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A Small Subset of Voters Holds a Lot of Sway

With low turnout in statewide primaries and the two-decade dominance of Republicans, a bloc of a relatively few voters determines how Texas will handle long-term public policy challenges.

A wind-blown sign directed voters to Barton Hills Elementary, Precinct 342, Austin on Nov. 5, 2013.

In modern-day Texas, the election that matters is usually the Republican primary.

The winners who emerge from Tuesday’s Republican primary and subsequent May 27 runoff elections will in most cases be the prohibitive favorites to win in November.

But the low turnout in the statewide primaries and the dominance of the Republican party in winning statewide elections — about 8 percent of the voting age population cast ballots in the 2012 primaries — means that a small subset of the state’s electorate holds considerable influence. Democrats have not won a statewide race since 1994.

Estimates vary on what turnout will be in the Republican primary. Richard Murray, a University of Houston political science professor, projects that about 1.2 million Texans will cast ballots in the Republican primary. 

Marc DelSignore, a Republican pollster and strategist, put a “realistic range” on Republican turnout at 1.2 million to 1.6 million, with 1.5 million a likely good estimate. He attributed his expectation of a higher turnout to the large number of statewide candidates battling and buying ads in races for a slate of open seats not seen in 12 years.

In the past three elections — 2008, 2010 and 2012 — the totals of Republican primary voters have peaked at 8 percent of the state’s voting-age population. If Murray’s 1.2 million Republican voter projection proves true, that would equate to 6 percent of the state’s adults.

That power of the 8 percent (or 6 percent) has implications for Texas and its ability to address long-term public policy challenges thrown up by the state’s high rate of population growth, like a persistent achievement gap between minority and Anglo schoolchildren.

Murray said one concern was that the makeup of the primary electorate did not reflect the state at large.

The Republican primary voter, he said, tends to be older, better educated and not “just conservative” but “very conservative.”

For that matter, the Democratic primary also skews from the general population, tending to be more liberal with a higher percentage of minority voters, Murray said.

“It seems to me not to be a good situation,” Murray said.

From the 1970s until the early 1990s, when the Democrats were in power in Texas, participation as a percentage of the voting-age population in their primaries regularly hit double digits. It peaked in 1972, when 28 percent of the voting-age population voted.

Aside from the anomaly of the 2008 primary — when the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama contest drove participation to 16 percent of the voting-age population — participation rates in the Democratic primary have sunk to the 3-to-6 percent range in the last 15 years.

Participation rates in the Republican primary have overtaken those in the Democratic primary, though double-digit percentages have been elusive.

Mark McKinnon, a onetime media adviser to former President George W. Bush, said the situation “is problematic, because then government becomes even less responsive to the real policy needs of voters, and reactive to minor but vocal constituencies that are more likely to just create paralysis.”

Public schools, for instance, are facing big challenges. And an older Republican primary electorate means fewer of those voters have children enrolled in public schools. That produces, in turn, “Republican legislators who just aren’t very interested in the issue,” Murray said.

One solution could be scrapping the traditional party primary to break the stranglehold that the parties’ respective bases have on the Legislature, Murray said.

He pointed to California, which was experimenting with nonpartisan primary elections in which the top two vote-getters of all candidates go on to the general election.

But the parties in Texas have not shown much interest in a wholesale overhaul of the primary process, either, Murray said.

DelSignore said he was sympathetic to others’ “good government” argument that the best primary electorate was one more representative of the state as a whole. But, he added, “you go to work with the primary electorate you have, not the one you want.”

The average Republican primary voter might not overlap with the average Texas adult, he said, but the average primary voter also tends to follow politics more closely and has a higher familiarity with the basic issues.

DelSignore highlighted the continued impact of the Tea Party on Texas politics.

The continued appeal of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is the embodiment of what sets Republican voters in Texas apart from their counterparts elsewhere in the nation, DelSignore said.

“Ted Cruz remains in a class by himself in terms of his positive image among primary voters in Texas,” he said. “But in the larger universe, his negatives are increasing greatly.”

To DelSignore, the biggest battle for candidates in this year’s primary is the one to have their name recognized by more voters than their opponents. The overlap between Tea Party views and Republican primary voters create a shortcut for candidates looking to cut through the clutter of a crowded ballot.

The result is a lot of political advertising from candidates who invoke illegal immigration or the Affordable Care Act even though they would have no jurisdiction over either issue if elected.

He argued, though, that it would be wrong to conclude that Republican primary voters’ sympathies with Tea Party views preclude them from assessing and approving needed investments in the state’s future.

He pointed to the approval in November of an amendment to the Texas Constitution establishing a new source of funding for water projects as an example of the limitations of the Tea Party’s influence on Republican primary voters.

“We expected a bigger fight on that,” DelSignore said. “But we found out early on that even in that older, more Republican crowd, there was support” for investment in infrastructure.

Disclosure: At the time of publication, the University of Houston was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune, and Mark McKinnon was a major donor to the Tribune. (See the full list of Tribune donors below $1,000 here.) 

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