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Analysis: The Case of the Missing Democratic Voters

Texas Democrats are hoping to win the support of people who have never voted before. They should be looking, as well, for Texans who voted for Democrats once before and never came back.

The Texas Democratic Party will hold its 2014 convention in Dallas.

The looming demographic wave has been the talk of Texas politics for more than a decade. But the Democrats anticipating this flood of new voters have seemingly forgotten that a couple of million occasional supporters have not participated in a primary election in eight years.

To make gains at the polls, Democrats cannot simply focus on getting out new voters; they must get the old ones to return.

The biggest chunk of the state’s growth can be attributed to an increase in the minority populations, and the biggest part of that growth has been Hispanic. And that is where the hype about politics revs up: To the extent that they vote, minorities in Texas tend to vote for Democrats more than Republicans. If the number of minorities rise along with the population, and if those new voters behave like their voting counterparts, then the electorate should grow to favor the Democrats.

That was the idea behind the Democrats’ “dream team” ticket in 2002, which included a couple of big-city mayors, Ron Kirk and Kirk Watson; a wealthy Hispanic oilman, Tony Sanchez Jr.; and a mix of proven veterans and promising prospects. It didn’t work, but there were some hopeful years, when Democrats in the Legislature made gains.

Then the 2008 presidential race arrived. The Democratic primary that year had 2,874,986 Texas voters. Most of the time, presidential contests are all but settled by the time the campaigns reach Texas. But in 2008, neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton had clinched the nomination, and their battle over Texas lifted turnout considerably. The excitement over a contested national race even helped increase Republican turnout that year.

The Republicans held their numbers, turning out about the same number of voters in each of the two primaries that followed, but many of the Democratic primary voters who came out in 2008 never returned. In 2010, only 680,548 Texans voted in the Democratic primary. Two years after that, only 590,164 voted. In general elections, their top-line numbers also fell. Obama received 43.7 percent of the overall vote in the 2008 general election. Former Mayor Bill White of Houston got 42.3 percent in 2010 in a race for governor, and Paul Sadler lost the U.S. Senate election to Ted Cruz with 40.6 percent.

The population may be booming, but the electorate is not, and the Democratic electorate got smaller.

Battleground Texas, started by former Obama operatives who want to turn the state away from its Republican devotions, is trying to register new voters, identify Democrats and turn them out for this year’s elections. They started a year ago and said it would take four to six years to turn Texas their way.

A couple of promising candidates showed up early, putting faces on the effort. The candidacies of Wendy Davis, who is running for governor, and Leticia Van de Putte, who is running for lieutenant governor, bring some focus to the organizing efforts. After all, it is easier to raise a crowd for a candidate or a cause than for the general promotion of civic health. It helps to be about something or somebody.

Up front, the math favors the Republicans. They have been winning statewide elections for 20 years, and it has become sort of a habit. Folk music has had a bigger comeback than Texas Democrats.

The Democratic administration remains remarkably unpopular in Texas, and conservative candidates from the bottom of the ballot to the top are running against either the president, his signature health care program or both. Even if Texas suddenly had equal numbers of voting Republicans and voting Democrats, those Democrats would have the political winds in their face this year.

The Republicans have more money, and their steady, habitual turnout has given them a list of stalwarts who vote no matter what. The Democrats have a list of stalwarts, too, but it is considerably smaller.

So they are looking for first-timers, people who haven’t voted before because they just moved here or just recently came of age or haven’t been involved in elections before and are just waiting for someone to ask them.

And there is the other group, the 2.2 million Texans who turned out in March 2008 and haven’t been seen in a primary location since then. The Democrats already have their names, if not their votes.

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Politics 2014 elections Texas Democratic Party