Key Takeaways from the Primary Election

by Ryan Matsumoto October 14, 2019 · 11:49 AM EDT

The recent race in Louisiana may not be a bellwether, but it’s more evidence of the growing geographic divide in the country. 

On Saturday, voters in Louisiana headed to the polls to vote in the primary election for governor. Louisiana has a “jungle primary” system, where all candidates regardless of party appear on the same ballot. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, the top two candidates advance to a runoff election.

In this year’s primary, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards earned 47 percent of the vote, falling short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. Republican businessman Eddie Rispone finished in second place with 27 percent, outpacing his chief Republican rival, Rep. Ralph Abraham, who finished in third place with 24 percent.

Edwards and Rispone will face off on Nov. 16 in the runoff.

The Urban/Rural Divide Continues
The big takeaway from Saturday’s results is that the urban/rural divide that expanded in the 2016 Presidential election is continuing for downballot elections.

In 2015, Edwards ran for his first term as governor. He won 40 percent of the vote in the primary and 56 percent of the vote in the runoff.

Comparing the 2015 primary to the 2019 primary, Edwards increased his vote share in 37 parishes (the state’s equivalent to counties) while losing vote share in the remaining 27 parishes. His vote share increased the most in Jefferson Parish, which includes suburbs outside New Orleans. Here, he received 34 percent of the vote in 2015 but 53 percent of the vote this year. Edwards also did much better this time around in Orleans Parish, which includes the city of New Orleans. Here, he increased his vote share from 72 percent to 87 percent. Edwards also performed substantially better in East Baton Rouge (improving from 49 percent to 62 percent) and West Baton Rouge (from 44 percent to 55 percent).

On the flipside, Edwards’ vote share decreased in several rural parishes throughout the state, including include Sabine (23 percent -> 18 percent), Richland (37 percent -> 32 percent), and Vermilion (28 percent -> 22 percent).

This geographic pattern also applies when comparing the 2015 runoff to the 2019 primary. Edwards’ vote share dropped in 62 out of 64 parishes. The only two exceptions were suburban Jefferson (+2.24 percent) and urban Orleans (+0.46 percent).

In totality, this reflects a pattern we've seen in many downballot elections during the President Donald Trump era. Rural areas that shifted toward Trump in 2016 are voting more Republican, while urban/suburban areas that shifted toward Hillary Clinton in 2016 are voting more Democratic.

Edwards Has Less Upside in the Runoff than in 2015
If you compare Edwards’ 2019 primary vote share to his 2015 primary vote share in a vacuum, you might assume that he’ll almost surely win the runoff election. Edwards received 40 percent of the vote in the 2015 primary en route to 56 percent of the vote in the runoff. If he gained the same vote share from the 2019 primary to the 2019 runoff, he would get 63 percent and win in a landslide.

However, it probably won’t be so easy for Edwards. This year, he won’t have the luxury of facing a scandal-ridden candidate like David Vitter in the runoff. Vitter was infamous for admitted links to a Washington D.C. escort service, which Edwards featured in attack ads during the 2015 campaign.

Vitter was also burdened by the unpopularity of outgoing Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal. Jindal’s second term was tarnished by high budget deficits and cuts to public education. One poll from the Univ. of New Orleans even found his approval rating underwater (his disapproval higher than his approval) among Republicans.

In the face of Vitter’s scandals and Jindal’s unpopularity, Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne endorsed Edwards in the 2015 runoff election. Dardenne had run in the jungle primary and placed fourth with 15 percent of the vote. The Republican who finished in third place, Scott Angelle, didn’t endorse either candidate.

All together, the Louisiana Republican Party was divided going into the runoff, contributing to Edwards’ large margin of victory.

This year, we’re unlikely to see the same division among Republicans. Abraham has already endorsed Rispone, as have President Trump and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, who represents the state’s 1st District.

Edwards Still Has a Chance in the Runoff
Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss Edwards’ chances in the runoff. One major reason is that Democrats have typically gained several percentage points from the primary to the runoff in recent Louisiana elections.

Across the seven Democrat vs. Republican runoffs in Louisiana since 2010, Democrats have gained 7.73 percentage points on average when moving from the primary to the runoff. In fact, every single one of these 7 elections showed an increase in Democratic vote share in the runoff.

Democrats combined for 47.41 percent of the vote in Saturday’s primary -- well within striking distance of 50 percent if Edwards gets a small boost in the runoff.

The limited polling suggests that Edwards will be competitive. The latest Mason-Dixon poll from early October has Edwards beating Rispone by 9 points head-to-head. However, this margin may change now that the primary is over, allowing Republicans to coalesce behind Rispone.

At Inside Elections, we’ve had the race as a Toss-up since before the primary. And will carry that rating over to the runoff for now.

Edwards is a Strong Candidate in a Red State
At a high level, it’s important to keep in mind that Louisiana is a very red state. Our Inside Elections Baseline for Louisiana, which takes into account statewide elections from the past four cycles, is 41.71% Democrat / 57.56% Republican. In other words, we’d expect a typical Democrat running for office in Louisiana to receive about 42 percent of the vote. Getting 47 percent of the vote in the primary suggests that Edwards is an above-average candidate for a Democrat in Louisiana. 

Since Edwards is a relatively popular incumbent, and more conservative on issues such as abortion and guns than the vast majority of Democrats, it will be hard to draw conclusions about the national political environment no matter who wins. As my colleague Leah Askarinam suggests, even if a Democrat wins one of the gubernatorial races in the South this year (Louisiana, Kentucky, or Mississippi), it wouldn’t put those states’ Senate races in play in 2020 given the polarized political environment.