Is Texas about to be a Democratic state again? The fact that we’re even asking the question is a sign of how weird and unpredictable this election year has been.
Is Texas still a red state? I never thought I’d be posing that question as early as 2008, but the strength of the Democratic vote in the March 4 primary was so unexpected, so complete a departure from our recent history, that the numbers are potentially the most significant development in Texas politics in thirty years. You have to go back to 1978, when Bill Clements became the first Republican to be elected governor since Reconstruction, for an event of equivalent importance. Apparently Democrats do exist here, and in places hitherto thought to be uninhabitable by their species, such as the bedrock Republican suburbs. The discovery is akin to learning that life exists on Mars: It means that the universe is not what we thought it was.
The combined turnout for the two parties of 4,253,116 smashed the previous record of 2.7 million, set in 1988, which was the last time Texans had a chance to affect a presidential race. The primary turnout came close to matching the vote in the 2006 general election, when 4,399,116 ballots were cast in the governor’s race. This kind of participation has no precedent. Of all the numbers, though, the one that really caught people’s attention was the total vote in the Democratic primary: 2,868,454, more than double the Republican primary vote of 1,384,662.
The Democratic wave should scare Republicans to death, because it raises the specter of realignment. We have seen it happen before. For much of the twentieth century, Texas was a one-party—that is, Democratic—state. Many counties didn’t even hold Republican primaries. Conservatives routinely voted in the Democratic primary because that was the election in which local officials (judges, sheriffs, legislators) were chosen; they then voted Republican for president or governor in the general election. Demographic change, driven by economic growth, corporate relocations to the Houston and Dallas metro areas, and urban decay, set the stage for the rise of the suburbs and eventual realignment. The triggers were the election of Ronald Reagan as president, in 1980, and of Phil Gramm as U.S. senator, in 1984. The Republican era reached its zenith in 2002, when the GOP won a substantial majority of the Texas House, capturing the last state government stronghold that had been under Democratic control.
The most telling evidence of change in 2008 has been the Democratic vote in the big urban and suburban counties. It was the growth of these counties—Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Collin, Denton, Fort Bend, Montgomery, Williamson—that Karl Rove used to convince George W. Bush that he could defeat Ann Richards in 1994. Well, take a look at the turnout in the March primary. (I have rounded all numbers downward to the nearest thousand.) Harris County: 405,000 Democratic voters; 169,000 Republican voters. Dallas County: 297,000 D’s; 91,000 R’s. Tarrant County: 199,000 D’s; 100,000 R’s. Collin County: 72,000 D’s; 51,000 R’s. Denton County: 54,000 D’s; 38,000 R’s. Fort Bend County: 69,000 D’s; 35,000 R’s. Montgomery County: 41,000 R’s; 30,000 D’s. Williamson County: 49,000 D’s; 28,000 R’s.
These are staggering results. Before the start of early voting on February 19, it was unimaginable that the Democrats would outpoll the Republicans in seven of these eight counties by margins ranging from solid to overwhelming. If the numbers are truly reflective of party identification, then Harris County is better than two to one Democratic and Dallas County is more than three to one. Tarrant County, regarded as the most Republican of the big counties, is two to one Democratic. So is Fort Bend County, Tom DeLay’s former home base. The political implications are far-reaching. Democrats could realize their goal of sweeping the Harris County courthouse in November, as their counterparts in Dallas County did two years ago (the first flicker of realignment). Democrat Nick Lampson could win reelection in DeLay’s old district, a race that is the Republicans’ number one target nationally. The national Democratic party, flush with money, could decide that Texas is in play in the fall and fund Rick Noriega’s long-shot challenge to U.S. senator John Cornyn, a congressional race or two, and even some state legislative races, in anticipation of the 2010 elections and a redistricting battle in 2011.
The place where realignment is most evident is Williamson County, north of Austin. I came across this history of its changing political loyalties in a Democratic blog, eyeonwilliamson.org: “Over the past ten years, Williamson and other suburban counties have been climbing the rankings of Texas counties’ Democratic performance. Ten years ago, Williamson ranked 231st out of 254 counties in delivering votes for the Democrat at the top of the ticket. In 2000, we inched up to 215th. In 2002, we languished at 216th. Our rise to prominence in the state really took off in 2004 when we climbed 180 places to 36th. Two years ago, we shot up to 18th. Based on the early voting patterns, there is a chance that Williamson will join Travis County as the best performing counties in Texas for Democrats.”
