November 03, 2008
Coattails and turnout in Harris County

With early voting over, we're kind of in a dead spot news-wise, much like the Sunday before the Super Bowl. There are a few things to think about as we wait for Tuesday.

Democratic Chairman Gerald Birnberg said excitement about Obama and Hispanic voters' identification with the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, hometown legislator Rick Noriega, could push the total Harris County voter turnout to 1.3 million, above the record-high 1.08 million in 2004.

Bush carried Harris County in the presidential contest then, with 585,000 presidential votes, more than in 2000.

I'm not going to quibble with the turnout assessment - it's right in line with my own, after all. I'm not convinced that higher turnout is necessarily good for Democratic candidates. I think that's truer in non-Presidential years in general, but this year, with the enthusiasm gap being what it is, I think beyond a certain point, increases in turnout may indicate more Republicans bothering to show up than might have been originally expected. Don't get me wrong, I'm very happy with the turnout so far, and I'm happy with the idea of 1.3 million or more showing up to vote in Harris County. I think the odds favor that being good for the Democrats. But this is a unique year in so many ways, and that makes me hesitant to accept conventional wisdom like that. I'll say it again - nobody really knows what to expect.

The massive early vote appears to support the Democratic argument. Using public voting records and their eyes, political scientists, officials and strategists in both parties say the dominating forces in the 12 days of early balloting were African-American voters stimulated by Obama's candidacy and other voters with a Democratic voting history.

"Even in areas like Katy, where all these people who are showing up are supposed to be in white, Republican (precincts), they are blacks and Hispanics who voted in March (in the Obama-Clinton match) and who are coming back to vote in the general election," University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray said.

But many of those voters will vote for Obama and stop. Some may be former Clinton supporters for McCain. Others will vote Democratic to the back of the ballot, giving a lift to the entire ticket, down to the obscure judicial races.

What do you mean by "many"? In 2004, the average Republican judicial candidate in a contested race got about 40,000 votes less than George Bush did. That sounds like a lot, but it was less than 7% of Bush's total. I think the aggressive push by the HCDP to get support for the entire ticket will result in a smaller dropoff than that, perhaps less than five percent. That still adds up to 30,000 votes or more, but it also doesn't take into account the possibilty that some number of Republicans will show up to vote only for McCain/Palin. I mean, if Palin fired up the base and raised the enthusiasm level on that side, doesn't it follow that some of those voters are only interested in that race? If you'd asked me a couple of months ago, I'd have assumed a greater level of dropoff in the Democratic races than in the Republican ones. Now I'm not so sure about that. The point I'm making is simply that single-race voters will not be a single-party phenomenon. Even in 2004, there was a dip in Democratic participation after the Presidential race. It was a bit less than 10,000 votes from John Kerry to the average judicial candidate, but it was there.

As for the Hillary-to-McCain factor, all I can say is that at this point, there's no polling evidence to back that up. PUMAs, such as they were, are basically extinct now. Democrats are voting for Obama at or above the levels for which they voted for Kerry in 2004 and Gore in 2000. With all the prominent Republicans that have come out for Obama lately (quick, tell me the last Democrat of any note to publicly back McCain), I'd pay more attention to the R-to-D crossover possibility.

Bearing in mind again that nobody knows what's going to happen, I want to highlight something that the Republicans are saying:

Numerous studies show the growth of Democratic-leaning minority populations in Harris County has outstripped changes in the Anglo population, leading Birnberg to see a Republican vote this year no greater than 600,000. An overall county vote of 1.3 million or more would leave Republicans on the losing end.

"That's a sweep," he said.

Republican counterpart Jared Woodfill sees an opposite picture.

The March primaries drew 407,000 voters to the closely contested Democratic race and 169,000 voters to the less dramatic, McCain-dominated Republican contest. If the parties had voted at equal strength in the primaries, in a county that has been dominated for decades by Republican voters, the chairman said, it would still leave room for an additional 500,000 voters participating in a turnout of 1.3 million.

"We may draw more independents than we may draw someone who is considered a Republican partisan," he said.

Remember when the Harris County GOP was full of swagger? When they boasted of their built-in advantage at the polls? Now they're talking about how they "may draw more independents". Never mind the fact that independents on the whole nationally have leaned strongly Democratic since 2006, with a not-insignificant number of indies being former Republicans. If you're a Republican hoping to hold on this year, does that quote fill you with a warm feeling?

How about this quote?

GOP pollster Mike Baselice said he doubts the GOP will lose the early vote: "I'm not seeing much news here. Republicans need to be in the low 50s on early vote, or it's 'game over."

Again, this strikes me as being considerably short of braggadocio. Maybe Baselice is just being coy, or maybe he wasn't quoted in full, I don't know. But what I note is that he doesn't say that Republicans will be in the low 50s in the early vote. He just says they need to be, which we know from other stories is the norm. Maybe I'm reading too much into that. All I'm saying is this is pretty weak compared to what I'm used to hearing from these guys.

One last bit of Baselice wisdom, also from the Statesman:

In total, 299,325 Travis County residents, or about half of registered voters, cast their ballots by the end of the two-week early voting period. In 2004, about 40 percent of the county's registered voters cast ballots early.

Early votes this year amounted to 84 percent of the total Travis County turnout of 355,708 in the 2004 election.


In Travis County, Democratic primary voters outnumbered Republicans nearly 4-to-1 in early voting as of Wednesday, when the most recent statistics were available, Beatty said. Half of the hard-core supporters for both the Democrats and Republicans have already voted, Beatty said, but enough people who haven't voted in primaries -- the less partisan voters -- could tip some local elections.

"We've never seen anything like this election," Beatty said, adding that he thinks Democrats will make gains throughout the state.

Mike Baselice, a Republican political analyst, cautioned against predicting a Republican demise based on early voting numbers.

He pointed out that more people vote in the Democratic primary in Texas than in the GOP primary, yet Republicans control the state government.

There's also evidence, he said, that the surge of early voting Democrats may lead to a smaller Election Day turnout, and that some of the new primary voters that Democrats are putting in their column could be "casual Republicans" who may vote Republican on Tuesday.

It's news to me that more people vote in the Democratic primary in Texas than the Republican primary. Here's a look back:


GOP Primary = 1,019,803
Dem Primary = 921,256


GOP Primary = 596,839
Dem Primary = 654,154


GOP Primary = 1,126,757
Dem Primary = 786,890


GOP Primary = 627,068
Dem Primary = 1,003,388


GOP Primary = 687,615
Dem Primary = 839,231


GOP Primary = 655,919
Dem Primary = 508,602


GOP Primary = 1,362,322
Dem Primary = 2,874,986

Totals are from the highest turnout race in each year. Looks like a mixed bag to me. Most years it's pretty close to even, with 2000 (Bush running for the Presidential nomination), 2002 (Tony Sanchez versus Dan Morales for the Dem gubernatorial nomination, plus a three-way fight for the Senate nomination), and 2008 (I think we know what this one was about) being the exceptions. I agree that this year's primary turnout doesn't tell us much about what November turnout will look like, but one, that's not what he said, and two, GOP strategist Royal Masset has written in the past about how increases in Republican primary turnout in in downballot races across the state have correlated to increases in Republican performance in those counties in the general elections. Efforts to spin the Democratic primary turnout as some kind of negative just amuse me.

And again, "casual Republicans"? Where's the in-your-face attitude? I almost miss it.

As always, you can make whatever you want of these numbers so far. Baselice and crew may just be doing a little rope-a-dope, I can't say. I'm just not used to that tone of rhetoric coming from them.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 03, 2008 to Election 2008
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