Longtime GOP strategist Royal Masset looks at the Democratic turnout numbers in the Quorum Report and sees dire things for his party.
Masset now sees the makings of a political tsunami greater than the annus horribilis of 2006. The nearly minute-by-minute coverage of the Democratic presidential primary in Texas has undoubtedly captured the attention of the state's voters. Some argue that such attention is good too for the Republicans, sort of a rising tide lifting all boats argument.
Masset, though, is focused on what he said was the telling stat, party primary turnout as percentage of the total number of registered voters. On that score, the GOP is lagging terribly behind the Democratic Party.
The Secretary of State's Office tracks early voting by day in each of the state's 15 most populous counties. Taken together, the 7.8 million registered voters in those counties account for a little more than 60 percent of the state's registered voters.
While most eyes have been focused on staggering Democratic turnout, they have missed the fact that Republican turnout has also surged, generally doubling in the fifteen largest counties.
As of Wednesday, the percentage of registered voters taking part in the Democratic primary has nearly tripled the percentage voting in the Republican primary - 7.7 percent to 2.6 percent.
What gets Masset's attention is the fact that Republican turnout has exceeded 5 percent of registered voters in just one of the 15 most populous counties, Montgomery County. Conversely, Montgomery County is the only place where Democratic turnout has been less then 5 percent.
In the predominately Latino Rio Grande Valley, the disparity is even greater. In Cameron County (Brownsville), 9.75 percent of the registered voters have participated in the Democratic primary. The Republican primary hadn't cracked a single percentage point - 0.97 percent - as of Wednesday. In Hidalgo County (Edinburg), the spread is even larger, 13.10 percent to 0.82 percent.
What worries Masset the most is that he figures upward of 80 percent of those new Democratic voters will return to cast ballots in the fall. "If they're excited now, they'll probably stay excited," he said. In addition, the Democratic Party will have those voters in their database for outreach efforts later this year.
Masset looks at places like Collin County and Williamson County where Republicans hold every local office but Democrats are coming out this primary season in greater numbers than Republicans. The trends are adding up to an even better year for Democrats than in 2006, he said. And with a charismatic Obama at the top of the Democratic ticket and McCain seemingly unable to unite his party, Masset suggested any GOP incumbent who won last time with less than 60 percent of the vote should be concerned. Anyone who won with less than 55 percent of the vote is in trouble, he said.
The real problem for the Democratic party is the erosion of their historical base in rural counties. Most county officeholders have a couple of hundred relatives and friends who will vote Democrat to keep them in office. But as support for the Democrat party declines in their counties, the probability greatly increases that they will switch parties or be defeated by a Republican. The largest percent declines in Democratic Party primary turnout from 1996 and 2000 were in these rural counties.
Here are several examples. In Speaker Laney's home of Hale County, the Democrat turnout was more than triple the Republican turnout in 1996. In 2000 the Republican turnout was almost triple the Democrat turnout. This sounds like an SAT question. The correct answer is that the Hale County Democrat turnout declined from 3505 to 530.
Nacogdoches County saw a similar flip. Their Republican primary turnout more than tripled to 8,222 from 2672 in 1996. Steve Lilly still lives! The Denton County Republican Primary went from 21,884 to 57,659. In 30 counties the Republican turnout was more than twice that of previous all time high 1996 turnout, including strategically important counties such as Wharton, Henderson, Anderson, and Chambers. Gonzales, Hood and Kaufman counties had 95% increases in Republican turnout.
The Democrat primary turnout declined by more than half in strategically important counties such as Wharton, Walker, Gonzales, Aransas, Cooke, El Paso, Grayson, Hamilton, Howard, Hunt, Jefferson, Kaufman, Madison, Mitchell, McCulloch, Nacogdoches, Scurry, Wichita and Young. It declined by 48% in Gregg, Waller and Mason counties.
Masset's guess that 80% of the new Democratic voters will come back in the fall to vote Democratic is encouraging. Obviously, some of these people are "November Democrats" who were always going to vote Democratic in the fall, but for whatever the reason never bothered to vote in previous Marches. Some of these are Democratic "swing voters" as defined by Chris Bowers, which is to say people who'll vote Dem if they vote, but need to be persuaded to do so; if they're not inspired to get out and cast a ballot this November, they shouldn't be considered voters in any meaningful sense. And the rest - a third? a half? more? less? who knows? - are people who aren't in the habit, even the unreliable habit, of voting Democratic. I certainly think these people are going to change the basic calculus of a whole host of elections this year, and so does Masset.
But not everybody does:
GOP pollster Mike Baselice has a different take on the early voting numbers. Looking at the raw numbers, GOP participation is running much higher than in the two previous presidential primaries that had Texan George W. Bush at the top of the ticket.
More than 35,000 people have cast votes in the GOP primary in Harris County, for instance. That's two-and-a-half times as large a turnout as in 2004 more than twice the number from 2000. The jump in participation is even higher in Dallas and Tarrant Counties. In both places, GOP participation in raw numbers is more than six times the level in 2004.
County Year Reg Voters Early Vote Pct RVs Change
Harris 2000 1,754,645 41,880 2.38
Harris 2008 1,804,641 51,199 2.84 +19.3%
Dallas 2000 1,161,587 23,859 2.05
Dallas 2008 1,114,002 31,874 2.86 +39.5%
Tarrant 2000 801,260 19,200 2.40
Tarrant 2008 890,412 35,621 4.00 +66.7%
Bexar 2000 824,948 30,203 3.66
Bexas 2008 867,084 33,487 3.86 +5.5%
Including 2004 totals is even more misleading, because there essentially was no GOP primary in most parts of the state that year. President Bush was unopposed on the ballot. There were primaries among statewide officeholders, almost all Supreme Court and CCA jurists, but none of them generated any excitement - on average, the dropoff rate from Bush voters (who were 92% of all GOP primary voters) was between 10 and 20%. There were numerous Congressional primaries that year, thanks to the DeLay re-redistricting, but only six drew more than 30,000 votes, and as a whole they drew less than Bush's total of 635,000. What's driving GOP turnout this year is the same as what's driving Democratic, which is the chance to weigh in on a real race. It's just that the GOP side isn't nearly as strong a draw as the Dem side.
Baselice said that those early voting numbers suggest to him that the GOP could have as many as 1.5 million votes cast in its primary and that 4 million votes could be cast between both parties. He called those numbers unprecedented.
And while that number is sure to be dwarfed by the number of Democratic primary votes, Baselice is not necessarily worried about Republican candidates' chances in the fall. He noted that the state tilts toward Republicans by about nine points. So all things being equal, the GOP candidate starts most races with a 55-45 advantage, he said.
High turnout on both sides is a good thing for the Republican Party because it helps them rework their voters' lists and better target likely Republican voters, he said.