Richard Murray on the Harris County Vote
Tue September 21, 2010 6:56 pm

In an earlier version of this post, I mistakenly wrote that the 1990 governor's race was between Richards and Bush. It was, of course, between Bush and Clayton Williams. The mistake was mine, not Dr. Murray's, and has been corrected.

This article from the blog of Dr. Richard Murray, a well known Houston polling authority and professor at the University of Houston, focuses on the importance of the Harris County vote in statewide elections. It was sent to me by a correspondent. I have some short comments at the end.

The Importance of Harris County in Texas Gubernatorial Elections: A Review of the Historical Patterns

[Dr. Murray writes]

When virtually all Harris County’s election gear burned in a mysterious early morning warehouse fire last weekend, that blaze also ignited quite a buzz about how this might affect the 2010 governor election. The conventional wisdom is that Democrat Bill White will need both a big turnout locally and a sizable margin of victory here to unseat the ten-year Republican incumbent, Rick Perry. Any disruption in the normal electoral process in Harris County, if such results in reduced turnout, is expected to benefit Governor Perry at Mr. White’s expense.

Before getting into that, I thought it might be useful to look at the role Harris County has placed in Texas governor elections since the Republican Party became a serious statewide threat to the long dominant Democrats in the 1970s.

The table below summarizes the vote for governor in Harris County in the last eight General Elections, starting in 1978. The table reports the Harris County vote for the Democratic and Republican nominees as well as other candidates. It also shows what percentage of the two-party vote the Democrat got in Harris County, and how that compared to their statewide percentage.

Gubernatorial Vote Patterns in Harris County: 1978 – 2006

1978
John Hill (D) vs. Bill Clements (R)

Hill Harris County167,814
Clements Harris County 190,728

D percentage of Harris County two-party vote: 46.8%
D statewide percentage:
49.6%

D -2.8%

(In other words, Hill ran better statewide than he did in Harris County.)

1982
M. White (D) vs. Bill Clements (R)

White Harris County 240,279
Clements Harris County 231,045

D percentage of Harris Countytwo-party vote: 51.0%
D percentage statewide 53.7%

D -2.7%

1986
M. White (D) vs. Clements (R)

White Harris County 267,685
Clements Harris County 238,119

D% of Harris County two-party vote: 52.9
D% statewide: 46.6

Harris County: D +6.3

1990
Richards (D) vs. Bush (R)
Richards Harris County: 290,118
Bush Harris County: 259,821

D% of the two-party vote: 51.9%
D% of the statewide vote: 51.3%

D = +.6%

1994
Richards (D) vs. Bush (R)

Richards Harris County 290,118
Bush Harris County 348,507
D% of two-party vote: 45.4
D% of statewide vote: 46.2

D = -.8%

1998
Mauro (D) vs. Bush (R)

Mauro Harris County: 183,045
Bush Harris County: 350,309

D% of the Harris County vote: 34.3%
D% of the statewide vote: 31.4%

D = 2.9%

2002
Sanchez (D) vs. Perry (R)

Sanchez Harris County 280,077
Perry Harris County 355,293

D% of Harris County 2-party vote: 44.1%
D% statewide
40.9%

D +3.2%

2006
Bell (D) vs. Perry (R)

Bell Harris County 203,102
Perry Harris County 215,150

D% of Harris County two-party vote: 48.6%
D% statewide: 43.2%

D+ 5.4%
[161,000 Friedman, Strayhorn votes
not counted due to four candidates in race--pb].

[Dr. Murray writes]

The data show Harris County has been a competitive county in governor elections since 1978, excepting 1998 when Governor George W. Bush blew out an underfunded Democrat, Gary Mauro.

In 1978 and 1982, Republican nominees ran stronger in Harris County than they did statewide, despite the fact that in both years the Democratic nominees, John Hill (1978) and Mark White (1982) were local residents.

Lately, Harris County has become more Democratic than the state as a whole. In 2006, Democrat Chris Bell got just 43.2 percent of the two-party statewide vote, but took 48.6 percent in Harris County. Still, Mr. Bell lost his home county to Rick Perry, so Bill White has to run considerably better than the last Democratic nominee if he is to come out of Harris County with a large enough lead to put the state into play.

Looking at history, Bill White’s 2010 performance in Harris County can probably best be measured against Democrat Mark White’s (no relation) showing in 1986. Twenty four years ago, Governor Mark White got about 53 percent of the vote locally, and carried the county by a little less than 30,000 votes. Mark White did well locally because he got about 40 percent of the Anglo vote, 80 percent of the Hispanic vote, and over 95 percent of the African American vote. If Bill White can repeat that performance with these local voter populations in 2010, he would carry Harris County by about 56-57 percent of the two-party vote because the Anglo vote share is significantly lower today than was the case in the mid-1980s. Of course, there are a lot of other differences between 2010 and 1986, and most of those factors generally work to the benefit of Republicans in this election cycle. That means Bill White has his work cut out for him to match or exceed Mark White’s performance a quarter-century ago.

* * * *

My remarks:

The point of this table is to show that Harris County tends to vote more Democratic than the state as a whole.
I am in agreement with Dr. Murray's analysis. In fact, I used the 56% for White as the number he has to get in Harris County if he is to defeat Rick Perry in my editorial column this month in TEXAS MONTHLY. That doesn't mean I think he can get it.

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