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The Wilder Effect

Why Bobby Jindal lost in Louisiana, despite being ahead in the polls.

10:55 AM, Nov 17, 2003 • By FRED BARNES
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BOBBY JINDAL'S DEFEAT in the Louisiana governor's race Saturday is a bigger loss for Republicans than just an office they've held for eight years. For now, it denies the party an impressive new national figure, a 32-year-old Indian-American who's destined to be a political star sometime--but not yet.

Why did Jindal lose after leading his Democratic opponent, Kathleen Blanco, in statewide polls in the weeks before the election? In a word, race. What occurred was the "Wilder effect," named after the black Virginia governor elected in 1989. Wilder, a Democrat, polled well, then won narrowly. Many white voters, it turned out, said they intended to vote for a black candidate when they really didn't. Questioned by pollsters, they were leery of being seen as racially prejudiced.

Jindal's advisers worried that he might lose the "Bubba vote," rural whites unwilling to vote for a black candidate or even a dark-skinned Indian-American. The Jindal camp's fears were realized. A Republican normally needs two-thirds of the white vote to win in Louisiana to compensate for losing nearly all of the black vote. But Jindal got only 60 percent of whites, according to an analysis by GCR & Associates Inc., a political consulting firm. Its findings were reported in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Had Jindal fared better among blacks, he might have won despite losing white votes. But he got only 9 percent of blacks, this after mounting a highly-publicized effort to attract black voters. Jindal was endorsed by several black political organizations, a former associate of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who is black. Nonetheless, he did only slightly better among blacks than Republicans normally do.

Jindal, whose parents moved to Baton Rouge from India shortly before he was born, won 70 percent of the white vote in the New Orleans area. But outside that urban hub in the more rural and poorer parts of the state, only 48 percent of whites voted for Jindal, according to the GCR analysis.

Blanco's victory was hailed by Democrats, and for good reason. It broke the Republican winning streak in governor's contests this year. (One of those new Republican governors, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is being sworn in today in California.) Republicans also won in Kentucky and Mississippi, seats that had also been held by Democrats. In Louisiana, Republican Gov. Mike Forster is stepping down after two terms. His successor, Blanco, is a conservative Democrat opposed to abortion and tax increases and closer philosophically to Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia than to most national Democrats.

Jindal, a Brown University graduate and Rhodes Scholar with a dazzling résumé, ran a positive campaign, calling himself a "problem solver." When Blanco ran a TV commercial attacking his tenure as head of Louisiana's hospitals, he didn't respond directly to the charges, though he criticized her for going negative. Some Republican strategists thought his campaign was simply too nice for the rough and tumble of Louisiana politics, especially when he left serious charges unrefuted.

Had he won, Jindal would surely have emerged as a national spokesman for the Republican party. For one thing, he is a policy wonk who talks knowledgeably about health care, Medicare reform, and education. For another, he would add to the ethnic diversity of Republican leaders. But his time has not yet come.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.