Argue all you want about the level of Hispanic turnout in the 2006 elections, but one thing is certain: Demographic inevitability alone won’t save the Democrats.
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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 court of appeals judge. Some of the explanations offered are obvious (the absence of a big name at the top of the Democratic ticket, strong Republican candidates at the local level), and others are familiar concerns (the perception in South Texas that the Democratic party took the border for granted when it was in power and still does, the grinding effect of poverty, which leads people to believe that voting benefits only the politicians, not the voters).
History and culture play a role as well. I learned a great deal about the history of Hispanic political involvement from the late Ruben Munguia, who, in addition to being Henry Cisneros’s uncle and political tutor, was one of a group of small-business owners who, in the years after World War II, first gave San Antonio’s West Side a voice in the affairs of the city. Munguia’s father was a printer in Mexico who came to San Antonio in the twenties when the successful Mexican Revolution turned left. “In Mexico,” Munguia once told me, “the government never did anything for you, it only did things to you.” That culture was transplanted to Texas, where the patrón system evolved, in which local political bosses exchanged favors (such as paying for funerals or arranging for a job) for votes. Straight-ticket Democratic votes. This was palanca (lever) politics: Vote Democrat and shut your eyes to what was going on. It was enforced by politiqueras, political workers (mostly female) who were, and still are, paid to get out the vote. Politics often took the form of a battle of clans in which power was an end in itself. Take over a county, a city, or a school board and you gained control of patronage: The “outs” got fired and the “ins” got hired. And so it went, decade after decade.
Democratic state representative Aaron Peña, of Edinburg, took on the subject of low Hispanic turnout in his blog, A Capitol Blog. “I am frequently asked why incumbent Court of Appeals judge Fred Hinojosa lost his race to [Republican] Rose Vela out of Corpus Christi,” he wrote. Peña mentioned the respect accorded the Vela name in South Texas and the growing number of Hispanics in the middle and upper middle classes. But he condemned “the sad legacy of South Texas boss or strongman politics which relied heavily on patrón-managed turnout rather than the advocacy of ideas.”
I called Peña to ask his opinion of the Velasquez Institute’s finding that Perry received only 13.9 percent of the Hispanic vote statewide. “That can’t be right,” he said. “Republicans are gaining ground. There has been a dramatic change in my lifetime of an educated middle and upper middle class, a tremendous growth in wealth. The banks are Hispanic friendly. There’s more capital available. This area is not hostile to Republicans. City leaders responded to Perry. Most Hispanics are socially conservative when it comes to gay marriage, respect for the military, and, if you’re older, abortion.” But Peña also assigns part of the blame for Hinojosa’s loss to “the historic neglect of the region by the state and national Democratic party.” There were no Democratic signs up, he said, but Perry and comptroller candidate Susan Combs went to Hidalgo County and put up signs. Even the politiqueras are no longer reliably Democratic; they’ll sell their services to the highest bidder.
Democrats are going to have to clean up their act or they are going to lose more and more races in South Texas. The older people who have lived under the patrón system all their lives are dying out. Younger, upwardly mobile Hispanics will not put up with it. The old ways will not go peacefully, but they will go. If Democrats ever hope to dominate this state again, they are going to have to recruit and elect clean candidates like Juan Garcia, a former Navy pilot and graduate of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, who defeated an incumbent Republican in a legislative race in Corpus Christi. They are going to have to base their appeals to voters on issues, not party loyalty. Otherwise, Republicans will have every bit as much claim to the Hispanic vote as Democrats do.
Peña ended his blog post with “Only time will tell.” He might well have added: “And time is running out.”