POLITICS: Campaigns

Thoughts on the Texas primary results

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,College,Michael Barone,Texas,2014 Elections,Campaigns,John Cornyn,Wendy Davis,Minusextra,Greg Abbott

Texas, the nation's second largest state, held the nation's first primary yesterday. There were no great surprises in the results: the two governor candidates, Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat Wendy Davis, had no serious opposition, and Republican Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Pete Sessions were renominated over opponents some labeled Tea Partiers by wide margins.

Texas does not have party registration: Any voter can vote in either party's primary. That means that primary turnout gives some indication of the balance between the parties. Some national Democrats have embarked on a project to “paint Texas blue” -- to make the Democratic party competitive in a state which has elected only Republican senators and governors starting in 1994 and which has generally been counted as safely Republican in presidential races going back to 1980 (although it was close in 1992 and 1996 when Republicans were losing nationally to Bill Clinton). Yesterday's results suggest that the “paint Texas blue” project has not made much headway. I've listed below the Republican and Democratic turnout in gubernatorial primaries going back to 1982; I've rounded off each number to the nearest thousand and indicated the Republican percentage of the two-party primary vote.

Election year Total Republican votes Total Democratic votes Republican percentage of overall
2014 1,333,000 546,000 71
2010 1,485,000 681,000 69
2006 656,000 509,000 56
2002 620,000 1,003,000 38
1998 597,000 492,000 55
1994 557,000 1,037,000 35
1990 855,000 1,487,000 37
1986 545,000 1,096,000 33
1982 266,000 1,319,000 17

 

There's an obvious trend here, then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison challenged Gov. Rick Perry, but with no serious contest this year for governor (and not much of a contest for senator), Republican turnout stayed up and, despite the national hoopla for Davis, Democratic turnout declined somewhat rather than surged. Looking further back, Democratic turnout spiked in 2002 when Laredo banker Tony Sanchez ran a self-financed campaign that brought many Hispanics to the polls; in 1994 and earlier years, Democratic turnout was consistently about twice as high as Republican turnout and five times as high in 1982. What I think is happening is that up through 1994, many voters chose Democratic ballots, because Democrats won most down-ballot offices and state legislative seats and were at least competitive in governor and senator contests. If you wanted to affect the outcome, you voted Democratic. Republicans' increasing success -- they now hold all the down-ballot offices and significant majorities in both houses of the legislature -- means that nowadays if you want to affect the outcome, you vote Republican. So the Republican turnout edge in 2010 and 2014 substantially overstates Republican strength in general elections; in the six contests for president, governor and senator starting in 2008, Texas has voted between 54- and 58-percent Republican.

And there is one set of numbers that give Democrats some reason for hope: turnout in presidential primaries. The following table gives the numbers in the same format as above, starting in 1988; in 1984, Ronald Reagan had no opposition and Democrats didn’t have a presidential primary in Texas.

Election year Total Republican votes Total Democratic votes Republican percentage of overall
2012 1,449,000 590,000 71
2008 1,362,000 2,875,000 32
2004 688,000 839,000 45
2000 1,127,000 787,000 59
1996 1,020,000 921,000 53
1992 797,000 1,483,000 35
1988 1,014,000 1,767,000 36

 

The big outlier here is 2008. Texas voted on March 4, a month after Mitt Romney dropped out of the race, when John McCain was clearly headed for the Republican nomination though Mike Huckabee was still running -- and when there was a rip-roaring close Democratic contest between then-Sen. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Clinton beat Obama 51 percent to 47 percent in Texas and carried 226 of 254 counties (one was a tie and in three there were no Democratic votes cast). She ran especially strong in the overwhelmingly Hispanic Rio Grande Valley; Obama carried heavily black and upscale areas in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex and metro Houston as well as university constitutencies (Texas A&M's Brazos County as well as UT's Travis County, his strongest in the state). Clearly both Obama and Clinton generated large turnout among their constituencies.

Obama will not be on the ballot again, but Clinton may very well be. And the primary results give Democrats some reason to hope that she could stimulate Hispanic turnout to record high levels. But it should be kept in mind that Texas Hispanics have been less heavily Democratic than those in states like New York, New Jersey, Illinois and California, and that black turnout in November 2008 and 2012 may have peaked to levels that any Democratic nominee other than Obama will have trouble matching. Clinton may also run stronger in rural and small town Texas, just about all of which she carried, than Obama did. But it’s not clear that this would be enough to paint Texas blue.

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