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Analysis: For Texas pols, the seasonal scares last for two weeks

Political campaigns can see a lot in early voting patterns, giving them a better idea than the rest of us what's going on. But it's the things they don't know that make them nervous.

Texans cast their votes at the start of early voting at the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center near downtown Houston on Mon...

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Listen carefully at this time of year and you can tell what the political people are worried about.

For instance:

• That the turnout boomlet on the first day of early voting portends a big Democratic vote that will help Beto O’Rourke and others.

• That the president’s visit to Houston will boost Republican turnout, saving Ted Cruz and helping Republicans down the ballot.

• That the caravan of refugees heading north from Honduras is the sort of “October surprise” that changes the subject — and the outcome — of an election.

• That Harris County’s races are going to be a lot closer than some expected — that Republican incumbents are in peril, in other words — because of a strong Democratic turnout.

• That changing demographics in and around Fort Bend County have edged U.S. Rep. Pete Olson’s re-election chances against Democrat Sri Kulkarni into the danger zone.

• That U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Georgetown, might be rebounding. That John Culberson, R-Houston, might not be.

Those are just examples of the things hiding under their beds and in their closets. The fear of change — whatever that means to the person doing the talking at any given moment — is in the air. That’s what happens when what used to be Election Day lasts two weeks: One day of uncertainty and anxiety has been stretched into many days.

The pols themselves have more at stake. They’re managing expectations from here to Nov. 6, when voting finally ends. They’re trying to build momentum if they have it, to turn it if they don’t.

That said, they also have more information than voters have. They know, day by day, who has voted and who hasn’t (the fact that you voted is a public record; the way that you voted is not). That tells them who still needs to be urged to vote and whom they can leave alone. It hints — loosely — at how things might be going so far: how many of the voters are first-timers; how many of them usually only vote in presidential years; how many voted in the Democratic and Republican primaries in this and other years.

On that last point, Republican consultant Derek Ryan looked at the first day’s voting in the state’s largest counties and found 36.1 percent of the votes were cast by Republican primary voters; 33.8 percent were cast by Democratic primary voters. People with no previous voting history made up 6.4 percent of that one-day vote.

But the data don’t show the pros how many people voted straight tickets — pulling the lever for all of the Democrats or all of the Republicans. It doesn’t tell them how many of us voted in one race and stopped there, how many voted all the way to the end of the ballot (Harris County’s prints out to three three-column pages in tiny type).

Certainty, if there is any to be had, belongs to the big dogs at the top of the ballot. Those candidates drive public interest — just look at this year’s U.S. Senate race, or the presidential race two years ago, or the race for governor two years before that.

It is those other items — on the bulleted list above and items like those not mentioned here — that keep the campaigns anxious.

The first day of early voting bloomed, with some of the state’s biggest counties reporting huge turnouts. It’s too early to know whether that means more people will vote or whether people who would have voted later in past elections decided this time to vote on Monday and get it over with.

Either answer could make a candidate nervous.

President Trump has had a pretty good batting average on his political visits to places where Republicans are in trouble. Was his Monday stop in Houston a boon to Republicans or a burden?

Something to fret over.

How does the latest immigration story play out? The government’s separations of minors from their families earlier this year split Republican voters; Trump quickly rescinded the orders for zero-tolerance enforcement at the border. Does the northbound caravan — and its timing — play into voters’ decisions this year? And for which side?

That could keep a political consultant awake at night.

Here’s a big one: Are voters going to act the way they usually act? Will the number of voters swell, drop or stay about where it’s been? Are they mad? Who are they happy with? Have demographics changed? Is there a blue wave or a red seawall or some of each?

That’s why they’re worried: Their jobs depend on it.

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