Mitch Landrieu was elected mayor of New Orleans on Saturday by a much larger margin than even the latest polls predicted, with a convincing 65 percent of the vote.
Landrieu’s easy victory seemed unlikely given the city’s reputation for racial polarization and the wide field of opponents, but the mayor-elect’s campaign and get-out-the-vote strategies yielded a mandate from every section of the city.
Campaign insiders had begun whispering about Landrieu’s improving poll numbers throughout the last week of the campaign, but I did not learn of anyone tracking him at over 60 percent. Even on Election Day, the latest and best poll numbers I heard from anyone put Mitch Landrieu at 58 percent of the vote.
What did everyone miss?
Without an intimate knowledge of the polling methodology of each campaign, I can only offer my best speculation.
1. Turnout was lower than expected
For weeks, everyone assumed that because of Mardi Gras and the Saints, voter turnout would be low. After higher-than-expected participation during the early voting period, some assumed Election Day turnout would be at least average. Then Election Day turnout conformed to the original expectations; the early voters were disproportionately chronic voters, not representative of a highly motivated electorate.
2. An aura of inevitability
Troy Henry didn’t win particularly high marks when he called a press conference to criticize the media for reporting that Mitch Landrieu held a commanding lead in the race for mayor, calling such stories discouraging to other voters. While I’m not convinced the media’s reports were the primary contributors to low turnout, especially since it is now clear that the media largely undersold Landrieu’s lead, voters do sometimes perceive when an election is going to be a blowout. During a weekend full of distractions, someone who was casually leaning toward someone other than Mitch Landrieu might have derived a sense that Landrieu’s victory was assured from an informal aggregate poll of friends, family, and media reports and just decided to check out the parades or stock up on tailgating supplies instead of going to the polls.
3. Landrieu’s get-out-the-vote operation
The Landrieu family knows how to run political campaigns. Landrieu already had his own large sphere of support and was able to secure more from other established socio-political networks in the African American community, especially from COUP and LIFE, two long-standing political organizations. The two competitive candidates, Henry and John Georges, had to build their get-out-the-vote operations. Georges maybe had some residual networks from his ill-fated run for governor but Henry was starting from scratch.
One common theme from all of the polls, publicly released or otherwise, was the high percentage of undecided voters. Landrieu’s large margin of victory indicates both that Landrieu earned his share of undecided voters and that many of those he didn’t convince chose to stay home.
Still, it is entirely possible that Mitch Landrieu could have won this race had he qualified in December, immediately decamped to Aruba for the next eight weeks and run no campaign at all. While a certain set of circumstances contributed to larger-than-expected margin of victory on Election Day, the larger political dynamics behind Landrieu’s win demand further examination.