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The Katrina Factor meets politics

Dan Juneau -   Oct 12, 2006

Two interesting sources of information came to light during the past week.

One was the most scientific estimate made thus far on what is the true post-Katrina population of Orleans Parish. The second was the results of the statewide elections. Holding both data sources up to the light simultaneously gives an interesting look at where politics in Louisiana may be heading.

The Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) commissioned the Louisiana Public Health Institute to conduct actual canvassing of Orleans and other hurricane-affected parishes in order to determine the health care staffing and infrastructure necessary to serve the public in impacted areas. Prior to Katrina, the official population estimate of Orleans Parish was 454,000. According to the survey, the resident population of New Orleans is now 187,500. The LRA calls the results of the door-to-door survey "the definitive, most precise set of numbers we have seen." The LRA survey is much lower than previous post-hurricane population estimates.

The LRA numbers square with another telling indicator of the loss of population in the Big Easy: the election returns. The September 30 vote was the first that included statewide races and propositions since Katrina changed the face of New Orleans. Prior to Katrina, Orleans Parish contained the largest block of registered voters in the state. In the recent election, however, Orleans was only the fourth highest in voter turnout—in spite of the fact that several of the ballot propositions dealing with levee boards were major issues in New Orleans, and the major Democratic candidate for Secretary of State resides there.

Approximately 30,000 voters cast ballots in Orleans Parish on September 30. Both East Baton Rouge Parish (57,500) and Jefferson Parish (54,000) almost doubled the Orleans vote totals. Caddo Parish (53,000) also significantly exceeded the Orleans totals, but the Shreveport mayor's race drove voter turnout there to almost double the state average.

One election in and of itself doesn't set in stone the direction of state politics. The November 7 election will definitely shed more light on the issue, since a highly contested congressional election in the New Orleans' area will undoubtedly increase the number of African-American voters going to the polls. Political junkies will be closely watching those results to see how they vary from the September 30 dynamics.

One political trend is becoming very obvious: The major power base of elections in Louisiana is shifting north and west, away from Orleans Parish. Neither East Baton Rouge nor Jefferson parishes had any significant local elections on September 30, yet they rolled up the highest voter totals in the state. Factoring in the growth areas of St. Tammany and Tangipahoa north of New Orleans, and Ascension and Livingston parishes adjacent to Baton Rouge, a powerful new geographic political axis is forming, one that future statewide candidates will have to do well in to be elected.

It is becoming more obvious that the days of Democratic candidates vanquishing their opponents by rolling out of Orleans Parish with a 50,000 to 100,000 vote lead may well be history. Acadiana and the Bayou regions aren't the solid Democratic voting regions they once were, and North Louisiana has become much more conservative over the years. Without the Orleans factor, future Democratic candidates may have to win many more votes north and west of New Orleans—but those areas have become reliable Republican strongholds in the last two decades.

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