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Analysis: Short of a Win, Finding Ways to Measure Democrats' Progress

Even if Texas Republicans sweep this year's statewide races, there are ways to figure out whether and where Democratic organizing efforts have made any headway. Or there will be, once the results are in.

Chris Ornelas, a Texas Organizing Project employee, speaking with Armando Rodriguez while canvassing in San Antonio's west side on Sept. 4, 2014.

Former Houston Mayor Bill White won 42.3 percent of the vote in the 2010 governor’s race. That percentage has become the marker for Democrats who hope get an outright win, or at least a better finish, on Nov. 4.

Another number to consider is 631,086, the votes that separated White from the 2010 winner, Republican Rick Perry.

Just under 5 million votes were cast in the 2010 midterm election. The state has grown since, and Democrats are spending millions to get more people to the polls. But they have to start with the obvious: Democrats will rate their performance by whether state Sen. Wendy Davis gets more votes than White did four years ago.

That has to happen county by county, which will give political analysts a way to measure the effectiveness of operations like Battleground Texas, the Texas Organizing Project and Planned Parenthood Texas Votes — groups that have made turning out the vote the hope of liberals who have been shut out in statewide elections for two decades.

Even if Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican nominee, wins the governor’s race, the size of the win will be at the crux of a central question for Texas Democrats: Are their fortunes getting any better?

The past numbers reveal the challenge confronting the turnout crews, and a way to measure their performance. How many votes would each county have had to produce to erase the statewide gap between the Democrats and Republicans that year?

Assuming that voting among the state’s 254 counties remained proportionate that year, the Democrats would have needed about 100,000 more votes in Harris County, 54,000 more in Dallas County, 44,000 in Tarrant, 39,000 in Bexar and 30,000 in Travis to break even.

Those and four other counties (Collin, Fort Bend, Denton and Montgomery), by this back-of-the-envelope reckoning, accounted for half of the statewide Republican advantage.

Part of politics is persuasion — getting people who are likely to vote for a particular candidate to turn out. Another strategy is to get people who are not as likely to vote — and who, if they voted, would choose a particular candidate — to go to the polls.

That second group is the target for Democrats this year, and part of their rationale when they complain about political polls that show Republicans winning all of the statewide races. Those surveys concentrate on likely voters. If new people are voting and the pollsters do not have them in sight, the reasoning goes, the outcome on Election Day will be something other than what the pollsters and pundits are forecasting.

Whether that is the case will be clear in less than two weeks.

A larger question lurks behind that: Are the Democrats making any headway with efforts to organize and turn out new voters? Republicans in some top races have all but disappeared during the general election season — state Sen. Ken Paxton, the Republican candidate for attorney general, is a great example — without any visible negative effect on their campaigns.

After a bruising, three-candidate primary that was packed with debates and candidate forums and focused, at the end, on questions about his ethics, Paxton put his campaign on cruise control. For him, it was over after the primary, just like the old days in Texas, when Democrats won their primaries and slept through November.

This might not be the ideal year to measure the efforts of the left. President Obama is remarkably unpopular in Texas, and not one candidate for a top state office, from governor to railroad commissioner, is an incumbent. Turning the bums out is not a working theme.

The Battleground Texas folks said when they got started almost two years ago that it would take at least six years to turn Texas blue. It is a big state, they said. It takes time to identify people who might vote and then to organize them to do so. And it takes awhile to pull together a strong slate of candidates who can take advantage of those voters if and when they appear.

Election Day will be not their final test — just a midterm exam.

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