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Guest Column: Demographics, and Ideas

If Texas Democrats want to magnify the advantages of a shifting demographic, they need to better practice the fine art of persuasion.

by Mustafa Tameez and Greg Wythe
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Editor's note: We asked prominent Democratic consultants from around the state about the moribund condition of their party, why they think voters should stick with them, how the party can become competitive and how they'd try to sell Republican and independent voters on their candidates. To read the other two guest columns on this subject, gohere and here.

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"The long-term answer has always been demographics — time is on our side. Texas becomes majority-minority in 2008, and those are our voters." — Molly Ivins

For much of the past decade, Texas Democrats have been promised that the inevitable decline of the one-party Democratic control that had sputtered to an end in 1998 would be reversed by majority-minority voting coalitions. These coalitions, lead by Hispanics, would pave the way to electoral success for Democrats. Sadly, this procession of demographic trends got diverted on the way to the coronation.

Republican-leaning Anglo Texans may have ceased being the majority population in the state. But GOP-leaning Anglo voters remain a sizable majority in the state, as our Citizen Voting Age Population (CVAP) clocks in at nearly 60% white. By all accounts, this should have Texas Democrats waiting for yet another decade or two for CVAP majority-minority status. And yet, we seem to be much closer to that critical goal than demographics alone suggest.

While the logistics of winning rely on an overwhelming number of details, and the individual nominations are still awaiting candidate names, the magnetic north of Texas' future still seems inescapable — the Democrats can come roaring back. A few simple data points offer some insight on the ways in which Democrats can find electoral success in the years ahead:

• Statewide, the difference in performance between Sam Houston — the Texas Supreme Court candidate and top Democratic vote-getter of 2008 — and Bill White's 2010 gubernatorial showing, was essentially a margin-of-error difference. Houston received 45.9% in a good year for Democrats, while Bill White received 42.3% in a dreadful year for Democrats — the difference being 3.6%. For all the fire and fury of 2010, a 3.6% swing was the grand sum of the punch Democrats took from the best that the GOP has ever thrown at them.

• Among the suburban counties, the drop-off difference from 2008 was even lower — 3.1%. On Election Day 2010, White still managed to get within 6,226 votes of a win in the onetime Republican bastion of Fort Bend County. This is the county that should have delivered an overwhelming GOP vote share in 2010. But instead, Republican victory in Fort Bend rested on a paltry 3%. This demonstrates the slow and steady drift toward the Democratic column as the suburbs become more diverse in terms of population and economics. 

• Among the 15 most populous counties in the state, the difference between 2008 and 2010 was even narrower — a 2.8% drop. All this, while accounting for more than half of the votes cast in the entire state. However, a loss — no matter how small — is still a loss. 

If Texas Democrats want to magnify the advantages of a shifting demographic, they need to better practice the fine art of persuasion. We've already seen what can happen when good arguments are made forcefully and clearly to voters when they handed us significant wins in legislative races in 2006 and 2008. Regardless of whether Obama loses or gains a few points from his 2008 showing in Texas, the overall pendulum is moving toward more and more competitive elections during this decade. For Democrats to win in Texas, attention must shift from demographics to the power of our arguments and ideas. 

In 2008, enough voters nationwide had tuned out the Bush-era Republican message of endless tax cuts, the politics of wartime behavior, and the sinking of the American economy, that they voted in not just a Democratic President, but also supermajorities in both houses. The lost opportunity we find ourselves stuck with in the present moment is that the substitute offered by President Obama is not as motivating as the promise offered by Candidate Obama.

Texas Democrats still have ample time to stamp their own identity into the marketplace of political ideas before the decade is out. Issues such as college affordability and raising educational attainment are quickly replacing the poll-tested wedge issues of the past. At some point, one party is going to have to explain what it will do to ensure that the Texas workforce is capable of leading the nation. As the Republican Party continues to settle for less, they're going to find out the hard way that Texans won't.

Mustafa Tameez and Greg Wythe work together at Outreach Strategists, a Houston public affairs firm.

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