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Analysis: A Different Kind of Holiday Prep

While you’re making your way through your holiday logistics, the state’s political people are swinging into high gear, with just three months left before voters decide the fates of their candidates.

Voters inside Austin City Hall on Nov. 4, 2014.

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Maybe the primary elections seem a long way off, what with Christmas and Hanukkah and New Year’s Day and other holidays between here and there.

But while you’re making your way through your holiday logistics, the state’s political people are swinging into high gear.

This happens fast.

Candidates started filing for their places on the primary ballots last month; they have two weeks left. The primary elections are on March 1, but early voting starts on Feb. 16.

That’s just three months from now, and Texas is early on the national calendar next year, so a primary that regularly gets only a nod from presidential candidates will get their full attention this year.

The Iowa Caucuses are on Feb. 1, followed by the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9. Texans will already be voting when Nevadans get to their own Feb. 20 Election Day. South Carolina Republicans will be holding their primary that day, too (that state’s Democratic primary will be held a week later).

Texas is one of the 13 so-called SEC states voting on Super Tuesday. But by then, recent history says more than half of the state’s voters will have already cast their early ballots.

All of that is a way to say that the political world is going to be very busy very soon — in Texas and elsewhere.

And here, everybody running for anything other than one of the presidential nominations will be scrambling for attention. If the top races were already decided, down-ballot candidates would be worried about getting people to turn out to vote. But the presidential traffic jam on the Republican side probably ensures better-than-average turnout.

The challenge for down-ballot candidates in that situation is to break through and get some attention. If your name is Debra Lehrman or Michael Massengale, this very sentence might be one of your rare chances to get noticed; with all the presidential clamor, voters might forget to look and see who is running for the Texas Supreme Court.

One problem is that not all voters vote in all races. In 2008 — the last time a party came to Texas with its presidential nomination still in the air — 2.9 million Democrats voted in the top race. In the second race on the ballot, only 2.2 million of them wanted a say in which Democrat would vie for U.S. Senate. Railroad Commissioner was next: Just under 2 million voted.

Almost a million voters were out of there before they got to the second page of the ballot.

Down-ballot candidates have to figure out who their real audience is and how to reach them — in a way that’s favorable on Election Day — before mid-February.

Television is an expensive place to advertise, and the presidential candidates are likely to have flooded that zone already. The holidays come with their own advertising landslides, making it hard for candidates to start early or get in front of the presidential jam.

As political races go, most of the excitement statewide is on the Republican side of the presidential race. In Texas, six judicial seats and one on the Texas Railroad Commission are exciting to the participants but generally don’t get much attention from voters. Local races for Congress or for the state Legislature will heat up here and there but won’t cover the state.

That describes the problem candidates and their handlers are trying to work through in Texas: raising enough money to raise enough attention to get enough voters to support them when it’s time to make decisions in three months.

Those political people aren’t going to wait through the holidays to plan their work. And because their voters are busy with other things, the holidays are a singularly lousy time to be campaigning and asking for votes.

They’ll be busy anyway. While we shop, they plot.

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