The narrow reelection of Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards does nothing to change the trajectory of electoral politics both in Louisiana and in America as a whole.
One school of thought, which sticks up its head every time a Democrat at odds with his national party on a few issues wins in a jurisdiction that favors Republicans, evinces hope that Democrats as a whole can learn from the experience to steer the nation as a whole from its lean to the right that favors Republicans. We heard a version of this last week from my counterpart on radio host/entrepreneur Jim Engster’s Talk Louisiana program on Baton Rouge FM station WRKF, Mary-Patricia Wray.
Wray played a prominent role in Edwards’ 2015 campaign, but since has moved on to her own consulting business. In a discussion about the future beyond the (then undecided) governor’s race, she said that an Edwards win might serve as a model for Democrats going forward. She likened partisan politics and the median voter to a “pendulum,” and that the model presented might shift that pendulum representing Democrats closer to matching the median voter.
More specifically, with Edwards articulating (regardless of whether from real belief or of political necessity) a limited number of select conservative preferences, it can pull the pendulum a bit back from the left to make it closer to that median voter. On the surface, his win, close as it was, might appear to validate that view which argues a greater number of Democrat successes should occur as a result, both in state and nationally.
Except that, in this case, it makes an apples-to-oranges comparison and misreads the realities of American Democrats going forward. Speaking to the former, this view fails to account for the roles that Louisiana’s slowly-changing political culture and its election system played in this outcome.
Concerning political culture, its role in this election has been extensively reviewed previously. Essentially, the relationships between issue preferences held by the median voter and those of candidates, more than in any other electoral environment in the country, becomes obscured in Louisiana by the fog of personalistic politics. Put another way, because of a long-standing political culture that deliberately has over-emphasized candidate characteristics and de-emphasized issues and ideology (or, relatedly, narrowed the menu of issues), it becomes more difficult for voters to make the translation of their views into their actual vote choices (such as in this case study).
That specific political culture continues to erode to become more like the rest of the country’s (as has been occurring worldwide with the melting away of regional political cultures to match a larger state’s) as technology increases information dissemination about politics and educational quality continues to rise that creates more ideological thinking within the Louisiana mass public. But as this year’s election showed, the state’s political culture still has sufficient potency remaining. More to the point, outside of this culture, given his desultory economic record in office, Edwards could not have won re-election in any other Republican majority state in the country.
Not that he would have gotten a chance in any, because all others feature genuine primary election systems absent in Louisiana. Its nonpartisan blanket primary system – which is really a general election that allows multiple party “nominees” – makes it possible for less orthodox candidates from their parties to win elections, as in a true primary environment too many voters of that party would punish such candidates for holding some renegade issue preferences.
For example, had Louisiana a closed primary system where only voters who identify with a party may participate in a primary, or even an open primary where voters regardless of identification may participate in one party’s primary, Edwards never would have advanced to a general election. Under these primary systems, largely liberal voters would have participated in Democrats’ primary, and a Democrat with largely identical positions as Edwards but who supported abortion on demand would have defeated him. In fact, given that the majority of registered Louisiana Democrats are black, a black candidate with roughly the same issue preferences as Edwards including on abortion almost certainly would have defeated him.
Thus, Edwards only appeared in the general election, much less the runoff, because of Louisiana’s odd blanket primary system. And the only reason he won it was Louisiana’s odd political culture. This model is entirely nontransferable to national politics, most obviously the presidency. For that office, nominees are decided by the most extreme ideologues among Democrats, as they far and away disproportionately turn out for presidential preference primaries and especially caucuses. Even the national party’s reliance on unpledged delegates (“superdelegates”) couldn’t stop the nomination going in 2008 to the most extreme candidate (former Pres. Barack Obama) and barely stopped that from recurring in 2016 (in the form of Sen. Bernie Sanders). As a firewall, it seems to have disappeared completely for 2020.
This brings about the doom of the swinging pendulum theory. Simply, the sprint national Democrats have undertaken for the past two decades to embrace the unhinged political left has brought things to the point that the pendulum would have to swing extensively back and impossibly quickly for Democrats to approach the median voter in a country whose median voter resides slightly right of center. It’s absolutely laughable to hear many in the chattering classes refer to former Vice Pres. Joe Biden as a “moderate” when he had an extremely liberal voting record during his years in Congress that only accelerated to the left as the years passed and may appear “moderate” now only because most of his fellow contenders for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination are such extremists that one could have won an election in all but a handful of Democrat constituencies two decades ago.
But what of Louisiana, where the political culture may make the Democrat pendulum appear closer to the median voter than it really is and the electoral system dilutes the influence that ideologues have over election winners and losers? While the election system won’t change in the near future, the culture is and has been for decades. With every passing day, as it pertains to state and local contests it becomes more like it has for national contests that has turned into one-sided Republican victories, because the nationalization of politics and the ideological clarity presented continues to extend downwards, cutting through the fog of personalism.
Running an almost entirely nationalized campaign in Louisiana, Republican political neophyte Eddie Rispone came within a couple of percentage points of winning the state’s highest office against an incumbent – something unthinkable in the state even a decade ago. All other things equal (and they weren’t, as the candidates ran very different campaigns), had Edwards not been an incumbent, he would have lost, not just because he wouldn’t have had incumbency tools at his disposal but also that incumbency helped power the fumes of the political culture that advantaged his candidacy. The result testified to the waning influence Louisiana’s distinct political culture has over the state’s most consequential office, and acts as a harbinger that the liberal populism on which Edwards and his Democrat predecessors have surfed is a century-old wave about to peter out.
In short, here on out for Democrats to win any statewide office or to take control of any organ of elective state government, placing your pendulum at a point of economic liberalism but social conservatism no longer will cut it. The political culture that has sustained that strategy has become too impotent to support the cognitive dissonance required out of the state’s median voter. And, should Edwards display the same intransigent governing style as he did in his first term, the policy results will compound to discredit liberal populism in the state for a political generation.
Only by curtailing the ideological extremism exhibited by national Democrats that has seeped into the views of its Louisiana elected elites and activists can their pendulum reach the median voter and present any hope for Louisiana Democrats to serve as anything more than a rump party allowing for spleen-venting. This requires somewhat dramatic alterations of their current issue preferences which, given the cast of characters involved, seems unlikely.