HOW HE SEES IT Evacuees could change political landscape
By PETER A. BROWN
The idea that the New Orleans tragedy could change the nation's political landscape wrongly focuses on President Bush's popularity. The true significance could be the long-term effect on voting by potential hurricane-related population shifts.
If large numbers of residents don't return to New Orleans, election returns in Louisiana and the region -- perhaps even the country -- could change substantially.
At first glance, that would seem to be bad news for Louisiana Democrats, although it's not clear whether a diaspora would help the party in states to which the migrants move.
Of course, it is easy to speculate how the tragedy will change public opinion. The chattering class assumes that Bush's poll numbers will suffer, and they may be right.
Even if so, however, it is not easy to see how that will actually matter. After all, Bush will never stand for election again.
Democrats hope that unhappiness about the federal response to the hurricane's damage can gin up voters in November 2006 against Republican candidates. They hope a decline in Bush's popularity will persuade some members of Congress who would ordinarily support his proposals, or Supreme Court nominations, to distance themselves from his lame-duck administration.
It's nice theory, definitely good cocktail party conversation.
Yet we will probably never know for sure whether that is the case -- no matter the actual results. After all, 2006 is the sixth year of the president's term, and history shows that in such elections the out-party (in this case, the Democrats) pick up seats in Congress and governorships anyway.
There are two politicians whose futures are tied to Hurricane Katrina -- Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican. Both are up for re-election in 2007.
Blanco looks to be toast. Nothing is certain, of course, but if she were a stock, Wall Street analysts would be issuing sell recommendations based on the public perception of her flat-footed crisis leadership. Barbour's future is less clear; frankly, his political base was firmer to begin with.
Yet all this misses the bigger issue of the impending population shifts caused by New Orleans' devastation. Those changes could conceivably cost Louisiana a congressional seat in the 2010 redistricting.
Moreover, in heavily Republican Dixie, Democrats rank Louisiana third behind Florida and Arkansas as states in which they can become more competitive. After all, President Clinton won Louisiana in 1992 and 1996, and the governor and Sen. Mary Landrieu are Democrats.
That is largely because the state's voting-age population is about 30 percent black, although their percentage of voters is somewhat less. Much of the state's black population is in New Orleans, where it combines with a sizable and politically active gay community to provide the state Democratic base.
Even while carrying the state in 2004, Bush lost Orleans Parish by almost 110,000 votes out of fewer than 200,000 cast. Without Orleans Parish, Landrieu would not be in the Senate, and Blanco's election could have been very, very close.
Yet if the news reports are to believed, it may be years, if ever, before the city is re-inhabited as it was before the storm. There is speculation that many of those forced out will not return.
Depending on where they resettle, Democrats in Louisiana could be even worse off because it is logical to suggest that the lion's share of those lost voters would be theirs. Of course, many might resettle in the New Orleans suburbs or elsewhere in the state. And, there could be a short-term anti-GOP backlash because of resentment over the storm response.
But, in the long-term, if large numbers of people leave Louisiana, that could be a major Democratic problem.
If they do, will that, in turn, change the political status quo in states where they settle?
The largest number of Louisiana evacuees headed for Texas, the most solidly Republican of the nation's major states. Even if a hundred thousand or more settled there, it would be unlikely to change Texas politics.
The same also is probably true for Alabama and Mississippi, which border Louisiana. Florida is obviously the Southern state Democrats covet. But the Sunshine State's size (and distance from Louisiana) would require the kind of wholesale migration of ex-New Orleans residents that does not seem in the cards. The same is likely true for Tennessee.
However, the state where New Orleans evacuees might have significant impact is Arkansas. It is small -- and perhaps because of the Clinton influence, still in play -- that a large group of new Democrats might make a difference for Arkansas' six electoral votes in a close election.
Let's remember how many new Democrats move there when we start forecasting the 2008 Electoral College.
X Peter A. Brown is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.