What happened was middle-class demographic change. The spiraling cost of living in Travis County drove prospective homeowners into southern Williamson County in search of affordable housing, and they brought their liberal Austin values with them. The political ramifications were clear in the 2006 election, when Republican state representative Mike Krusee won reelection with a bare 50.44 percent against an unknown, unfunded Democrat. He prudently decided not to run again. Similar changes are occurring on the urban fringes of Harris, Dallas, and Tarrant counties, where older neighborhoods are in transition from owners to renters and from whites to minorities.
At the very least, the primary turnout provides a snapshot of a highly motivated Democratic electorate at a particular moment. The question is whether these figures represent voters with a permanent allegiance to the Democratic party or a temporary liaison formed during a hotly contested presidential primary between two candidates with large and enthusiastic constituencies. Speculation already abounds about whether supporters of the Democratic candidate who does not win the nomination will show up for the general election.
Yet another explanation for the Democratic surge is that conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh urged Republicans to vote in the Democratic primary for Hillary Clinton. “Limbaugh has been actively urging his Texas listeners to cross over and vote for Clinton in that state’s open primary . . . ,” CNN’s Political Ticker reported on the day of the primary, “arguing it helps the Republicans if the Democratic race remains unsettled for weeks to come. ‘I want Hillary to stay in this . . . this is too good a soap opera,’ Limbaugh told fellow conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham on Fox News Friday. He reiterated the comments on his Monday show and replayed the exchange with Ingraham.” The idea was to keep the race competitive so that the two leading Democrats would continue to attack each other, and I heard lots of anecdotal evidence that the strategy worked. Friends told me of Republicans standing in line to vote Democratic who theatrically rolled their eyes and held their noses.
The extent of crossover voting has been the subject of considerable debate. This is a high-stakes argument, because if the Democratic turnout was inflated by hundreds of thousands of Republican saboteurs, the numbers are inconclusive. Former Republican party political director Royal Masset, who feared a GOP catastrophe when he saw the Democrats’ huge lead in early voting, was reassured by a 693,000-vote gap between the votes cast in the Democratic presidential race and those cast in the U.S. Senate race. Writing in the Quorum Report, a nonpartisan online political newsletter, he attributed the difference to half a million Republicans who had voted for president in the Democratic primary but skipped a Senate race they had no interest in. In his scenario, the 30,500 “Democratic” voters in Collin County who cast ballots in the presidential race but not in the Senate race (a dropoff of 43 percent) were really R’s.
My unscientific belief is that the Republican party brand isn’t what it used to be in Texas and that many former Republican primary voters have become independents. Their GOP primary voting history identifies them as Republicans, but as Democratic voter-targeting specialist Leland Beatty likes to say, “they are persuadable.” These voters are no less likely than committed Republicans to have skipped the Senate race; both groups have no inclination to vote. Beatty told me that he has found that a maximum of 1 to 2 percent of the Democratic turnout was composed of what he calls “insincere” voters—those with long histories of voting in Republican primaries. Another significant group of crossover Republicans are those who live in Democratic bastions like Travis County or the big border counties and want to vote in high-profile local elections (a four-way contested primary for district attorney in Austin, an eleven-candidate sheriff’s race in El Paso).
Beatty and Republican pollster Mike Baselice have separately concluded that a total of 7 to 8 percent of the Democratic ballots were cast by self-identified Republicans. “There is simple and conclusive evidence regarding Republican participation in the Democratic primary,” Baselice wrote in a monograph, “and that evidence shows Republican turnout in the Democratic primary was not a determining factor, and that GOP participation in 2008 was similar to past Democratic primary elections.”
The ultimate lesson of the ’08 primary is that Texas was never as solidly Republican as it appeared to be. Democrats have been out there during the fourteen years since George W. Bush was elected governor, but they existed in political purgatory: no major officeholders, no bench, no presidential campaigning in the state, no effective party organization. When the state suddenly became pivotal in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, the pent-up enthusiasm busted out, resulting in record turnout for the primary and a million participants in the post-election caucuses. Democratic operatives now have names and contact information for voters, activists, and volunteers that can be used to build a party infrastructure. Texas is still a red state, but there may be life on Mars after all.