The day of reckoning is coming. It could occur as soon as 2010, more likely by 2014, or perhaps as late as 2022, but nothing can prevent the moment when demographics takes over and the sleeping giant of Texas politics—the Hispanic vote—awakes at last and restores the Democratic party to its rightful hegemony.
Or at least that’s the dream. The stuff the dream is made of can be found in the projections of Texas’s population by state demographer Steve Murdock, at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Assuming that net immigration continues at the pace established in the last decade of the twentieth century, Hispanics will constitute 59.2 percent of the state’s population in 2040, Anglos but 23.9 percent. Long before then, Texas will be a Democratic stronghold again.
Or will it? Both the numbers and the anecdotal evidence suggest that Republicans are doing increasingly well with Hispanic voters here—so well, in fact, that the Democratic dream may be turning into a nightmare. This ought not to come as a surprise. The Hispanic population has become economically diverse. Even in South Texas, which lags behind the rest of the state economically, an upper middle class is emerging. But more than economics is involved. South Texas Democratic politics remains mired in the ways of the past—clan warfare, boss rule, and petty (and not-so-petty) corruption—and the Republican party has been the beneficiary.
The division of the Hispanic vote between the two major parties is one of the most crucial—and most disputed—statistics in Texas electoral politics. The William C. Velasquez Institute, in San Antonio, has long been regarded as the most authoritative source for how Hispanics are voting. But its exit polling of the recent gubernatorial race, based on 440 respondents in 32 selected precincts across the state, is simply not credible: Chris Bell, 39.5 percent; Carole Keeton Strayhorn, 28.6 percent; Kinky Friedman, 14.3 percent; and Rick Perry, 13.9 percent. Perry campaigned vigorously in South Texas. He had the support of eleven mayors (presumably Democratic, although the office is nonpartisan). Democratic sheriffs appeared in his TV ads on border security. A Dallas Morning News poll a few days before the election showed him getting 37 percent of the Hispanic vote. His actual performance in the big South Texas counties suggests that he did considerably better than the 13.9 percent in the Velasquez Institute’s exit poll. Perry got more votes in Cameron County than Bell did (the margin was only a few dozen votes, but he carried the county). He got approximately four thousand more votes than Bell in Nueces County. He lost Hidalgo County to Bell but still received 33.5 percent of the vote to Bell’s 42.67 percent. El Paso was even closer: Bell, 36.2 percent; Perry, 33.04 percent. Even in Webb County, Tony Sanchez’s home base, where Bell beat Perry by a two-to-one margin, Perry had 25 percent of the vote.
Granted, this is not a scientific analysis: There is no way to know how many Hispanics were represented in Perry’s total votes in these counties. But we do know from 2004 population estimates that Hispanics outnumber Anglos by approximately seven to one in Cameron County and by nine to one in Hidalgo County. To be competitive, Perry had to get a lot of Hispanic votes—a lot more than 13.9 percent.
The Velasquez Institute was not alone in doing exit polling in Texas. CNN and the Associated Press, among other national organizations, collaborated on far-more-extensive exit polling—2,090 respondents statewide. Their findings were considerably different from the Velasquez Institute’s: Bell, 41 percent; Perry, 31 percent; Strayhorn, 18 percent; and Friedman, 9 percent. What might account for the considerable variation? In 2004, when the Velasquez Institute gave George W. Bush a lower percentage of the Hispanic vote than most other polling organizations, critics suggested that the culprit might have been an unduly heavy reliance on inner-city precincts, which could have missed the move of upwardly mobile Hispanics to more-affluent areas, where, the theory goes, they are more likely to vote Republican.
Two questions emerge as crucial in the battle for the Hispanic vote in Texas: How do Hispanics vote, and why don’t they vote in greater numbers? Nationally, the increase in Hispanic voting is startling. The pollster John Zogby wrote recently that Hispanics constituted “5 percent of 95 million voters in 1996, 6 percent of 105 million voters in 2000, and 8.5 percent of 122 million voters in 2004.” Projecting to 2008, Zogby says, “With a highly competitive election and a heavy voter registration drive, we could be looking at an electorate that includes a Hispanic component amounting to 10 percent of 130 million voters.”
Imagine what might have happened in Texas had Hispanic participation grown by 65 percent over the past three election cycles. But it hasn’t. Mike Baselice, a well-regarded Republican pollster, says that the portion of the voting electorate that is Hispanic increases by roughly half of a percentage point every two years: for example, from 16.5 percent of the electorate in 2002 to 17 percent in 2004. At that rate, it will take sixteen years for the Hispanic vote to become a quarter of the electorate. And this was a lost year: Compared with the 2002 gubernatorial election, when Tony Sanchez headed the Democratic ticket, turnout in South Texas was dismal. Maverick County had a 15 percent turnout of registered voters, the lowest in the state, down from 26.5 percent in 2002. In Hidalgo County, the turnout dropped by a third; at 17 percent, it too was one of the lowest in the state. In Webb, the turnout was only 18 percent.
The low participation rate, particularly in traditional barrios, has been the subject of considerable discussion on the Internet. “What’s up with the decreasing Hispanic voter turnout [in Nueces County]?” asked a writer for the South Texas Chisme blog. “Blockwalkers were falling all over each other in the west-side precincts. Many of the low performing neighborhoods had 4 or 5 visits to each door.” But Republicans won three high-profile races in Nueces: county judge, sheriff, and