Louisiana's chameleon voters tint red state purple

NEW ORLEANS -- They're known as the "others."

They're a sizable bloc of registered Louisiana voters — 643,000, at last count — from all walks of life, races, political leanings and economic backgrounds.

On Nov. 4, those voters could potentially help Sen. Barack Obama turn a statistically red state into a blue one when he faces Sen. John McCain in the presidential election.

But it would be a long shot.

"If he were to do it here, that's the place he could do it," Elliott Stonecipher, a political analyst and demographer based in Shreveport, La., said of the "others" voting bloc.

Louisiana's voters classify themselves in one of three ways: Democrat, Republican or "Other Parties." The "others" have been the wild card in past presidential elections. They range in political tastes from libertarian to independent to disillusioned Republican or disgruntled Democrat, Stonecipher said. They're not necessarily undecided, just unattached to a party.

The most recent poll, by American Research Group, shows McCain leading 50% to Obama's 43% in Louisiana. Without the "others," Obama can't win, Stonecipher said. The state has nine electoral votes at stake.

"Something dramatically different has to happen in the race to change the likelihood of McCain winning comfortably here," he said.

Former president Bill Clinton, a Democrat, persuaded enough "others" to vote for him in 1992 and 1996, winning Louisiana both years. But as the so-called Republican revolution spread across the South, Louisiana turned decisively red, helping elect President Bush in 2000 and 2004, Stonecipher said.

The state shifted further right after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when thousands of largely black, mostly Democratic displaced residents fled to Houston, Atlanta and other cities outside the state, he said.

In Louisiana, issues often play a bigger role than party affiliation. Issues such as rebuilding post-Katrina (and, more recently, Hurricanes Gustav and Ike), the national economy and defense could help decide the presidential race here, said Stephen Crow, a business professor at the University of New Orleans. Crow, 66, said he was raised Democratic but voted Republican throughout the 1980s and '90s.

Disillusioned with both parties, he changed his registration to "other" this summer, though he still leans toward McCain, he said. "I've lost complete faith in both parties," Crow said. On Election Day, "I'm going to go into the booth, hold my nose and vote for McCain."

Sarah Scheidler, 24, a project coordinator for Catholic Charities, a non-profit faith-based group, is also registered as an "other." She said Obama's stand on issues such as the economy, reproductive rights and alternative energy — and his ability to admit when he doesn't know — has swayed her vote toward him.

"He seems to be more sincere," she said. "He seems to be OK with not knowing."

One advantage for Obama could be that U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a popular Democratic incumbent from Louisiana, is up for re-election and on the ballot the same day as the presidential election, potentially drawing more Democrats to the polls.

Louisiana's registered voters are not always what they seem, though. Of the state's 2.9 million voters, 1.5 million are registered as Democrats and 729,000 as Republicans, state statistics show. But many of those Democrats have been voting Republican for more than a decade — they just never bothered to change their voting cards, said Wayne Parent, a political science professor at Louisiana State University.

Up until two years ago, Louisiana voters did not have to be registered with a party to vote in that party's primaries, he said.

"Every state in the South voted Republican last time," Parent said. "If you think about the ones that might go Democratic, Louisiana would be about the middle of the pack, not the top."

Deciphering Louisiana's voters is tricky business, even for local politicians. Landrieu won re-election in 2002, at the height of Bush's popularity, despite having Bush campaigning for her opponent, said Scott Schneider, a Landrieu spokesman. Two years later, Sen. David Vitter became the state's first popularly elected Republican U.S. senator.

"Louisiana is different from other states politically," Schneider said. "Democrats are for Republicans, Republicans are for Democrats. They just vote for who they think will be best for that office."

Still, Obama — who has visited Louisiana five times since declaring his run for presidency last year — will need to make serious inroads to sway Louisiana's mostly white, largely conservative electorate. More than race, the main issue Obama will need to overcome in this section of the South is the perception of being too liberal, Stonecipher said.

"Obama's biggest problem here is that he's arguably the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate," he said. "That's the issue in Louisiana — not race."