In purple Harris County, demographics could trump conservatives

Top-of-the-ballot races have been decided in Harris County by thin margins in recent years, and flipped between parties. But Democrats see the demographics trending their way.

Voters line up before an early voting station opens in Houston early Monday morning, October 24, 2016. Poll workers said the lines are much longer than normal for early voting.

HOUSTON — In a county where electoral victory margins at the top of the ticket recently have been remarkably thin, Rosie Barrera and Desmond Bryant are the type of voters Democrats and Republicans both covet.

Barrera, a retiree, says she partakes in Republican primaries but votes “independent of party” during general elections.

“I don’t always agree with the party’s candidate,” Barrera said as she headed into an early voting location on a humid Tuesday afternoon.

Asked what party he affiliates with, Bryant, a 27-year-old pastor, responds with a shrug and says “kind of both.” He is a self-avowed ticket-splitter.

In deep-red Texas, Harris County — with a population larger than 25 states — is a vibrant purple. In the last three presidential elections, the county has voted Republican once and Democratic twice. In the last three gubernatorial races, it’s gone Democratic once and Republican twice.

A diverse community in one of the country's biggest metropolitan areas, it’s also the biggest battleground in the state. That's left both parties working hard to rouse their bases, and lure in voters like Barrera and Bryant. In a year with unprecedented early turnout, the race for purple Harris County is quite literally all over the map. But this year more than ever, changing demographics could decide its electoral outcome.

Beyond turning out the base, particularly inside Houston’s city limits, county Democratic chairman Lane Lewis said his party has been focused on mail-in ballots and suburban women.

“We targeted suburban women because at the end of the day they were underrepresented,” Lewis said. “We think, with accurate messaging, they will be more likely to go vote and be more appropriately represented in the total votes cast.”

Pollsters, consultants and political scientists are predicting a virtual sweep in the county for Democrats on Election Day. But Republicans aren’t letting up.

“We always focus on the down-ballot — that’s our job,” said Paul Simpson, chair of the county’s Republican party, adding that Republicans were also working to “fight the Democrats on their turf.”

Both parties agree they’re up against a complex electorate that gave Obama razor thin wins in 2008 and 2012, when he won the county by less than 1,000 votes. Even when Republican Gov. Greg Abbott defeated Democratic opponent Wendy Davis by 20 points statewide, his margin of victory in Harris County was just four points.

 

Those voter complexities — made more unpredictable in a year with the boisterous billionaire Donald Trump at the top of the GOP ticket — were on display in the steady flow of Harris County residents heading into early voting sites last week.

For every staunch partisan, straight-ticket voter, there were dozens of voters who said they were willing to hear the other side’s argument. And many voters said they regularly split their tickets, particularly when it comes to local races.

That included Vanessa Bacon, a 46-year-old workday consultant who, with a fresh “I voted” sticker on her blouse, said she voted for Hillary Clinton because Trump doesn’t have experience and “doesn’t seem very presidential.” But she also voted for some Republican judges.

Another voter, a middle-aged woman, said she was a staunch conservative and had voted straight-ticket except at the top of the ballot where she flipped to Clinton. She declined to give her name.

(Several voters who said they were supporting Trump or voting straight-ticket Republican were also reluctant to share their names.)

Pointing to an anti-Trump sentiment among voters, Lewis said increased turnout and a pickup in straight-ticket voting have boosted down-ballot Democratic candidates. With Trump as the nominee and state Republican officials working to combat a lack of GOP enthusiasm, Simpson acknowledges his party is working against a motivation problem in Harris County, though he insists Democrats face similar challenges.

While the Trump factor may be a short-term effect, some argue bigger things are at play in Harris County.

“You’ve got a train moving and at the front of the train you’ve got older voters and the engine is beginning to wear down,” said Bob Stein, a Rice University political scientist who is crunching early voting numbers. “The train is approaching a cliff, and the front falls off and what’s left is the caboose.”

