Hidden votes and shifting political winds have made tomorrow's Louisiana gubernatorial race more difficult to track than usual for J. Bradford Coker.
Since he started polling Louisiana voters last month, Coker, president of Mason Dixon Opinion Research Inc., of Columbia, has seen supporters of David Duke, the Republican and former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, come out of hiding and then duck back under the polling radar again.
He has adjusted his surveys to account for Duke supporters who won't tell telephone pollsters their preference when the former Klansman is under fire on racial and religion issues.
And he's seen momentum swing back and forth right up to the last week of the campaign, with Democratic candidate Edwin Edwards now on the rise. It's the most difficult race to poll, he said, since he tracked Duke's unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate last year.
"They can shift and you can't catch it because people are sensitive and careful about what they reveal, not only to pollsters but to their friends," said Coker, whose independent polling firm surveyed 30 state races last year and tracked major campaigns this year in Pennsylvania and Mississippi.
"I think if they held the election two weeks ago, Duke would have won," he said. "Since then, [the Edwards campaign has] pulled out everything except the kitchen sink to throw at Duke."
The poll taken in late October showed Edwards with a 46 to 42 percent lead. A survey taken Tuesday and Wednesday gave Edwards a more comfortable lead -- 49 to 42 percent, suggesting that the undecided vote has shifted to him.
Duke, 41, has appealed to many white Louisiana voters by telling them they get hurt by affirmative action and welfare programs. He has refined his speech to eliminate direct reference to race, in contrast to his days as a Klansman when he celebrated Adolph Hitler's birthday.
Edwards, 64, is a flamboyant former two-term governor of Louisiana who twice was indicted and twice was acquitted of corruption charges. He received solid black support in a three-way primary election that unseated incumbent Gov. Buddy Roemer, but he has a higher unfavorable rating than Duke among white Louisiana voters, according to a Mason Dixon poll.
Coker said Edwards has succeeded in shifting the debate from Duke's race-hate rhetoric of the past to the issue of whether he is qualified to govern a state. An allegation that Duke is not as religious as he claims also helped Edwards, he said.
Coker said his poll indicates that Edwards is more likely than Duke to win, but he hedges on making a prediction. He has contended that the former governor needed to reach 50 percent in the polls to be assured of victory because of Duke's stealth vote, and that hasn't happened.
"I'm not writing Duke off by any means," Coker said. "This is the classic anyone-can-win type of election."
David A. Bositis, an analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, expressed concern that even if Duke loses, he will become a force in national politics, possibly mounting a presidential campaign in 1992.
"Duke is not going to go away," Bositis said. "He's not going to disappear. He has a personality, a message, and appeal that resonates the discontent of a lot of people."