The Coming Blue Tide Needs Competition

by Craig Goodman

Last week, Tiffany Cartwright and Tyler Young published an interesting post on the changing demographics of Texas and how that might change the politics of the Lone Star State. Overall, it is a well-done piece and the sheer number of figures gives readers a lot to consider. However, while the demographics may point to change, pundits and many Democrats have been pointing to the so-called sleeping giant of Texas politics for nearly 2 decades and if anything, Texas has become a more Republican state over that period of time. Why has the predicted change failed to materialize? My suggestion is simple: the absence of an effective Democratic Party organization that can energize and mobilize Hispanic voters.

There is ample evidence that partisanship is the most important predictor of voting behavior (Bartels 2000), but parties also play a critical role in mobilizing potential voters. Hispanic voters, on paper, may be more likely to vote Democratic, but the absence of any real competition at the statewide level is likely to serve as a drag on the expected changes. Voting is always a costly activity in terms of time and information (Rosenstone and Hansen 1993) and may be even more costly in Texas with the adoption of photo ID requirements (although the evidence is not yet clear on this point), but party organizations play a vital role in helping voters overcome the tendency to engage in free riding. John Aldrich (1995) has written about the development of political parties and the importance of resources and this is one of the challenges in Texas. Resources are scarce (a point a return to later) and they are often deployed where they will have the greatest return and it would take a substantial investment in Texas to make the state competitive so the status quo persists.

On paper, the 2014 election should have provided opportunities for greater Hispanic influence considering Texas has been affected by a surge of immigrants on our southern border and many Republican candidates, most notably Dan Patrick, the nominee for lieutenant governor, wanted to militarize the border. Even with the nomination of a high profile gubernatorial candidate in State Senator Wendy Davis, the nomination of State Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) for lieutenant governor, and the efforts of Battleground Texas Democrats were crushed across the state. One of the challenges Wendy Davis’s campaign faced was the competition between issues that would appeal to activists (abortion or gun rights) versus the issues that would best mobilize voters (education or roads) (see Aldrich 1995 on these challenges for parties).

Exit polling from the Texas Politics Project at the University Texas showed that Governor Greg Abbott won 44% of the Latino vote while Dan Patrick, candidate for Lieutenant Governor, won a slightly higher percentage of Hispanics while Senator John Cornyn won a plurality of Hispanic voters in his reelection campaign. Looking a statewide map of the results , Democratic support is largely confined to El Paso, the Rio Grande Valley, and South Texas (and Austin, of course). Even in many of those border counties, Governor Abbott’s campaign was reasonably competitive as he took 42% of the vote in Cameron County, 29% in Webb County, 35% in Hidalgo County, and 37% in El Paso County.

It is also important to note that 2014 is not an outlier because over the past ten years, election returns illustrate the fact that Hispanics in Texas are not a consistent voting bloc. Starting with disastrous “Dream Team” in 2002 (Tony Sanchez for governor, John Sharp for lieutenant governor, and Ron Kirk for United States senator), Republicans have consistently won nearly 40% of the Hispanic vote in the state. In 2006, nearly 50% of Hispanic voters reported supporting either Governor Rick Perry’s reelection or Carole Keeton Strayhorn and in 2010, 38% of Hispanics voted for Governor Perry again.

While the races at the top of the ticket receive a great deal of attention, there are a lot of down-ballot races as well and the Democratic Party has been falling short on this metric as well. Quality challengers (Jacobson and Kernell 1983) are important because they have experience running campaigns and raising money and the empirical evidence is clear that these candidates often perform better than political amateurs. For example, in 6 state senate districts there was no Democratic candidate on the ballot and the average share of the vote in districts where Democrats were on the ballot was 46.8% (of course that includes the overwhelming reelection victories of Senators Kirk Watson (Austin) and Royce West (Dallas) and excluding those two elections the average Democratic share drops to 37.4%). In the state house, there were 58 districts with no Democratic candidate compared with just 42 with no Republican candidate and this limits the choices of voters and gives them little to get excited about. One of the reasons that this matters is that it deprives the Democratic Party of a bench of candidates who can gain experience and eventually consider running for statewide office. Yes, State Senators Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte stepped up in 2014, but no other prominent Democrats were willing to run for the U.S. Senate seat, Attorney General, or Comptroller of Public Accounts. The few prominent Texas Democrats who could have stepped up chose to remain in safe congressional seats (Representative Joaquin Castro) or state senate seats (State Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin).

In order for parties to compete effectively and build resources they need money and manpower and this is one of the challenges Texas Democrats face. Texas is a wealthy state and serves to bankroll many campaigns and there is a great deal of money flowing out of Texas rather than being used to build the infrastructure that could help the Democratic Party compete statewide (I am grateful to Brandon Rottinghaus for pointing this out during a recent presentation at University of Houston-Victoria). This recent piece in the Texas Tribune highlights some of the expectations statewide Democrats have for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, but it is worth pointing out that even in the opening paragraph there is an expectation that volunteers expect to be sent elsewhere to mobilize voters rather than staying in Texas.

The demographics may be right, but the realities of elections reveal that Hispanics in Texas are not likely to fuel the political transformation of Texas without mobilization from political parties. The transition Democrats hope will occur is not likely to happen until Texas Democrats recruit quality candidates with the resources to run competitive campaigns and translate the potential of Hispanic votes into actual election victories. Perhaps the debates over immigration will serve as a tipping point for shifting the loyalty of Hispanic voters, much as civil rights legislation did for African-American voters. The GOP is aware of this and in the post-mortem of the 2012 election defeat, a committee wrote, “If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States(i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence.” It is an important lesson for Republicans to heed if they want to maintain their long-term majority in Texas.

Craig Goodman is an Assistant Professor of Political Science in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Houston-Victoria.  He researches and teaches on U.S. politics, especially the U.S. Congress and the American presidency.

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