Analyzing New Orleans elections is trickier than ever. The best metaphor I can think of is a rip tide. When strong winds push huge amounts of water ashore, the result is not just an undertow, but a seriously strong set of currents beneath the stormy surface -- often going in several directions at once. Looking at the surf gives no clue as to the strength or direction of the undercurrents.
So it is with the elections in New Orleans.
The winds of Hurricane Katrina died down long ago, but the political storm surge is still with us. The slow pace of recovery, Mayor Ray Nagin's erratic comments and puzzling support of costly recovery contracts, Gov. Kathleen Blanco's inability to get respect from state lawmakers and Congress, citizens' general frustration with FEMA and insurance companies -- it all adds up to a lot of angry voters. How that anger will play out at the ballot box is not yet clear, but it's a sure bet that voters will take the opportunity to vent their frustrations.
Hence, the undercurrents. We know the seas are rough, but there's no way to tell which way the undertow is pulling --Êleft, right, straight down or out to sea. It's a dangerous time to swim in local political waters.
Here's a look at several political undercurrents and how they might play out on April 22:
• Anti-incumbency. All incumbents are on the bubble right now, even those who looked "safe" on Aug. 28. Voters are so angry about government's overall failure to anticipate and deal with Katrina's devastation -- at the local, state and national levels -- that they may take it out on everyone who is or has been in office, particularly long-time incumbents. This has happened before, particularly after big scandals and big floods. Generally, voters from the hardest-hit areas are the ones most likely to look for new leaders, but after an event as cataclysmic as Katrina, no incumbent is safe.
• Black vs. white. Four years ago, Ray Nagin set out to change the paradigm for electing a New Orleans mayor. He succeeded. Snubbing the alphabet-soup of black political organizations and leaping over the traditional racial divide, Nagin assembled a coalition based on common economic rather than racial interests. He captured the vote of the middle class -- black and white -- as well as the business and professional community. It was supposed to be a turning point in New Orleans politics, and for a while it appeared that it would be. Katrina changed that, too, by exposing racial and class divisions that haven't closed and old wounds that haven't healed. Now, even Nagin has returned to the old racial paradigm -- with a vengeance. His rhetoric and his campaign focus almost exclusively on black voters, sometimes in a manner that is openly hostile to whites, who gave him 85 percent of their votes in 2002. The question for Nagin is whether black voters will forgive him for not being "black enough" pre-K. For black voters, the question is, which Ray Nagin will show up for a second term (if he's re-elected): the "chocolate city" Nagin or the "BNOB/build-at-your-own-risk" Nagin?
• Democrat vs. Republican. This undercurrent may be more prevalent in November -- and nationwide, not just in New Orleans. President Bush's ratings are in the toilet, and even his GOP confreres are dissing him. His popularity in Louisiana hovers at roughly 50 percent, which is surprising in light of how poorly he and his administration have responded to Katrina. Still, in heavily Democratic New Orleans, races that come down to Republican-versus-Democrat could see things break along party lines. But that cuts both ways, because Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco is even more unpopular than Bush.
• "Business" vs. "politics." For those who definitely want a new mayor, the question becomes one of profiling the ideal new mayor. Should it be someone with a business or private-sector background (which Nagin was supposed to be), or someone with government and political experience? This is not an easy question to answer in the best of times. It could be even trickier now.
Trickiest of all will be trying to figure which of those currents will pull the most voters on Election Day. That's one reason why the whole world is watching. The results could say a lot about the national elections in November and the statewide contests in 2007.