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We may not know who won Louisiana’s Senate race until December as a possible run-off looms. Ultimately, the fate of the election may hinge on whether incumbent Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu can bridge the Bayou State’s racial divide.
Landrieu last won reelection in 2008 with the help of a newly-elected, charismatic President Barack Obama. When you look at the vote compilation for the two candidates in Louisiana, very sharp differences emerge along racial lines.
Obama lost badly in in the state to Sen. John McCain – 40 percent to 59 percent. Obama won only 10 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes, and in every parish he won, the population was at least 45 percent African American. That’s far above the state’s 32 percent African American population.
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Landrieu, on the other hand, who is white, wound up carrying the state fairly easily - 52 percent to 46 percent over Republican John Kennedy. She won 38 of the 64 parishes from the southeastern tip to the northwestern corner, and she carried places where the African-American population was far smaller.
The exit polls out of Louisiana in 2008 tell the tale.
In 2008, Obama did remarkably well with African American voters in Louisiana, as he did with those voters everywhere, winning 94 percent of their vote. But he did incredibly poorly with white voters in the state, winning only 14 percent of their vote.
Landrieu did far better with white voters in 2008, winning 33 percent of them. She even did slightly better with African American voters, according to the exit polls, winning 96 percent of their vote.
The big question going into Tuesday is whether Landrieu can still win state without Obama on the ballot to bring out a big African American vote.
Looking at this map of Louisiana, there is a swath of parishes stretching out from New Orleans and up between Baton Rouge and Lafayette, that will likely be crucial in the race. Most of those parishes are labeled as the African American South on the American Communities Project typology. They feature large African American populations and, for the most part, lower than average household incomes
Those parishes, including Iberia, St. Martin and Evangeline, are crucial because they were all won by Landrieu and lost by Obama in 2008. They have relatively large African American populations and if you see those counties going to Landrieu, that would be a good sign for her.
And, perhaps even more important is Jefferson parish, a suburb of New Orleans that sits just west of the city. It is wealthier and whiter and holds more than 430,000 people. In 2008 Obama lost it by more than 26 percentage points while Landrieu won it by more than 6 points. It will play a big role in determining who wins the state.
Of course, Tuesday may just be a dress rehearsal for a run-off on December 6 if no candidate gets above 50 percent of the vote.
Currently polls show Landrieu leading her primary Republican challenger, Rep. Bill Cassidy, by about 4 points, with a second Republican, Rob Maness, trailing far behind. But if the race is framed as a head-to-head between Ms. Landrieu and Mr. Cassidy, he wins by about four points.
If the race comes down to a run-off next month, the campaigning will likely be intense – partisan control of the Senate could be in the balance. Still, if you want a good assessment of where the race stands, watch Landrieu’s vote tallies in those key counties, especially if she breaks 50 percent in them.
That will help answer the bigger question of what kind of vote Landrieu can pull without Obama on the ballot in Louisiana.