Mary Landrieu did a good job of putting a smile on her face as the election returns came in Nov. 5 and she found herself, disappointingly, in a runoff with Elections Commissioner Suzanne Terrell. Now she has a genuine reason to smile.
The first independent poll of the runoff shows Landrieu not only leading Terrell by 15 points, but also leading in every geographic region and among most demographic groups.
However, neither candidate can take anything for granted. The survey, taken right after the primary by Southeastern Louisiana University, is merely a snapshot of the starting point for the runoff. In effect, Landrieu broke out of the gate with a lead, which may reflect her incumbency more than anything else. SLU poll director Dr. Kurt Corbello says much of the vote for both candidates was "soft" right after primary. He also cautions that elections are always fluid and that polls (particularly early ones) never predict an election's outcome.
Still, the survey shows the race at its outset could be Landrieu's to lose. It also shows both women need to shore up their bases. Here are the results:
Statewide, Landrieu leads 51.4 percent to 36.4 percent, with the rest undecided or refusing to state a preference.
Along racial lines, Landrieu leads among black voters, 87.6 percent to 2.8 percent; Terrell leads among whites, 50.1 percent to 36.4 percent.
Those numbers are good for Landrieu not so much because of her strong black support, which was no surprise, but because she does as well as she does among whites. Historically, Republicans running statewide get almost no black vote, as Terrell does here. Because blacks comprise 29 percent of the statewide electorate, a Republican has to beat a Democrat by a 2-1 margin among whites to win -- even with a higher white turnout. Terrell is nowhere close to doing that in the SLU poll.
The weakness for Landrieu in the primary was the extremely low turnout among black voters. African-American turnout was at least 20 percent lower than white turnout -- 30 percent lower in some areas. The SLU poll shows the race gets closer and closer as the disparity between black and white turnout grows. If the turnout differential is 30 percent, the two candidates run virtually even in the SLU survey.
Both women must pay attention to their core constituencies, says Corbello. Landrieu has to motivate black voters to turn out in higher numbers, while Terrell has to get more Republicans to line up behind her. The SLU poll shows Landrieu picking up more than 17 percent of the primary vote that went for Terrell or fellow Republicans John Cooksey and Tony Perkins, while Terrell picks up almost 11 percent of Landrieu's primary voters. Thus, Terrell's base appears to be eroding more than Landrieu's, but Landrieu's may not be as likely to vote on Dec. 7.
For her part, Terrell's camp hopes to mend fences with Gov. Mike Foster and the losing GOP candidates. Foster hinted last week that he likely will support Terrell ... eventually. She obviously has more fences to mend.
Meanwhile, Landrieu leads Terrell in all geographic regions. Landrieu's biggest lead -- almost 2-1 -- is in southeast Louisiana, where for both women are known best.
As Corbello noted, every election is a fluid process. The poll is a snapshot of the start. The campaign will be all about trying to change -- or lock in -- that picture by Dec. 7.