Not just Austin, dammit

What Flavia Isabel says:

The single purpose of this post is to eradicate the phrase “Oh yeah, Austin is a blue dot in a sea of red” from the vocabulary of anybody who cares about turning Texas blue.

I am so incredibly sick and tired of hearing this refrain. It’s part of the Austin mythology. And it needs to die and get buried six feet under because it is not helpful. Every time someone says “Austin is a blue dot in a sea of red”, a voter in a swing district registers as a Republican.

Battleground Texas just set up shop and they have the incredible, sisyphean task of convincing people that Texas can go blue. We all have that incredible task. In fact, I had that task last week, when trying to convince my partner, a native Texan, that we can go blue. I made him listen to me rant while cooking, which involved a lot of banging of pots and pans. This is a dangerous activity. I almost picked up a hot pan with my hands. No ranting while cooking. Also, this blog post is to spare him more ranting. Tangent over.

Anyways, perpetuating the myth that Austin is a blue dot in a sea of red is not helpful because it isn’t true.

More than one blue spot

More than one blue spot

Flavia goes on to cite a bunch of evidence in support of her thesis, and you should go read what she has to say. I’m right there with her on this, and spewed a rant of my own in the comments of this dKos post where that tired old trope was trotted out in the first paragraph. To me, belief in that shibboleth is de facto evidence that you don’t understand Texas politics – if you believe this, you probably also believe that the office of Ag Commissioner is more powerful than the Governor, since someone told you that once.

I don’t want to reiterate Flavia’s arguments, but as a numbers guy I can’t help but pile on a little. The city of Houston voted over 60% for President Obama in 2008 and in 2012. In terms of margin of victory, no county was more Democratic than Dallas County, which Obama carried by 110,000 votes; he carried Travis County by 93,000. More votes were cast for Obama in Harris County – which he carried twice – in 2012 than there were total votes cast in Travis County (587K Obama votes in Harris, 387K total votes in Travis). And Travis County represents about 7% of the Texas total Democratic vote, so 93% of Obama voters lived elsewhere. Throw in the counties from the greater Austin metro area – Hays, Bastrop, and Williamson, at least – and you get to about 10% of the statewide total, leaving 90% of the Obama vote from everywhere else. Convinced yet?

More broadly, there were more votes cast for President Obama in Texas in 2012 than there were votes cast for him in every other state except California, New York, and Florida. Let me repeat that: More Texans voted for President Obama last year than residents of every other state except California, New York, and Florida. There were more Texas votes for Obama than there were Illinois votes for Obama. Go look it up for yourself.

Now obviously, a lot of this is due to our sheer size – Texas is the second most populous state in the country. And of course, there were a lot more votes cast for Mitt Romney in Texas than there were for President Obama; we wouldn’t be having this conversation otherwise. My point is simply that there are a lot of us Democrats in Texas, and we’re everywhere in the state. To imply otherwise is ignorant and insulting. Please don’t do that.

I do agree that if you look at a map of Texas’ electoral results, you will see a lot of red. Texas has a lot of counties – 254 of them – and a lot of them are truly Republican turf. Of course, a lot of those counties are lightly populated – by my count, there were 25 counties that cast fewer than 1000 votes in 2012 – and a lot of those sparsely populated areas tend to be heavily Republican. Still, the way to make the map look less red is to turn more counties blue. Democratic activist Robert Ryland, the Chair of the Bastrop County Democratic Party, has an idea for how to facilitate that, one that’s so clear and obvious in retrospect that the rest of us should all be slapping our foreheads and saying “Why didn’t I think of that?” Here’s the pitch from his email:

Please stop whatever you’re doing and make whatever contribution you can to The Texas County Democratic Campaign Committee (TCDCC) on ActBlue!

Some of you already know that against my better judgment (but with the encouragement of many others), I have started a PAC.

The Texas County Democratic Campaign Committee will focus on addressing one of our biggest weaknesses: recruiting & supporting county-level Democratic candidates outside of our current urban strongholds.

This organization is designed to bring Democratic county officials together under an umbrella of mutual interest, expand their numbers wherever possible, and support their efforts to serve their constituents effectively once they’re in office.

Working at the county level, TCDCC will be helping to rebuild the Democratic brand where our candidates can, in theory at least, shake hands with every voter who will cast a ballot in their election. We can build new coalitions through one-on-one contact with voters on a level that State Lege and Congressional candidates cannot, at what is frankly a bargain price tag. I don’t have to explain to y’all the positive ripple effects that can have for every Democrat in Texas down the road, and our work will feed into the efforts of groups like HDCC, DCCC, Annie’s List and others.

The long-term goal is about rebuilding our bench of candidates for higher office and rehabilitating the Democratic brand where we need it most. With Battleground TX and TDP ramping up efforts to register and engage more voters and rebuild organizational infrastructure, having quality candidates up and down the ballot will be critical to consolidating that work into actual electoral gains. It’s also about better local government, and electing folks who can cope sensibly with the burdens and baloney that our Republican-led legislature is passing on to them.

“So, what drove you to this, Rob?”
Glad you asked.

