The Morning After for Texas Democrats

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A look at electoral returns and public opinion data helps explain why Democratic exuberance in the days after the Wendy Davis filibuster has been replaced with more measured analyses. Democratic intoxication in the immediate aftermath of the defeat of the abortion legislation and the elevation of Davis has given way to the real difficulties that Democrats still face in mobilizing an allegedly receptive base of voters.

The grim performance of Democratic candidates in Texas over the last 10 years is hard to understate. Over the previous decade, the closest Democrats have been to any of the big ticket offices were 11 points in the 2008 presidential contest (950,695 votes), 12 points in the 2002 and 2008 Senate races (540,485 votes and 948,104 votes, respectively) and 9 points in the 2006 governor’s race (406,455 votes). 

That’s how Democrats have done on a good day. On a bad day, they’ve lost by 18 points (2002 gubernatorial election), 21 points (2000 presidential election), 27 points (2006 Senate race and 2010 lieutenant governor’s race) and 30 points (2010 attorney general election). 

If this seems at odds with all of the “demographics as destiny" talk, let's engage in a little back-of-the-envelope calculation with Hispanic voters, those at the core of the hopeful Democratic coalition. According to 2010 data from the Pew Hispanic Center, 43.9 percent of the state’s 9,533,000 Hispanics are eligible to vote: 4,184,987 voters. Overall, Hispanic turnout in the 2012 presidential election was 48 percent, compared with 66.6 percent for blacks and 64.1 percent for whites, which means that Texas had about 2,050,643 Hispanic votes cast in 2012. Let’s suppose that approximately 71 percent of those went to Barack Obama, an approximation based on national rates since there were no 2012 exit polls in Texas.

For the moment, we’ll set aside the rapid growth rate of Hispanics in Texas by focusing on the near term. Suppose that some combination of Battleground Texas, amplified mobilization and good old-fashioned political persuasion increases Hispanic turnout in the state from 48 percent to, let’s say, 60 percent (no small feat) and, further, that the Democrats maintain a nearly 3-to-1 advantage in their vote choice (based on that 71 percent figure). That would create an additional 356,560 votes — about a third of the way toward closing the 1 million vote shortfall the Democrats suffered in the 2008 election in Texas (and remember, that was on a good day). 

Nor does public opinion offer Democratic optimists much potential for addressing the kitchen table issues that either mobilize Democrats to turn out in larger numbers or (probably even less likely) persuade Republicans to vote the other way.

Of the many advantages that Republicans have in Texas, polling suggests that one of their greatest is agreement. When asked what the most important problem facing the state of Texas is, immigration/border security and the economy/unemployment consistently top the GOP list. Democrats, on the other hand, have a more mixed and varied set of priorities. The most consistent problem cited by Democrats is political corruption/leadership, not surprising given that suspicions about corruption are filtered though a partisan lens. After that, the issues that regularly emerge near the top of the list include Democratic meat and potatoes: education, health care and, recently, concern over state budget cuts.

But for all the things about these priorities that seem inherently Democratic, large numbers of Democrats also hold attitudes rooted deep in the Texas political culture that could be considered conservative. At the highest level, our most recent election poll in October 2012 found 57 percent of likely voters agreeing that “generally speaking, the way state government runs in Texas serves as a good model for other states to follow.” Closer to the point, when facing the now infamous budget shortfall in September 2010, only 8 percent of Texans said that they would be willing to increase the state sales tax while a mere 6 percent said that they would support implementing a state income tax. 

Therein lies a Democratic dilemma. Government investment — which involves spending, to be impolite — ties the issues that unite the Democratic Party together, and government investment runs contrary to durable themes in Texas’ political culture. Many skeptical Democrats can be convinced (though in many circumstances, it takes persuasion) that spending for worthy purposes — especially social capital expenditures like education — is worthwhile. But Republican voters, and Texans more generally, start with a reflexive rejection of taxation, a necessary ingredient in any successful Democratic issue cocktail. That’s a sobering factor for Democrats looking to sustain the wild post-filibuster optimism of June 26.

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