Texas is experiencing a tsunami of early voting that has no precedent. I have linked to the Secretary of State’s Web site, which provides day-by-day election totals and an archive of early voting history in previous elections. To give you an idea of what is going on, here are comparisons of the total votes cast after the first three days of early voting in the seven biggest counties for 2008, 2006, and 2004 primaries (not counting mail-in votes):

Harris 04 — 1,929
Harris 06 — 1,194
Harris 08 — 8,886

Dallas 04 — 1,162
Dallas 06 — 2,145
Dallas 08 — 6,847

Bexar 04 — 1,205
Bexar 06 — 1,902
Bexar 08 — 7,028

Tarrant 04 — 1,005
Tarrant 06 — 2,299
Tarrant 08 — 7,394

Travis 04 — 1,737
Travis 06 — 1,239
Travis 08 — 3,792

El Paso 04 — 890
El Paso 06 — 1,227
El Paso 08 — 2,623

Collin 04 — 1,244
Collin 06 — 1,538
Collin 08 — 4,805

GOP early voting has doubled in El Paso County this year; tripled in Bexar, Tarrant, Dallas, Travis, and Collin counties, and shot up sevenfold (!) in Harris County. Not bad — until you see the Democrats’ numbers.


Harris 04 — 2,392
Harris 06 — 1,379
Harris 08 — 26,729

Dallas o4 — 2,314
Dallas 06 — 1,636
Dallas 08 — 23,312

Bexar 04 — 3,022
Bexar 06 — 3,845
Bexar 08 — 20,926

Tarrant 04 — 1,005
Tarrant 06 — 679
Tarrant 08 –15,888

Travis 04 — 3,743
Travis 06 — 1,367
Travis 08 — 18,389

El Paso 04 — 4,637
El Paso 06 — 5,221
El Paso 08 — 12,807

Collin 04 — 503
Collin 06 — 156
Collin 08 — 6,845 (No, I not did not a mistake.)

Cumulative Early Vote Totals for the 15 Largest Counties, 2008
(includes Denton, Hidalgo, Fort Bend, Montgomery, Williamson, Nueces, Galveston, Cameron)

Republican early vote for first three days: 56,408
Democratic early vote for first three days: 170,580
R’s outvote D’s only in Montgomery County

What does it mean? Let’s start with the conventional wisdom, which is that the same people always vote; this is why campaign consultants spend their efforts on getting regular voters back to the polls instead of trying to attract new voters, which is a waste of time and money. One possible explanation for the explosion of early votes is that people who normally vote on election day, as I prefer to do, are trying to beat the long lines that are projected for election day. I voted early for the first time ever, on the second day of early voting, and was able to get in and out without waiting. But the conventional wisdom doesn’t explain why the Democratic turnout in Collin County has increased by more than 1,300%. What happened? Did half of Berkeley move to Collin County?

More likely, these numbers reflect new voters. Remember, Republican early voting is up too (possibly due to evangelicals supporting Mike Huckabee). I think that something about this election season has attracted more people to mainstream politics than in any election since … well, maybe 1932. One reason, as many have observed, is that this election represents a complete break with the past; it’s the first election since 1952 that did not have a president or vice-president on the ticket: Eisenhower in ’56, Nixon in ’60, Johnson in ’64, Humphrey and Nixon in ’68, Nixon in ’72, Ford in ’76, Carter in ’80, Reagan in ’84, Bush 41 in ’88, Bush again in ’92, Clinton in ’96, Gore in 2000, Bush 43 in ’04 … the end.

The campaign drew a lot of qualified candidates, the debates were interesting, the rise and fall of the candidates’ fortunes made for a good story line — Rudy and Hillary taking the lead, McCain dropping out of sight, Obama’s gradual rise, Rudy’s gradual fall, Huckabee’s emergence, Hillary and Romney poised to win in Iowa, neither winning, Obamamania, Rudy’s collapse, McCain’s re-emergence, Ron Paul’s idiosyncratic wisdom, and then the final four and the unlikely scenario of the Texas primary having a pivotal role. As horse races go, this has been a great one.

What is different about this election — and the early vote reflects it — is the intensity of the interest. The overwhelming unpopularity of George W. Bush and everything his presidency represented is driving the turnout nationally and in Texas, and here you can add contempt for the Perry-Dewhurst-Craddick leadership. Whether voters actually absorbed the knowledge that this is the first election with no heir-apparent or just sensed it as part of the zeitgeist, they are driven to make a clean break with the past and have a personal stake in rejecting Bush. I don’t think it matters what these new voters’ history was — whether they were non-voters or just general election voters or onetime Reagan Democrats coming home. They are voters now. Even if they are Republicans, they are most likely the moderates who didn’t vote in primaries. And they will make the Republican primary more moderate.

Barack Obama’s personality and his message are dominating politics nationwide. The last candidate to stir this kind of feeling was Ronald Reagan in 1980 and before him Bobby Kennedy in 1968. Veteran political observers like me can roll our eyes over someone running for president on a platform of “Hope” and “Change,” but nothing is so powerful as an idea, even a vague one, whose time has come. Obama is riding the whirlwind, and if he can make the moment last until November, it is going to sweep out the Republicans, even in Texas.

These numbers are so overwhelming, and the fifteen counties have such a large fraction of the state’s registered voters — 7,815,906 of 12,607,466, or 62% — that what happens in other 239 counties is unlikely to alter the trend. These numbers have made me a believer. Rick Noriega could defeat John Cornyn. The Democrats can win a majority in the Texas House of Representatives. The consummate irony is that George W. Bush, who made Texas a Republican state on his way in to the presidency, may make it a Democratic state on his way out.