Louisiana's Senate runoff is Saturday, but voters have already been casting ballots, and the early returns look ugly for Mary Landrieu.
Early-voting rates are down across the board, in almost every demographic group and almost every parish, compared with the early-voting period before the November all-party primary. But that decline has been most acute among groups the Democrat incumbent needs if she is to pull off a victory against challenger Bill Cassidy.
With Landrieu's Senate career on the line, women, registered Democrats, and especially African-Americans were more likely than others to drop out of the runoff's early electorate, according to voting statistics released by the Louisiana secretary of state.
Certainly, early votes are just that—early. The bulk of Louisiana's ballots will come in on Saturday, and Landrieu's campaign argues that those results will help. But at this point, she would need an enormous shift to overcome her early-vote deficit.
Just over 221,000 people cast early ballots for the runoff, compared with more than 245,000 who voted early before the November primary. But more Republicans actually turned out early this time, while 18 percent fewer Democrats cast early ballots. Seven percent fewer men have already voted, but women's early votes have dropped off even more, with a 12 percent decline.
By far the most troubling demographic for Landrieu is the African-American electorate. While women are more likely than men to vote Democratic, and registered party members are also reliable supporters for their own party, race may be the starkest dividing line in Louisiana politics. Landrieu won 94 percent of the black vote in the November primary, according to the exit poll, while she only carried 18 percent of white voters.
That makes the 24 percent drop in early African-American turnout compared with the November primary a blaring warning siren for Louisiana Democrats—especially given that the white early vote has barely fallen—only 3 percent—compared with the primary. Almost the entire drop in early turnout between the two elections is because fewer African-Americans showed up early this time.
Landrieu spokesman Matthew Lehner cautioned against drawing conclusions from early-voting statistics. "Landrieu won in 2002 by driving up support on Election Day in New Orleans, especially in the African-American community."
Louisiana's traditional runoff on Saturday rather than Tuesday could help Landrieu boost turnout among key groups, Democrats argue. That would get her to a starting point—an electorate that's at least 30 percent African-American—from which she could be competitive. That was the turnout rate in November, but the African-American share of the vote actually declined slightly among the full November electorate compared with the primary's early-voting period. This time, Landrieu's campaign has to hope the opposite happens.
The real hurdle for the Democrat is that she also needs to boost the share of white voters who support her instead of the Republican candidate in the runoff, a tougher assignment. Landrieu's camp, admitting it's "running from behind," says a string of recent stories about Cassidy's income from Louisiana State University—raising questions about the hours he was billing the school, where he taught medical students part-time while serving in Congress—could damage him with voters late.
"While we are running from behind, Dr. Double Dip Bill and his payroll-padding has shifted the momentum to us," Lehner said. "We are on the offense. The question is, can we turn out our voters? If 1996 and 2002 are any guide, we can and will."
Considering Democrats' collapsing performance with white working-class voters, though, 1996 and 2002 feel like more than a decade or two ago. And the party's shrinking share of the early black vote just compounds the problem.