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How Voter Outreach to Communities of Color Propelled Gov. Edwards to Runoff Victory

Dec 3, 2019

Democrats have a formula-- a recipe for success in Louisiana elections. Demographer Greg Rigamer explains.

"You need, as a Democrat, to win 90% of the African American voter and a third of the white vote," Rigamer said.

And African Americans need to account for at least 30% of the votes cast.

"That's been the formula that has held true for every every race since really 2003," he added.

That's when Democrat Kathleen Blanco was elected Governor.

Rigamer worked on that campaign and has consulted for pretty much every candidate-- Democrat and Republican-- to win a major Louisiana race since then.

So, it wasn't much of a surprise when the Edwards campaign brought him on to address disappointing turnout in the primary among Democrats' key demographics.

In October, about a quarter of the electorate was black, and as a result, Edwards finished with 47% of the vote. That was well short of the 50% threshold that would have let him bypass a runoff on his way to a second term.

The campaign zeroed in on the state's urban population centers. They did well in the suburbs and even better in cities like Baton Rouge and New Orleans. 

"I have worked on lots of campaigns. I have followed presidential elections. [Edwards'] performance in the African American precincts is really the best that I've seen," Rigamer said.

"He got literally-- unequivocally-- over 98% of the African American votes."

And, crucially, black voters made up 31% of the electorate.

The unprecedented increase between the primary and the runoff was thanks to a robust get-out-the-vote effort, not just by Edwards' campaign, but by voter outreach groups like the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice.

Checo Yancy is an organizer with Voice of the Experienced, one of the dozen or so groups that make up the Power Coalition.

"The old fashioned get out the vote, and I don't think anybody accounted for that," Yancy said. "And that's what won the election, the little people."

He said after the primary, groups like his got back to the basics of voter outreach-- knocking on doors, making phone calls and providing rides to the polls. 

Ashley Shelton, executive director of the Power Coalition, said Edwards and the Democratic machine may have reaped the benefits of voter engagement within communities of color during the runoff, but the seeds were planted long before that.

"This idea that African American voters or Latinx or Vietnamese voters are just coming out in response to the machine's request makes me so grouchy," Shelton said. "Because I really feel like we've been trying to build a movement."

The Coalition set a goal of contact each prospective voter they targeted five times before the election to determine what issues really mattered to them.

All told, they made more than 1.1 million voter contact attempts, talking about big ticket items like healthcare, better wages and affordable housing.

For example, Laketa Smith from Black Voters Matter spoke with residents of Gordon Plaza in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward where 54 people are seeking relocation from atop a toxic landfill. 

That never came up on the campaign trail, but Smith said just asking made all the difference.

"I was something to personally connect to them," Smith said. "Letting them know we're not just coming to knock on their door and talk at you, but we're having a conversation and dialogue about what's important to you."

Shelton says conversations like that are often absent when outside groups court the black vote. 

"At the end of the day, voters want to be a part of this process, but they have to see a connection to their everyday lives," Shelton said. "We have been talking to and moving policy change and they're understanding that their vote can actually make a difference."

She says she hopes to turn the connections into enduring civic engagement that reaches far beyond the voting booth and affects positive change throughout the state.