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Watching the Election From the Cheap Seats

Texas hasn't been a swing state in a national election for a long, long time, and unless they have big bank accounts, Texans aren't at the top of candidates' lists of people to see right now.

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It’s the same story every four years. The delegation from the second-biggest state is sitting at the back of the hall. They’re housed far away from the action.

It doesn’t matter which convention, either. The Republicans start the game this year with their national convention in Tampa, Fla. Texans are joking that a hurricane could hit the convention center without bringing rain or wind to the distant hotel where they’re staying.

Then the Democrats will meet in Charlotte, N.C., the following week. The Texans there aren't as far from home base as their Republican counterparts, but they will be lodged in Concord. Not exactly walking distance to the festivities.

Texas isn’t a swing state, and all that keeps it from being completely written off by the political parties is money.

Democrats haven’t won a national race in Texas since Jimmy Carter’s post-Watergate run in 1976. Both parties concede the state to the Republicans. The evidence? Turn on your TV and look for the presidential ads. If this were a swing state, you wouldn’t be able to avoid them. Switch to the local news: If the candidates are in town, it’s for a fundraiser, maybe with a public appearance thrown in.

The candidates are interested in the voters and all that, but the Electoral College is a winner-take-all affair: the margin of a win or loss doesn’t matter.

It’s a shame, really. Look at all the attention ethanol gets every four years when the candidates are scrambling for votes in the Corn Belt. Immigration — an important issue in swing states like Colorado and New Mexico — is in play this year.

Imagine Texas in play. National candidates would have to add water policy to their portfolios. With all of the lawsuits between Texas and the federal government, federalism would be fodder for commercials and speeches, as would the Environmental Protection Agency, the death penalty and women’s health care programs. They might talk more about energy, or about proposals for high-speed rail lines connecting the state’s major cities.

Maybe they would talk about the same things they’re talking about now. But they’d be talking about it in Texas. The state’s voters could be courted like the voters in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Some of the money getting slurped up here for export to television stations and political consultants in other states might actually be spent in Texas. A recent analysis from MapLight, a nonpartisan outfit that studies campaign finance, showed that almost 20 percent of the money raised by super PACs since January 2011 — $60.4 million of the $306.6 million total — has been raised in Texas. Very little of that is being spent here.

The state’s richest partisans apparently get to play, even when its voters do not.

It could be considered a blessing, a fortunate form of pest control. The state’s in the bag. The politicians stay away from our doors, our public festivals and events, and our television programs. The fight is going on in other places, and we can tune in or tune out as we please.

Nobody’s clamoring for our attention.

The state got a brief taste of a presidential campaign last year, when Gov. Rick Perry got into the hunt. That was over before Texans got to vote in the primary. And we got a real taste in 2008, when the Democrats brought their primary fight to Texas, campaigning all over the state and even staging a debate here. It was noisy, but it got the voters worked up: 16 percent of the state’s voting age population turned out for the Democratic primary, and 8 percent for the Republicans. Four years earlier, without the energy of a big contest, the Democrats attracted 5 percent, the Republicans 4 percent.

General elections in presidential years attract less than 50 percent of the state’s adults — 1984 and 1992 reached 48 percent, but it’s usually a little lower than that (those were also the years when the Republicans held their national conventions in Texas). Those numbers have been pretty consistent for a long time, too. The Jimmy Carter-Gerald Ford affair in 1976 got 46 percent of Texas adults out, and that was contested here. There is no guarantee that bringing the fight to Texas would increase voter interest or turnout here.

But wouldn’t it be fun?

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