The two candidates heading into Saturday's run-off election for mayor of New Orleans face an unusual challenge: reaching thousands of constituents who fled the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina nine months ago and are now scattered across the nation.
“We don’t know how many people there are in the city and out of the city,” said Jim Carvin, a senior political consultant for Mayor Ray Nagin, who is seeking re-election. “The problem is that we don’t know how to reach them.”
Political observers say the number of displaced residents makes the outcome of the race hard to predict, so it's anybody's guess who will be the winner after polls close at 9 p.m. EDT on Saturday.
Nagin faces Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu in one of the nation's most watched mayoral races; the two had the most votes in last month's primary out of 23 candidates.
Saturday's winner will face the daunting task of rebuilding a city devastated by Katrina, which left 1,000 dead and caused the city's population to drop from 500,000 to about 200,000.
Nagin, 49, who has led the city before and after Katrina, touts his experience overseeing reconstruction despite receiving criticism for his handling of the job. He entered New Orleans politics in 2002 on an outsider's platform, vowing to fight the corruption for which the city is infamous. The former cable company executive rallied black and white voters in a run-off election in 2002.
Landrieu, 45, who has held positions in the state legislature and state offices, says New Orleans needs a change in leadership. If Landrieu wins, he will become the Crescent City's first white mayor since his father held office in the 1970s.
The race of individual voters will be a factor in the outcome, said Edward Chervenak, assistant professor at the University of New Orleans.
Chervenak said Landrieu is getting support from the white and black communities, while Nagin is seeing support only from black voters. A 67 percent majority of the city's residents are black.
“The problem for Mayor Nagin is that the white community that basically voted him in in 2002 has abandoned him in 2006. A lot of people feel he has been ineffective during the storm and with the recovery,” Chervenak said.
During last month's primary that sent the two candidates to a run-off, 53 percent of the electorate was black, while white voters made up 42 percent and other races comprised the remaining 5 percent, according to the Louisiana Secretary of State's Office.
Landrieu has the advantage of name recognition from a political family. His sister is Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, and he is the son of former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu.
But whether his well-known name and family dynasty will help Landrieu follow in his father's footsteps remains to be seen. Carvin said Landrieu's family name could be a burden.
“I think people are tired of the old politics of New Orleans and Louisiana. We have a reputation for being terrible in terms of politics,” Carvin said. "He hasn't come up through the political ranks like his opponent."
Landrieu campaign spokeswoman Emily Sneed countered that argument by pointing to his 18 years in public service.
“I think his experience in the political arena shows that he knows how to bring people together to get things done,” Sneed said.
Another factor voters will have to weigh is the candidates' platforms, which experts say are not very different.
"The candidates don't differ all that much... I think this is going to come down to leadership," said Peter Burns, associate political science professor at Loyola University and author of "Electoral Politics Is Not Enough."
But the biggest challenge is that "this election doesn't allow the candidates to know who is ahead or who is behind," Burns said, adding that public polling data can't be used with so few residents living in the city.
The mayor’s race has attracted national attention because most Americans are familiar with the city and its rich history of jazz, tourism and politics.
Nagin became a national figure after the Hurricane Katrina when fingers were being pointed in all directions to lay blame for the disastrous aftermath.
The mayor also drew attention with comments at a Martin Luther King Day event in January, when he said he wanted New Orleans to return to being a "chocolate city."
“It’s time for us to come together. It’s time for us to rebuild New Orleans — the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans,” the mayor said. “This city will be a majority African American city. It’s the way God wants it to be. You can’t have New Orleans no other way. It wouldn’t be New Orleans.”
A day after the comments, Nagin said he would take back some of the comments, if he could.
“I used some analogies and probably didn’t hit the mark on my message. But I never intended to offend anyone,” Nagin said.
More than 22,000 votes have been cast in early voting at poll sites around the state, and 19,212 mail ballots have been requested, according to figures released by the Louisiana secretary of state's office.
Out of the 22,134 votes cast so far, 14,428 voters were black, 6,994 were white and 712 fell into another category, but which candidate won those votes is unknown.