At the beginning of last week, with the Louisiana gubernatorial run-off election set for Saturday, Republican Bobby Jindal had a comfortable lead in the polls. Though his opponent, Kathleen Blanco, picked up momentum in late polling, many prognosticators (including Larry Sabato, RealClearPolitics, and your correspondent) thought that the 32-year-old, born in Baton Rouge to Indian immigrants and sporting an impressive resume, would still pull it off. He didn’t. What happened?
A Rhodes scholar, Jindal was Secretary of the state Department of Health and Hospitals at 24; he went on to stints running the state university system and shaping Medicare policy as an assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Bush administration before running for governor. His rise to frontrunner status was typical of Jindal’s meteoric career, but his campaign, flawless in the first five weeks of the six-week campaign, faltered in the sixth. In the final debate, Jindal had won on points, many observers agreed. But voters responded less to Jindal’s command of policy than to Blanco’s teary recollection of her son’s death, in response to a question about the defining moments of the candidates’ lives. The theme of the campaign up until then seemed to be an insurgent conservative whiz-kid representing Louisiana’s future against a creature of the entrenched Democratic establishment representing the state’s past. The debate was the beginning of Blanco’s effort to shift the theme into a match between a sensitive and seasoned leader against a robotic young wonk.
The key to getting that message out was an attack ad claiming that, as head of the Department of Health and Hospitals, when Jindal cleaned up a $400 million accounting mess, he ruined the state’s Medicaid system for the poor. Jindal’s campaign failed to answer with an ad that substantively challenged the message, a mistake that proved fatal.
So why did I think Jindal would win? The demographics seemed stacked in his favor. Throughout the South, a formula exists for Democratic victory, typically 40% of the white vote plus 90% of the black vote. “Increasingly over the years,” writes Senator Zell Miller in his new book A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat, “it has been easier to get 90 percent of the African-American vote than 40 percent of the white vote. I believe that the margin of African-American votes for the Democrats is going to change soon. It only has to change a fraction in the South to make a huge difference.” In Louisiana, the formula is even more lopsided — a Democrat shoots for closer to a third of the white vote and 95% of the black vote.
Jindal would have been the first nonwhite governor of Louisiana since Reconstruction. He was endorsed by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, a black Democrat. In some polls, he was getting as much as 15% support from blacks. According to exit poll analysis done for the New Orleans Times-Picayune by the consulting firm GCR and Associates, Jindal ultimately won 9% of the black vote statewide — 11% in New Orleans. That would have tipped the scales for most Louisiana Republicans.
So how did Blanco win? By getting 40% of the white vote. That didn’t come from New Orleans, where 70% of whites voted for Jindal, but from the poorer, more rural areas, where Blanco won 52% of the white vote — a coup for a Democrat in culturally conservative areas. The Medicaid ad was well-tailored for this demographic; the speaker in the ad, a doctor who used to work in the public health system and is now in a wheelchair, ends his statement with the words, “‘By the way, I’m a staunch Republican.”
But there’s a less savory reason that Blanco made inroads in northern Louisiana. This is where former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke got the votes in 1991 that propelled him into the run-off election against the corrupt former governor Edwin Edwards. (The latter is now serving time in jail for taking bribes; this was the race that gave us the classic bumper sticker, “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.”)
“If there was a racist backlash against Jindal anywhere, it would be in north Louisiana, in Duke country,” Louisiana political analyst John Maginnis told Rod Dreher of National Review Online after the race. To some extent, Blanco laid the groundwork for a such a backlash herself. She dusted off her maiden name and campaigned as Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. Voters encountered the full name on the ballot, where her opponent was listed as “Bobby” Jindal, complete with quotation marks (Jindal’s given name is Piyush). Appealing to tribal instincts in the only state where Frenchness is still considered a virtue, Blanco’s packaging of herself was designed to make it clear who had the deeper roots in Cajun country.
Such tapping of identity politics for ethnic whites is nothing particularly unusual or scandalous. The shamrock incorporated into Irish-American candidates’ names is a staple of local politics across much of the Midwest and Northeast. It would be unfair to suggest that Blanco ran a racist campaign. At the same time, isn’t it worth noting that the usual suspects, to whom unfairness rarely gives pause, haven’t so much as raised an eyebrow?
It might be useful to file this case away as a yardstick for the future. There was a small amount of coverage of northern Louisiana’s racial politics during the race — Adam Nossiter’s AP dispatch from last Friday, a set of quotes culled to make the town of Amite, Louisiana, sound as awful as possible (sample: “Really, you got a foreigner and a woman. So it’s a hard choice to make”), was typical — but the “Babineaux Blanco” appeal to “Duke country” has gone mostly unnoticed. The next time Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson or Kweisi Mfume or any similar rabble-rouser announces a whiff of racism (or “racial insensitivity”), measure the grievance cited against this non-event. The comparison might be illuminating.