BEFORE 1992, NO DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE had ever won the white House without carrying Texas. But Bill Clinton successfully flouted the conventional wisdom that year, all but ceding the state to George Bush despite holding a healthy lead in early polls. Will 1996 be different? In theory, Texas should be up for grabs. Clinton’s favorable rating in the state is approaching 50 percent after being mired in the mid-twenties for years, and polls show him running close to or even with Republican Bob Dole. The Republicans have the potential for fratricide: Dole’s state campaign chairman, oilman Boone Pickens, has feuded with U.S. senator Phil Gramm over natural gas policy, and Governor George W. Bush doesn’t have much use for state party chairman Tom Pauken, who was an outspoken critic of Bush’s father as president. Rifts have already opened up over who will lead the fall GOP campaign in the state.
All of this good news for Clinton, however, is not good enough to make a difference. For Democrats, Texas is the flip side of the GOP’s dilemma over whether to contest California. Both states are so big and so expensive to run in that, notwithstanding the huge number of electoral votes at stake—54 in California, 32 in Texas—the underdog can’t afford to commit his limited resources to an all-out battle. With two Republican senators, a Republican governor, and a history of voting Republican in presidential races, Texas is too big a gamble for Clinton to take.
The consequence is that Texans probably won’t see much more of the presidential campaign this fall than they did in 1992, when Bush’s TV spots went unanswered and Clinton made no appearances here between a late-August bus tour and an election-eve visit. Bush won the fifth Republican victory in the six elections since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, and GOP strategists in Texas are predicting that Dole will improve on Bush’s 200,000-vote margin. “I think that at the end of the day, Clinton will not contest Texas and there will be a Dole landslide,” says Dole campaign co-chairman Dick Collins of Dallas.
The thought of a Clinton default dismays Texas Democrats, who aren’t ready to concede the state. “Demographically, Texas is not a Republican state,” insists land commissioner Garry Mauro, who will head up what he hopes is a major Clinton effort here. “If you look at the numbers—blacks, Hispanics, personal income—Texas should be Democratic. If it’s not, it’s our fault.”
Mauro and other Texas Democrats are worried that if Clinton doesn’t make a fight of Texas, a lack of interest will deflate Democratic turnout. This could doom any chance of a Victor Morales upset of Gramm, cost the Democrats several congressional seats, and jeopardize their slender majorities in both houses of the state Legislature. “I told the president last November that we’re not asking for hard money from the Clinton campaign,” Mauro says. “We are asking for soft money from other sources, like the Democratic National Committee. We’ve got to have TV in six key congressional districts.” The six are two Democratic seats in East Texas (Jim Chapman and Charlie Wilson are retiring), two Democratic seats in and around Dallas (John Bryant is retiring and Martin Frost faces a tough reelection battle), and two Republican seats that touch the upper Gulf Coast (freshman Steve Stockman is too notorious for his own good and so is former Libertarian Ron Paul, who won the GOP nomination over party-switcher Greg Laughlin).
But cost isn’t the only reason Clinton won’t mount a serious bid to capture Texas. Here are the other factors that will ultimately give Bob Dole a free ride to victory:
No Perot. Whether he runs or not, Ross Perot doesn’t figure to be the same damaging force to the GOP nationwide that he was in 1992. In Texas, Perot’s 22 percent of the vote held President Bush to 41 percent in his home state, which was barely enough to beat Clinton’s 37 percent. But a third-party candidacy tends to hurt incumbents more than challengers; it provides an option for voters who are disgruntled but not disloyal. A recent poll in a portion of the Metroplex that leans Democratic shows why Republicans aren’t worried about Perot in 1996. Without him in the race, Dole was barely ahead of Clinton, 46 percent to 44 percent. With him, the lead ballooned to 44—35. Perot drew just 10 percent. Democratic polls also show Clinton losing votes to Perot, but fewer.
Unpredictable Hispanics. The best argument for a serious Clinton campaign in Texas is the presence of Morales on the ballot. This is a rare case in which the senatorial candidate could have coattails that would help the presidential candidate, instead of the other way around. But in 1992 a record black turnout in Texas had little impact because of a poor Hispanic turnout: only 650,000. A big showing this November—Mauro is hoping for a million-vote miracle—would more than wipe out the Democratic deficit, but Clinton can’t count on it. Moreover, Republicans are uniformly scornful of Morales’ ability to influence the presidential race, much less defeat Gramm.
The Florida Option. If Clinton is going to try to steal a big state from Dole, Florida would be a smarter choice than Texas. Politically, the two states are a matched pair. Both are growing rapidly, both have lots of electoral votes (Florida has 25), both are urban states that used to be rural, both are Southern states where race isn’t much of an issue, both voted Republican in 1992, and both had popular Democratic governors in 1994 who were opposed by one of the brothers Bush. George W. won, Jeb lost, and you don’t have to be a political genius to figure out where the Democrats’ chances are better. The difference is that Florida’s retirees are worried about what the GOP Congress might do to social security and Medicare, while many Texas retirees are ex-military men with secure pensions.
The Rust Belt Strategy. Clinton and Dole have to reserve their major efforts for the swing states that political pros say will determine the outcome of the 1996 election if it is close: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan. These old industrial states provided Clinton with 99 electoral votes in 1992; if he carries them again, along with California, New York, and traditional Democratic strongholds like Massachusetts and Minnesota, he is assured of reelection.
Why Bother? Although Clinton’s poll numbers in Texas are much improved, they aren’t that good: He’s running even at a time when he has a twenty-point lead nationwide. The obvious conclusion is that if Clinton is in good enough shape to win Texas on Election Day, he won’t need it.