NEW ORLEANS – Mayor Ray Nagin and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, beginning a monthlong run-off campaign for New Orleans mayor, will be fighting over the white conservative voters who favored other candidates in the primary.
Nagin, in a complete reversal from four years ago, scored heavily with black voters and was practically abandoned by whites, while Landrieu scored some black voters and did well with French Quarter residents.
Slightly more than half of the overall vote was attributed to black voters, who favored the top two candidates, according to a consulting firm analyzing demographic data for the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority.
In predominantly white precincts, Nagin trailed behind several other candidates with less than 10 percent, according to GCR & Associates Inc. In 2002, Nagin got most of his support from white voters and business leaders. This time, many of those supported third-place finisher Ron Forman, a nonprofit executive.
Nagin will have to win back their confidence for the May 20 runoff, said political analyst Elliott Stonecipher.
"His one shot is to get enough of the whites who liked him four years ago to like him again," he said.
Roughly a third of the city's voters participated in Saturday's election, some traveling hundreds of miles to help decide who will lead one of the biggest urban reconstruction projects in U.S. history after Hurricane Katrina.
Nagin and Landrieu led a field of 22 candidates, which included business leaders, a lawyer and a minister. Yet voters, as they did in several other municipal races, chose two men already in the political spotlight.
"It was normal, natural to expect some such expression" of frustration against current officeholders after Katrina, Stonecipher said. "Instead, we got the opposite."
The election, in which 36 percent of the 297,000 eligible voters participated, was an unprecedented experiment in democracy because fewer than half of the city's pre-Katrina residents remain in New Orleans. That forced nationwide campaigning and led civil rights activists to question whether the election could be fair.
Political observers said it was difficult to characterize whether turnout was better or worse than expected because it was such an unusual election. In the 2002 municipal primary, turnout was about 46 percent.
Nagin, a cable executive who first ran for office in 2002, said the overall results were an endorsement of his plans for the city's future and his four years in office.
"I just feel we're on the right track, and people have verified that to me," he said.
Before the storm, Nagin, who is black, had been largely expected to easily win a second term. It's too early to tell whether voters have forgiven him for fumbled plans during the storm and later verbal gaffes.
But Landrieu cited the number of voters who chose candidates other than Nagin. "This city, this great city, calls for change," he said.
Forman did not endorse another candidate Sunday. Many conservatives dislike the Landrieu family, and neither candidate in the run-off was likely to take all the Forman voters, political observers said.
Landrieu, who has held office in Louisiana for nearly two decades and is the brother of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, has trumpeted his ability to attract a diverse group of voters. His father, Moon Landrieu, was the last white mayor of New Orleans in the 1970s, and is well-liked in the black community for opening high-ranking City Hall jobs to black professionals.
No major problems were reported at polling places, but the Rev. Jesse Jackson said Sunday the low turnout should be a mandate to further encourage participation among voters unable to return.
Jackson said the election would be challenged in court regardless of the outcome because voting rights need to be protected.
Stonecipher, however, said the turnout may not be a sign of disenfranchisement, but rather an indication that many registered voters don't plan to return.
"The turnout really does speak to the issue of which and how many New Orleanians are still New Orleanians," he said.
Nagin led the mayoral field with 38 percent or 41,489 votes, falling short of the majority needed to secure a second four-year term without the runoff. Landrieu had 29 percent, or 31,499 votes. Forman followed with 17 percent, or 18,734 votes.