With over a million Texans casting early votes in the 15 counties with the most registered voters ahead of Tuesday's primaries, turnout is meeting the high expectations of election officials, many of whom predicted the volatile race among the presidential candidates would keep voters engaged.
"For the first time in as long as anybody can remember, Texas is actually very relevant in the presidential primary," said Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart. "That brings a lot of interest, a lot of people’s attention to the primary process."
The increase suggests heightened enthusiasm, particularly on the Republican side, as an earlier-than-usual Super Tuesday election has amplified the stakes for Texas in the presidential election.
“It’s an exciting time for Republicans in Texas and I think it’s consistent with what’s going on around the country,” said Tom Mechler, chairman of the Texas Republican Party. “I think there’s significant frustration with President Obama and what he’s done to our country, and people are ready for a change. Republicans are fired up and we’re seeing that people are very energized.”
Mechler added that he is “not surprised at all” by the high turnout, noting that many election administrators had prepared for that scenario by ordering additional ballots.
Over the 11-day early voting period, a total of 1,107,607 voters, making up 12.08 percent of registered voters, cast ballots in the 15 counties with the highest number of registered voters. That's up from the 565,538 who voted early in 2012 but lower than the 1,193,576 who did so in 2008.
Stanart said it would be impossible for the Democrats to repeat their numbers from 2008, when he said they “blew the doors off of everything,” but he said Republicans are on pace for a historic year. In Harris County, the state's largest county, he is expecting about 160,000 total votes for the Democratic primary and 265,000 for the Republican primary.
In conservative Williamson County, 31,745 Republican voters had submitted their ballots by the close of early voting, up from 16,303 in 2012 and 13,258 in 2008.
“We are pleased,” said Williamson County Republican Chair Bill Fairbrother. “We were hoping for high turnout, especially with hotly contested races at the local level and presidential, but for once the prediction appears to be coming true.”
Fairbrother cautioned against getting too optimistic about Election Day turnout because of the high early voting totals.
“I always worry about that,” Fairbrother said. “It’s possible people are rushing to vote early so next week will be lackluster, or it may be an indication that it will lead to a big crescendo next week ... But even if there’s less than expected on Tuesday, we’ll still be at or above record turnout, so I think democracy wins either way.”
For Democrats, the reaction to middling turnout figures has been more subdued.
“It’s a little bit of a mixed bag for us,” said Ric Godinez, chair of the Hidalgo County Democratic Party, describing turnout as “not bad, but not great.”
Godinez expressed concern that Democrats still seem so far away from meeting the high-water mark of 2008, when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were engaged in an intense and tight battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, which led to a record-breaking Democratic turnout of 890,188.
“It’s surprising that those people can’t get re-engaged to come back, and once the Democrats can figure that out, we’re going to be doing a lot better,” Godinez said. “We need to figure out how exactly that happened and reproduce it.”
Godinez expects that Clinton will carry Hidalgo County comfortably, describing South Texas as “Hillary country,” though he added that he has seen more energy among young voters for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont than he saw eight years ago for Obama.
Mechler said Thursday's feisty Republican debate in Houston helped draw more attention to the pivotal nature of the Texas primary for Republicans.
As for the impact of high voter turnout on the presidential race, Mechler predicts that it will benefit home-state candidate Ted Cruz.
“In Texas, I wouldn’t bet against Sen. Cruz,” Mechler said. “I think that he has really inspired a lot of people. You saw the same thing happen when he ran for the Senate."