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Early voting: Guessing the downballot effects

The Observer blog takes a stab at what is surely going to be the hottest parlor game among political prognosticators and consultants this summer, Trying To Figure Out Whose Re-election Chances Are Endangered By All This Democratic Primary Turnout:

One area that will be particularly fun to watch is Senate District 10 in Fort Worth. Republican incumbent Sen. Kim Brimer is in deep trouble in his battle to fend off Democratic challenger Wendy Davis. This area is a major focus for the Democratic presidential candidates. The senate district already has deep pockets of hardcore Democrats. These are the folks that keep sending our patron saint of lost causes Rep. Lon Burnam back to the House. Brimer’s district features Democrat Dan Barrett, who shocked pundits when he beat a slew of Republicans in a special election for Republican Rep. Ann Mowrey’s District 97 seat. Primary turnout will certainly help him hold onto the seat. Another Republican who could fall in Brimer’s district is incumbent Republican Rep. Bill Zedler in District 96. Zedler has a strong challenger in Democrat Chris Turner. Zedler won his last race with just 52 percent of the vote against an underfunded unknown. Only about 37,000 people voted. The margin of victory amounted to little more than 3,000 votes.

Well, I haven’t seen any early vote numbers for Tarrant County, but I can tell you about a couple of purple State House districts here in Harris that I think will get a big blue boost from turnout in November. One is HD133, where Kristi Thibaut is rematching against first-term Rep. Jim Murphy. HD133 is in some ways an easy district to analyze. It only intersects two Congressional districts – CD07 and CD09 – and pretty much all of the CD07 precincts are red, while pretty much all of the CD09 precincts are blue. In 2006, the red precincts averaged 41.9% turnout, while the blue ones averaged 21.4%. That’s not the entire story of how Murphy won and Thibaut lost – there are more voters in the red areas than in the blue ones – but it certainly made it hard for her to close the gap.

I don’t know what it’s going to be like in November. I do know that in 2004, red turnout was about 65%, while blue turnout was 48%, and I strongly believe that blue turnout will be higher, perhaps considerably higher, than that this year, while red turnout probably isn’t going to change much. I also know that of 3073 votes cast by HD133 voters in the first week of early voting, a whopping 2249 of them – that’s 73.2% – were cast in the Democratic primary. That suggests to me that we’re in for a pretty good year, but let’s assume for a second that we get what we’ve gotten before – 65% turnout in the red precincts, and 48% turnout in the blue ones. Assuming those numbers, and assuming the partisan mix remains the same as the turnout increases, this district shifts from 58-42 GOP for the average countywide candidate to 53-47. From there, it doesn’t take much to move the ball past the 50-yard line. Put this one on your watch list, because the tide is moving in Thibaut’s direction even before you factor in a more motivated Democratic electorate.

Another one to watch is HD138, which Burka thought was out of reach for Dems before all this primary voting happened and he had a road to Damascus moment. In HD138, 1591 of 2201 early votes so far – 72.2% – have been cast in the Democratic primary. I don’t have a turnout breakdown for this district the way I have one for HD133, but this was a 57-43 GOP district at the average-countywide level in 2006, with 2006’s crappy Democratic turnout. It’s easy to imagine it as being similar to HD133, maybe even a tad bit bluer (Jim Sharp got 46.1% in HD138, but only 44.7% in HD133, so this isn’t a wild assumption), under normal Presidential year turnout scenarios. And under what we might see this year? I like Virginia McDavid’s chances.

Having said all that, there is still an elephant in the room, if you’ll pardon the expression:

If Democrats target the close districts, focusing on the urban areas of the state where they are strong and half of Texas’ voters live, this could be an historic year. Or, being Democrats they could let it slip away. As Leland Beatty, an Austin-based political consultant told us, it’s great if there is lots of crop in the field but if you don’t have the diesel to harvest it…

In other words, if Democrats want to take advantage of these opportunities, it’s going to take money, money, and more money, to drive the turnout that we can and should get. The good news for Harris County is that the coordinated campaign should be doing that; certainly, we’ll see a level of financial involvement that we haven’t seen in years. But given that it’s the race at the top of the ticket that’s really generating all these crazy numbers, it would be nice if whoever wins the Democratic nomination gives a little back and gets into the game here, even if it’s only a few TV ads. Whether you believe Texas is in play or not, running up the popular vote for purposes of achieving a true mandate-level victory would be smart for either Hillary or Obama. I just hope they realize that.

Finally, here are the updated daily totals (PDF) for each EV location in Harris County. You may note it was a very busy weekend – as many in-person votes were cast in Harris County on Saturday as they were for the entire EV period in 2004. Tiffany voted at the Multi Service Center on West Gray and Sunday and called me from there to say she’d been in line for an hour. Statewide, Democrats are at 360,000 in the top 15 counties, which is triple what the Republicans have done. Have I mentioned that this is unbelievable? Stay tuned, we’ll see how high this goes.

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  1. Michael says:

    I’m wondering what this does to Republican primaries. Does lowered turnout favor republican incumbents or challengers? In districts with no republican incumbent and two or more challengers, does this favor conservatives or more-conservatives? And is it actually lower on only relatively lower?

  2. Michael says:

    I’m wondering what this does to Republican primaries. Does lowered turnout favor republican incumbents or challengers? In districts with no republican incumbent and two or more challengers, does this favor conservatives or more-conservatives? And is it actually lower on only relatively lower?

  3. Michael says:

    Your blog is returning errors after successful comments, making users (such as me) think they’re unsuccessful comments…

  4. Michael – To answer your questions:

    1. Generally, lower turnout is seen as favoring incumbents, as they are almost always better known, and (usually) voters who are self-motivated to vote tend to like them. This is not universal – the Dems succeeded in knocking off four GOP State House incumbents in 2006 despite generally crappy turnout. To some extent, turnout was depressed on the GOP side due to the scandalicious nature of 2006, but it wasn’t exactly cracking on the D side either, thanks to no money being spent statewide.

    2. In GOP primaries, I would expect lower turnout to favor the more conservative candidate, as it is the conservative primary voters who can be counted on to show up.

    3. Turnout this year for Republicans is actually about twice what it was in 2004 and 2000, when there was no race at all to speak of; your choices in 2004 were Bush and “undeclared”. It’s just that Dem turnout has increased ninefold, and is triple what the GOP has going, so relatively speaking it’s puny. Whether this favors conservative candidates or more moderate ones (or really, Craddickites and anti-Craddickites) is debatable, as no one really knows which Republicans are playing in the Dem primary and why. I would not hazard a guess.

    4. The error is a problem with Movable Type (slow CGI code) and my webhost. I will be upgrading to version 4.1 some day, and I hope that will fix this. It gives me the same fits when publishing.


  5. Kevin Whited says:

    Stay tuned, we’ll see how high this goes.

    I am tuned!