As Wendy Davis ramps up her efforts to become the first Democratic governor of Texas since Ann Richards left office in January of 1995, her need to replicate Richards’ success among women voters takes center stage. Whether Davis pulls off a miraculous victory, crashes and burns in a landslide defeat or "wins while losing" by significantly narrowing the Republican-Democrat vote gap, will depend in large part on her ability to make substantial inroads, via both mobilization and persuasion, among the state’s female voters — especially Anglo women.
In 1990, Richards defeated Republican Clayton Williams 49.5 percent to 46.9 percent. Four years later, Richards was defeated by Republican George W. Bush 53.5 percent to 45.9 percent. The principal difference between victory in 1990 and defeat in 1994 was Richards’ performance among Anglo women.
In 1990, exit poll data indicated that Richards won 58 percent of the female vote to Williams’ 39 percent, while simultaneously losing the male vote 43 percent to 53 percent. Critical to her victory were the ballots cast by Anglo women, who represented 36 percent of voters in 1990. Richards narrowly lost the Anglo woman vote to Williams, 47 percent to 48 percent, but combined this relative success with wide margins of support among African-Americans (90 percent to 10 percent) and Hispanics (71 percent to 26 percent) to propel herself into the Governor’s Mansion. Williams easily bested Richards among Anglo men, 61 percent to 35 percent.
In 1994, Richards retained rather comparable levels of support among African-Americans (85 percent to 15 percent), Hispanics (72 percent to 28 percent) and Anglo males (32 percent to 67 percent). However, her support among Anglo women (41 percent of voters) dropped to 40 percent compared with Bush’s 59 percent, a wide gap that effectively doomed her re-election bid. Overall, she won the women’s vote in 1994 by a razor-thin 0.5 percent margin (49.8 percent to 49.3 percent) while Bush handily won among men, 58 percent to 41 percent.
In 2010, Bill White, the best-performing Democratic candidate for governor since Richards, was soundly defeated by Republican Rick Perry, 55 percent to 42.3 percent. Perry’s victory provides an important benchmark for Davis as she prepares for an expected battle against Republican Greg Abbott in 2014. Perry defeated White among women, 53 percent to 45 percent, and among men, 57 percent to 40 percent. Those margins were fueled by Perry’s dominance among Anglo men (70 percent to 28 percent) and Anglo women (68 percent to 30 percent), and helped by his comparatively strong performance among Hispanics, where he won 38 percent to White’s 61 percent. White trounced Perry among African-Americans, 88 percent to 11 percent.
Barring any dramatic shifts in turnout across ethnic-racial groups in 2014 compared with 2010, Davis will need to make deep inroads among Anglos, especially among Anglo women, who will make up about a third of voters, if she is to have any hope of defeating Abbott. Were Davis by some miracle able to replicate Richards’ 1990 appeal to Anglo women, there is little question she would be victorious next year. However, unless Abbott suddenly channels Clayton Williams circa 1990 with a little of Missouri’s infamous 2012 U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin added in for good measure, that level of success is almost certainly unattainable.
Even so, a showing among Anglo women similar to Richards’ in 1994 against Bush would provide Democrats with their most successful gubernatorial performance (albeit still short of a plurality) since 1990, given the growth of the Democratic-leaning non-Anglo electorate over the past 20 years. Hispanics, African-Americans and Asian-Americans are expected to account for slightly more than a third of voters in 2014, compared with slightly less than a quarter 20 years ago. While Abbott’s share of the African-American vote is unlikely to differ notably from Perry’s, he will have to work hard to match Perry’s considerable success with Hispanics, a group certain to be heavily targeted by Davis and her fellow Democrats.
Just as Anglo women were critical to Richards’ victory in 1990 and defeat in 1994, so too will they play a paramount role in determining the outcome of the 2014 gubernatorial race. If they flock to Davis, or away from Abbott, à la 1990, Davis will be sworn in as governor in 2015. If they continue to vote predominantly Republican as in 2010, Davis’ margin of defeat will most likely be in the low double digits, and Democratic plans for turning Texas blue will suffer a devastating setback. But if Davis is able to match Richards’ 1994 level of Anglo female support, then even in defeat she will succeed in altering the state’s partisan landscape and set the stage for what could potentially be an epic partisan clash in 2018, one with profound implications for the balance of political power in the United States.
Exit poll data note: The 1990 data come from the Voter Research and Surveys exit poll, the 1994 data from the Voter News Service exit poll and the 2010 data from the Edison Media Research exit poll.
Mark P. Jones is the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s Fellow in Political Science, the Joseph D. Jamail Chair in Latin American Studies and the chairman of the Department of Political Science at Rice University.