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Analysis: A Change in the Voter Mix Ahead for GOP

Everybody knows that the Hispanic growth of the state might change Texas politics. Republicans have another demographic trend to consider: Who will replace elderly voters in their constituency?

Vote signs outside of early voting locations in Austin on Feb. 23, 2014.

The potential of the state’s growing Hispanic population to change the political equation typically dominates the conversation in Texas.

But another issue looms almost as large for a Republican Party trying to maintain its statewide control: On social issues, young people are more liberal than the aging Texans they are replacing in the voting booths.

For Republicans, older Texans remain a crucial part of the party’s majority, though you would not know it from most political conversations. Those older voters, most of whom are Anglo and conservative, make up a majority at the polls, even though they no longer make up a majority of the overall population.

But two-thirds of the state’s growth in the first decade of the century was in its Hispanic population. The increase, however, is not yet reflected in the electorate as a whole, and everybody in state politics, under every partisan flag, is trying to figure out how fast those changes will show up and what they might mean for their chances.

Democrats, who historically have been more popular with Hispanics, hope to gain an advantage as more of those residents go to the polls. Republicans are also contending for those voters and are hoping that resolving issues like immigration will make their politics more attractive.

Courting Hispanics is not the Republican Party’s only concern. The part of the population that has historically sided with the Democrats appears to be growing, while a bloc critical to Republicans is sure to shrink, said Daron Shaw, a University of Texas at Austin professor, a Republican political adviser and a director of the UT/Texas Tribune Poll. Their replacements are not as conservative.

“If you’re really concerned about turning Texas blue, the Republicans need to watch not just Hispanics but also young people,” Shaw said. 

He and others are talking about numbers that turn up in polls all over the country. Young people are more likely to approve of civil unions and same-sex marriage, are more liberal on social issues and are more likely to vote Democratic than their elders.

They are also less likely to participate in politics than their elders, which sets up a puzzle the candidates and campaigns will eventually have to solve. First, those candidates have to do what works right now, because that is when the elections they want to win are taking place. But they want to be in position to keep doing that in the future, too.

The Republicans have to find ways to talk to their current voters, who are disproportionately older, while laying out a red carpet for younger Texans who will be voting in those future elections. Those people, for now, are politically out of sync with the older voters on some issues.

Generational changes are also happening on the ballot. Only one top state official, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, is trying to win re-election this year. The herd of ambitious would-be officeholders includes some new and younger faces. That is offset by the small size and fierce conservatism of the Republican primary’s voters — a group that is not necessarily in tune with the younger voters Shaw and others are watching.

Democrats, of course, have a different set of puzzles to solve, like how to get their own voters to turn up at elections. In 2012, only 590,164 voters took part in their primary, and in 2010, only 680,548 showed up. When the national Democratic fight for the presidential nomination reached Texas in 2008, 2,874,986 voters turned out. That is one potential pool of people, if the Democrats can get them to vote again.

And then there are the November Democrats — people who vote in general elections but not in primaries. They come out for every other general election — just like their Republican counterparts — to vote in high-profile, high-publicity presidential races. They do not come out in the same numbers in years when races for governor are the biggest draw on the ballot.

President Obama lost the 2012 election in Texas with only 41.4 percent of the vote. Gov. Rick Perry won his current term in 2010 with 55 percent of the vote. But Obama got 600,000 more votes while he was losing than Perry got two years earlier, while he was winning.

If the Democrats are right, those people — the presidential year Democrats — are waiting for the right phone call to get them to the polls in a gubernatorial year. If the demographers and Republican pollsters are right, the Republicans ought to be calling them, too.

Disclosure: At the time of publication, the University of Texas at Austin was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. (You can also review the full list of Tribune donors and sponsors below $1,000.) 

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