The caboose, Stein continued the metaphor, is disproportionately full of Hispanic voters who are replacing mostly white voters over 65 that have “a tendency, of course, to die off.”

During the last open presidential election in 2008, 39 percent of Harris County’s then 3.9 million residents were Hispanic, according to census estimates, compared to 36 percent who were white.

By 2015 when the county’s population had grown to 4.5 million, the share of Hispanic residents grew to 42 percent while the share of white residents dropped to 30.8 percent.

There are no 2016 census estimates available, but the state demographer projections indicate that Harris County’s share of white residents would fall to 28.5 percent this year, while the Hispanic population would increase to 44.7 percent, with more than half of the Hispanic population of voting age.

As Hispanics, who tend to lean Democratic, grow older, they essentially expand the Democratic base of Harris County voters while the Republican base is “literally dying off,” Stein added.

Looking at the first week of early voting, some of the number crunchers indicated that sky-high voting figures were most likely rooted in partisans coming out to vote earlier than usual, not a groundswell of first-time voters. In his analysis, Stein found that a disproportionate number of unlikely voters or those without a voting history had also voted early.

Early voting numbers broke records in Harris County with 977,279 residents casting ballots through the last day of early voting. About 67 percent of adults — 2,234,678 out of 3,341,196 — were registered to vote ahead of the election.

But the focus is on the base right now. “This isn’t a persuasion election anymore,” Stein said. “Nobody is trying to persuade anyone. They’re just trying to get their base out.”

During that first week, the Democratic turnout among active partisans was largely rooted in the middle of the county with Houston at its heart, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis. For Republicans, it was strongest in the northeast and northwest suburban areas of the county.

That’s in line with a legislative breakdown of Harris County by state House districts, where a ring of conservative districts forms around solid Democratic districts mostly within the city limits.

But the geographic contours of both parties’ electoral bases are also changing. Over the years, a large swath of suburban areas outside Houston’s city limits have lost their white majority, with much of the suburbs having no demographic group in the majority.

A shrinking base and the dispersion of people of color throughout the county could spell trouble for Republicans not just in this election but in the long run as Democrats work to make the biggest county in the state reliably blue. But the bigger test of any Democratic inroads will be in 2018. Almost half of the electorate — mostly Democratic-leaning voters — drop off in midterm elections.

With the contentious presidential election as a backdrop, Democratic groups in Harris County are focused on helping unlikely voters — mostly Hispanic and black residents — kick the habit and become regular voters.

Focused on the 340,000 registered voters or non-voting Hispanic and black residents that stayed home in 2012, the Texas Organizing Project has set out to knock on their doors and get them to the polls — even if it means driving the voters themselves, said Crystal Zermeño, a political strategist for the group.

Though much of this community is anchored inside Houston, the expanding footprint of people of color in Harris County has left the group traveling to more suburbs. Despite Democratic efforts, Simpson, the GOP chair, repeatedly said he’s confident the biggest Republican county in the country will stay red.

But something is afoot in the suburbs, political observers say, where there are certain enclaves with Hispanic voters who are now voting Democratic despite historically voting for Republicans.

Among them are people like Ari Card and Carlos Medrano, a Hispanic couple living in Katy.

After casting their votes at the local library, Card, a 30-year-old Cuban immigrant, said she had voted straight-ticket Democrat in just the second election she’s participated in. Because immigration is important to her, this election pushed her into vowing to always vote Democratic.

Meanwhile, her husband Carlos Medrano, a 34-year-old Venezuelan immigrant, has been a more regular Republican voter — until now. As he secured their young daughter into her car seat, Medrano did not disclose which candidate captured his vote, but he indicated that he had qualms about voting Republican.

“The problem is I like Republican ideas,” Medrano said, “but I don’t like Trump.”

Read more:

  • With everyone crowing about the rush of early voters in Texas this election, it's worth noting that we're still a state with low overall voter turnout. We run the numbers.
  • The voting-age population figure being used by the Texas secretary of state's office to calculate registration and turnout percentages may be off the mark.

Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.