One early sign that Ann Richards was in trouble in her 1994 re-election bid came in that year’s primary. Gary Espinosa, a political cipher, received 22.2 percent of the Democratic primary vote against the sitting governor.
It may be a meaningless echo, but Ray Madrigal, who did little more in his bid for the Democratic nomination than pay his filing fee, pulled 20.9 percent of the vote against Wendy Davis, who won last Tuesday’s Texas Democratic primary.
Last week at a forum hosted by The Texas Tribune, Davis said she was not worried by Madrigal’s numbers. “I am very confident that by the time we get to November, and given the contrast between these two candidates, that I will have the full support of those living in South Texas and beyond South Texas,” she said.
It was a different time and a different Democratic Party. For one thing, the 1994 election attracted 1,036,944 voters. The Democrats started the year with high hopes of defeating U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who had won a special election for Lloyd Bentsen’s seat the previous year. And they had incumbent officeholders running for every statewide office except agriculture commissioner, a job then occupied by Rick Perry. The Senate race was competitive, but the others were not. Everything looked peachy.
Twenty years later, with a voting age-population that has doubled to about 18.7 million from about 9 million, only 546,523 people cast ballots in this year’s Democratic race for governor. Republican political operatives have been crowing about the numbers since last Tuesday — taunting the Democrats for their inability to draw much of a crowd.
Democrats, like Matt Angle of the Lone Star Project, counter that argument by pointing at a candidate who lost his primary in Texas in 2008 while getting more votes than were cast in the entire Republican primary. That candidate was Barack Obama, who went on to lose the general election in Texas later that year. That is Angle’s demonstration that primary turnout is not an indicator of general-election failure or success.
Others chime in, pointing out the low number of exciting and competitive races on this year’s Democratic primary ballot. Their big year was that same 2008 election, when a national election unexpectedly got to Texas in a volatile condition, with heavy campaigning, advertising, debating and news coverage. Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the primaries, and Republicans outdid the Democrats in November.
Fair enough. This year, turnout in both parties was lower than in 2010, and if turnout is a measure of interest, Texas voters do not appear to be particularly interested in either party right now.
It is true that the Democratic primary was less than half the size of its Republican counterpart. But turnout stinks in both parties. Here is one measure of how unpopular it has become to vote in a primary election in Texas: According to the latest numbers from the office of the Texas secretary of state, which conducts elections, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which gathers public health statistics, about 1.7 million more people in Texas smoke cigarettes than vote in primary elections.
If every Texas adult who smokes cigarettes — an increasingly unpopular habit — turned out to vote in one of the major-party primaries, turnout would rise 91.3 percent, to about 3.6 million from about 1.9 million.
More voters show up in years when there are presidential races on the ballot. More of them turn out for general elections than for party elections, even though general-election voters in statewide races have not overturned the decisions made in a Republican primary in 20 years.
Electoral politics has become, in some ways, a niche business in Texas. The Republican niche is bigger than the Democratic one, attracting more customers in the primaries and more customers in the general election.
Democrats are working on it. Battleground Texas, their effort to increase voter participation, is only a year old — probably too young to be reasonably expected to produce tangible results. It does open them to taunts from the other side, however. Republican participation is unimpressive, except in comparison with the Democratic participation.
Neither of the two parties has figured out how to make it addictive. If they do, they could double the turnout.