November 11, 2002
Looking forward: Turnout

I have to tell you, I really thought turnout was going to carry at least some of the statewide Democratic ticket to victory this year. I just knew it.

I made several bad assumptions. One, I believed my own hype. Two, I extrapolated from limited data, namely my experiences calling voters before the election. And three, I assumed that the 40% turnout predicted would not only materialize (we actually got 36% in the Governor's race, slightly less in the others) but be driven by long-lost Democratic voters coming back to the polls because they finally had something worth voting for.

Reality's a bitch, ain't it?

Still, though, in looking at the county by county results for the Senate race between John Cornyn and Ron Kirk, I'm struck by the comparatively poor turnout in some of the bigger counties that Kirk carried. For example:

County Cornyn Kirk Voters Turnout
EL PASO 28,642 69,490 355,201 28.08%
CAMERON 14,834 28,902 154,193 28.80%
JEFFERSON 23,216 31,272 164,006 33.22%
NUECES 29,313 38,183 200,322 34.10%
TRAVIS 90,814 121,102 555,065 39.30%

Now, I'm not going to make up the 500,000 votes that separate Kirk from Cornyn by playing the turnout game, but you can't be competitive, let alone win, if only one of your best counties is better than average in tournout. Let's see how this compares to the large counties that Cornyn won handily:

County Cornyn Kirk Voters Turnout
MONTGOMERY 56,068 16,748 196,250 37.65%
COLLIN 88,136 36,750 319,236 39.51%
SMITH 32,537 13,984 107,976 43.49%
LUBBOCK 38,217 16,245 152,442 36.24%
DENTON 70,681 32,930 306,174 34.26%
BRAZORIA 33,644 18,329 152,721 34.62%
WILLIAMSON 47,303 26,306 177,935 42.22%
BELL 25,642 16,939 144,805 29.77%
TARRANT 198,504 141,505 876,576 39.18%
FORT BEND 49,456 37,319 224,551 39.01%

All but three above average, with only Bell County having truly poor turnout. These are mainly wealthy counties (Montgomery, Collin, Denton, Williamson and Fort Bend are all suburbs) while only Travis on Kirk's side is well-to-do, but still, one side got their supporters to the polls and the other side didn't. Step Number One, therefore, is to concentrate more on those counties that actually vote Democratic. Boosting El Paso and Cameron Counties into the 40% range would have cut Kirk's deficit by about 25,000 votes. (Note: I'm assuming the extra turnout would have voted in the same manner as the rest of their counties. Obviously, a more targeted turnout effort would do more.)

Like I said, this alone is nowhere near enough to make it a true race. But another thing that leaps out at me is how many counties Cornyn carried with over 60% of the vote. Many of those are suburban, as noted. Step Two has to be to not give up on these places for the simple reason that getting stomped in them adds enormously to your deficit. Montgomery County is a bit more than one-third the size of Travis, and yet if you counted just those two counties' votes Cornyn would have won.

Not giving up on the suburbs means three things: One, encourage any grassroots effort, no matter how small, by progressives in the suburbs. It's gotta be lonely and depressing to be a Democrat in Montgomery County, but those folks' votes matter just as much as they do Montrose. Two, whatever Hispanic future Texas may have, white voters are very much the majority now and will be so for some time to come. The next Dream Team has to have some appeal to white voters or they'll get creamed in the suburbs again. Three, the suburbs aren't as white as they once were. Fort Bend county is Tom DeLay's turf and solidly Republican overall, but Kirk did surprisingly well there:

While the county has a diverse ethnic population, party lines are drawn heavily on the Republican side, with the GOP holding a sizable edge in voting.

"Republicans make up about 54 percent of the voters, Democrats 35 percent, with the remaining 11 percent being ticket splitters," [Fort Bend Republican Party Chairman Eric] Thode said.

The Republican advantage makes is almost impossible for a Democrat to garner enough votes to win a countywide position, Thode said.

But the Precinct 2 portion of the eastern edge of the county has a large African-American population that delivers a Democratic vote and the single-member district offices of constable, justice of the peace and county commissioner are held by Democrats.

The split in Fort bend was 56.5% for Cornyn and 42.6% for Kirk. If the breakdown really is 54-35-11, then Kirk got all of the Democratic vote and almost all of the independents. That's encouraging.

Finally, there's the big urban areas. Here's one more chart:

County Cornyn Kirk Voters Turnout
HARRIS 329,383 291,177 1,902,561 33.05%
DALLAS 217,902 224,695 1,208,201 37.01%
BEXAR 138,887 128,556 884,103 30.73%
TARRANT 198,504 141,505 876,576 39.18%
TRAVIS 90,814 121,102 555,065 39.30%
EL PASO 28,642 69,490 355,201 28.08%

Democrats do pretty well here, though not nearly well enough to overcome the suburban disadvantage. Targeted turnout here is the key again.

I should note that turnout is really important in Harris County, where the local GOP machine is very well organized and funded, resulting in dominance in countywide races. The thing is, while Harris County has been solidly Republican lately, the city of Houston is still Democratic; Lee Brown couldn't have beaten off two heavily backed Republican challengers in his three terms otherwise. Harris County (and Bexar County as well) contains several small cities within the larger city (Bellaire, West U., Hedwig Village, Spring Valley, etc) that are GOP strongholds and that do a lot of voting. Houston itself has a lot of potential Democrats, but until they get to the polls at the same rate as the rest of the county, the future will be much like the present.

All county data in the Senate race comes from here. I created a spreadsheet to do the percentages and sorting, which can be found here. Font problems prevented me from showing vote percentages for each candidate, but you can see it in the spreadsheet.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 11, 2002 to Election 2002 | TrackBack