After working with candidates and running campaigns for the last three cycles in Bastrop County, I’ve come to understand how difficult it is for Democrats to run for local office out here and across much of Texas. With little support available from the state party and few resources of any kind to help them deliver a strong message and drive turnout on the margins, these brave souls often feel like they’re on an island, with a hostile political landscape to navigate. After talking with a number of Democratic commissioners and county judges, I’ve found a lot of them have felt this way for awhile. No organization has previously existed to help them, and – from what I can tell – this is the one piece of the grassroots puzzle we we’ve been missing – until now.

We have already begun to identify many commissioner and county judge seats across the state as possible Democratic pickups in 2014. The potential playing field is vast, but to ensure success in our first cycle we need to keep our challenges manageable while being disciplined about raising the funds needed to run a robust operation in 2014 and build for the long term. After the wipeouts of 2010 and redistricting, there’s actually plenty of low-hanging fruit to be found, but we need to bring a smart and coordinated effort to this fight or we could miss some great opportunities.

This is a fantastic idea. I’ve made a contribution to the TCDCC, whose website ( will be operational shortly, and I strongly encourage you to do so, too. It’s going to take all of us to dispel those pernicious myths about Texas. This is a great place to help with that effort.

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12 Responses to Not just Austin, dammit

  1. Flavia says:

    Nice. Good on you for piling on the numbers. Cheers to this * clink *

  2. M1EK says:

    I think you could have made the point without framing that borders on the dishonest, like this:

    “In terms of margin of victory, no county was more Democratic than Dallas County, which Obama carried by 110,000 votes;”

    This has the same ‘but’ attached to it as your “more people in Texas voted for Obama than all but N other states”. The PERCENTAGE margin of victory in Travis is obviously more impressive than that in Dallas County. And Dallas (the city) encompasses a lot of more of Dallas County than Austin does of Travis, right?

  3. Not really sure what you’re objecting to, M1EK. Obama had a bigger net margin in Dallas County than he did in in Travis County. There’s no “but” in that statement.

    I have no idea how much of the Dallas County vote is in the city of Dallas, or how much of the Travis County vote is in the city of Austin, though I do know that Dallas County covers some pretty Republican turf as well. I cited Houston because I do have that data. The point of all this is simply in service of the main idea that there are places in Texas other than Austin that have a lot of Democrats in them. I don’t think this is in dispute here.

    I am not at all disputing the idea that Travis County or the city of Austin are Democratic strongholds. They most certainly are. They’re just not the only such strongholds in the state. I trust we agree this is a good thing.

    If we are going to talk percentages, however, then I must note that Maverick (Obama 78.6%), Webb (Obama 76.5%), and El Paso (Obama 65.5%) Counties all had higher numbers than Travis (Obama 60.1%). Again, this speaks to my larger point.

  4. cb says:

    Until this post I have never heard the expression, “Austin is a blue dot in a sea of red.” When I think of Blue I think of Dallas County and the Valley…

  5. Gary says:

    We chose to retire eight years ago to Austin, and the political complexion was a part of the reason (other reasons: climate; scenery; cost of living; a city less intimidating in size than Houston of D/FW), but I did not make the mistake of underestimating the progressive forces at work in the other Texas cities. A report on the 2004 election for example showed that while some 63% of Austinites voted for Kerry, but 75% of Dallasites did (Houston and San Antonio were much closer, and of course El Paso and McAllen were also Democratic strongholds). But the next year Travis was the only county in the state that voted against a gay marriage amendment. Lesson 1: in the Austin area, progressive political views permeate both general population and governing Establishment (while the other big cities have tended to pit liberal populations against conservative elites — I hope that is changing somewhat). Lesson 2: Where the politics of many of the Democratic leaning groups elsewhere in the state have been limited by more conservative beliefs in some areas so social policy, Austinites have tended to be both fiscally and socially liberal. Of course the election of gay officials in Dallas and Houston seem to indicate that that is also changing. But in any case, change is blowin’ in the wind in this stae & Mr. Jones still doesn’t know how to deal with it!

  6. mollusk says:

    Going in and assembling a base among the basic, most retail level of people who are interested, if not involved (yet) is exactly how The Opposition went from being a small faction of the R party (remember when the Rs had people like Nelson Rockefeller – and for that matter, Jerry Ford?) to running it.

  7. M1EK says:

    Charles, what I meant is that net margin tells us nothing useful about how strongly a given county goes for a candidate compared to another given county, and counties tell us nothing about cities (Travis County includes several strongly Republican cities such as Bee Cave, Westlake Hills and even weakly Republican ones like Pflugerville; Dallas County contains pretty much just Dallas, right?).

  8. Actually, M1EK, going by Census figures, Austin is a bigger piece of Travis County than the city of Dallas is of Dallas County:

    Dallas County = 2.4 million
    City of Dallas = 1.2 million

    Travis County = 1.1 million
    City of Austin = 820,000

    See for the relevant figures. Dallas County also contains some ritzy Republican places such as Highland Park.

    My use of the vote margin was just intended to show that there’s more than one way to think about what makes a particular place “more” Democratic than another. You’re right that Travis County nonetheless had a higher Democratic percentage of the vote than Dallas County, but Dallas is twice as populous as Travis so a smaller percentage can and does mean a larger net vote. And again, the main point is simply that there’s more to being a Democrat in Texas than Austin.

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