As early voting wraps up Friday, Democrats hoping to end their two-decade statewide electoral drought by drawing more like-minded voters to the polls could be facing a bleak picture.
Despite rosy predictions of high Democratic turnout Friday from supporters of gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, numbers from the secretary of state's office show the turnout rate among early voters is on track to be significantly lower than it was four years ago.
Almost 1.5 million ballots had been cast in the state's 15 largest counties through Thursday — almost identical to the raw turnout figures at the same point in the last gubernatorial election in 2010, according to the Texas Secretary of State's office. But because the state has grown in the past four years, and more people have registered to vote than ever before, the overall voter turnout rate in these counties is down 7.2 percent.
That could mean trouble for statewide Democratic candidates, whose success depends on increasing turnout among infrequent or minority voters, and expanding their electorate to include more unaffiliated Texans who don't religiously vote along party lines. The official figures, posted daily on the secretary of state's website, also flatly contradict a self-congratulatory press release issued Friday by Battleground Texas, the Democratic turnout group that's been working for a year and a half to make Texas more hospitable to Democrats.
Jeremy Bird, a former top adviser to Barack Obama who consults for Battleground, wrote a memorandum saying that early vote was up sharply — a whopping 36 percent — over 2010 in the 70 largest Texas counties through Wednesday. But the numbers Bird used for the 70 largest counties in 2010 at the same point in the early voting period were far lower than the figures the secretary of state showed for just the 15 largest counties.
"These numbers are grossly wrong. I can only assume they are trying to motivate their troops. But the overall early vote appears to be headed for a total very close to 2010," said Republican consultant Ted Delisi. "There does not tend to be a tremendous spike in early voting in the largest counties in the state."
Early voting accounted for about 35 percent of the 4.9 million votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. Democrats can hope the voting pace picks up Friday and on Election Day next Tuesday, but Republicans smell another sweep of the state’s top offices.
Democrats say they remain optimistic, arguing that it's conservatives who aren't voting. Bird's memo claimed that the non-white vote was up 45 percent.
“What we’re seeing is encouraging, and it’s because of who is turning out,” Erica Sackin, spokeswoman for Battleground Texas, said earlier this week. Sackin declined to comment on the discrepancies between the numbers cited in Bird's memo and the figures provided by the secretary of state.
After an early surge, turnout rates have dropped steadily in some of the urban, diverse counties Democrats have targeted with help from Battleground Texas. The latest figures from the secretary of state show the turnout rate down anywhere from 21 percent in Harris County to 1.5 percent in Travis County compared with 2010.
Overall turnout has increased in areas that lean Democratic, like Cameron and Hidalgo counties in the Rio Grande Valley, where turnout rates are up .4 percent and 10 percent, respectively. But the turnout rate in another Democratic stronghold, El Paso County, is down 11 percent.
In the 2010 gubernatorial election, former Democratic Houston Mayor Bill White won 42.3 percent of the vote against Gov. Rick Perry. That’s become the benchmark Democrats are looking to better this time around.
Republicans argue that their foes should be worried about jumps in turnout in conservative-leaning Collin County and Tarrant County, home to a Tea Party hotbed. Turnout in Collin County is up 3.6 percent and in Tarrant County up 20.4 percent.
“We have to keep watching to see how it unfolds over time, but at the moment [turnout is] more Republican than it was four years ago,” said Craig Murphy, a Republican consultant whose database tries to pinpoint whose voters are showing up at the polls. He accused Battleground of "cherry-picking" the numbers to skew the turnout rate in the Democrats' favor.
In heavily Republican Montgomery County, turnout is down 23.5 percent.
The state is seeing a massive increase in votes cast by mail, up almost 60 percent this year. In some places, like Cameron County, the total number of mail ballots cast is up more than threefold.
Both parties have taken credit for the dramatic increase in voting by mail, which is up in all of the 15 most populous counties except Galveston County. Republicans have long been successful in working mail-in ballot initiatives, but Democrats stepped up their efforts this year.
Early voting figures don't show party preference, but state Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri said the early turnout rates are not a good sign for Democrats.
The data doesn’t show a jump in voting by the newly registered voters Democrats are counting on, Munisteri said. “If we get our base out and they get their base out, we win,” he added.
Sackin said Battleground Texas is encouraged by the numbers it's tracking, and argued that the early voting period is “a time when Republicans do better.” Democrats ramp up their numbers in the final days of early voting and on Election Day, she said.
Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, a public affairs and political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said the early voting figures aren’t enough to show whether Battleground Texas and other Democratic organizing groups are making progress in a reliably red state.
“My initial thought is Rome wasn’t built in a day,” DeFrancesco Soto said. “You have to see this as a long-term game. They’ve got good numbers registering folks, but the eye on the prize is the presidential [race] in 2016.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.