What it takes to win statewide

Via Ed Kilgore comes this analysis that tries to paint an especially bleak picture for Texas Democrats in 2014.


First of all, Democrats have yet to win more than 44 percent of the total vote in any recent statewide election in Texas, and actually have been heading in the wrong direction since reaching a height of 43.6 percent in 2008. Moreover, Democratic performance among white voters is even worse, averaging just 26 percent from 2004 to 2010. During off-years, white voters tend to make up an even bigger part of the electorate, meaning that their impact is amplified (for example, whites made up 67 percent of the electorate in 2010 versus 63 percent in 2008).

The following four, successively rosier, scenarios show the long odds of a Democratic win in 2014:

Scenario 1. If, as is most likely, the 2014 Texas electorate is 65 percent white, 13 percent black and 18 percent Hispanic, with the remaining 4 percent split between Asian and other ethnic groups, Democrats would only will 41.6 percent of the total vote if they match their typical off-year performance with each group.

Scenario 2. Since scenario 1 does not take into account factors such as the influence of specific candidates, let’s assume that Democrats maximize the hand they have been dealt by reaching their top performance among each group from 2004-2012 and the ethnic percentage of the electorate remains as is. Under this scenario, Democrats would still fall short with only 45.6 percent of the total vote in 2014.

Scenario 3. So then let’s take into account the efforts towards increasing Hispanic turnout. If Democrats can turn out so many Hispanic voters that they become fully one-quarter of the electorate, and whites fall to 56 percent of voters – a stunning 11 percentage point decline from the last midterm election, Democrats would still only garner 44.2 percent of the overall vote in 2014 if their performance were to match their typical performance with each group.

Scenario 4. Lastly, let’s try the rosiest scenario possible, which assumes that Democrats achieve their best voting performance across the board and Hispanics turn out to unexpected levels. In this case, Democrats still fall short of a majority of the vote, reaching 48.8 percent. While this outcome would be remarkable given past recent elections, it would still leave the Democrats short of the governorship. The numbers show that in Texas, even the most ideal Democratic candidate with the most ideal turnout will still likely fall short of victory.

Although things are looking up for Democrats in Texas, they are still a long way off from taking the state. If Democrats want to speed up the process, the path towards turning Texas blue cannot rely solely on Hispanic voters, but must also focus on increasing support among whites, while not alienating Hispanic and African American voters. If Democrats can increase white support levels to 35 percent, a 9-point increase from the average in 2006 and 2008, while continuing to maintain their current advantage among Hispanic and black voters, the baseline Democratic coalition would reach 48 percent of the electorate by 2020. Although a blue Texas will eventually happen if voting patterns and trends continue, Democrats should be careful and not place unrealistic hopes on Senator Davis, or any other Democrat, to deliver in 2014.

There are three things wrong with this analysis.

1. Not to be nitpicky, but the Democratic high-water mark in recent elections is 45.88% in 2008, by Supreme Court candidate Sam Houston. It’s true that Dems fell back from that mark in 2012, thanks to a combination of lower Dem turnout that was commensurate with national results, lower rates of Republican undervoting in downballot races, and fewer ticket-splitters, but if you’re going to make a simple factual claim like that, you could at least spend a few minutes on the Secretary of State Election Returns page and verify that claim. I ain’t asking for much here.

2. That “rosiest possible scenario” is actually a winning scenario for Democrats. You don’t actually need a majority – fifty percent plus one – to win an even-year general election race in Texas. All you need is the most votes. The reason why this makes a difference is that in the vast majority of statewide races there is at least one third-party candidate, and the average third-part vote amounts to about three percent of the total. When there’s only 97% of the vote to split between the R and the D, 48.5% is enough to win. In fact, if you look at all of the races since 2002 in which there was at least one third party candidate, that “rosiest possible scenario” 48.8% would have won a large majority of the time:

Year Race Third% Min Win% =================================== 2010 Governor 2.72% 48.64% 2010 Lt Gov 3.37% 48.32% 2010 Atty Gen 2.27% 48.87% 2010 Land Comm 3.04% 48.48% 2010 Ag Comm 3.37% 48.32% 2010 RR Comm 4.35% 47.83% 2010 Sup Ct 3 2.85% 48.56% 2010 Sup Ct 5 2.98% 48.51% 2010 Sup Ct 9 4.03% 47.99% 2010 CCA 6 2.89% 48.56% 2008 US Senate 2.34% 48.83% 2008 RR Comm 3.51% 48.26% 2008 Sup Ct CJ 3.10% 48.45% 2008 Sup Ct 7 3.02% 48.49% 2008 Sup Ct 8 3.04% 48.48% 2008 CCA 3 2.82% 48.59% 2008 CCA 4 3.28% 48.36% 2006 US Senate 2.26% 48.87% 2006 Lt Gov 4.35% 47.83% 2006 Atty Gen 3.25% 48.38% 2006 Comptroller 3.51% 48.26% 2006 Land Comm 3.90% 48.05% 2006 Ag Comm 3.44% 48.28% 2006 RR Comm 4.22% 47.89% 2006 Sup Ct 2 4.06% 47.97% 2004 RR Comm 3.59% 48.21% 2002 US Senate 1.36% 49.32% 2002 Governor 2.21% 48.90% 2002 Lt Gov 2.19% 48.91% 2002 Atty Gen 2.18% 48.91% 2002 Comptroller 2.91% 48.55% 2002 Land Comm 5.35% 47.33% 2002 Ag Comm 2.63% 48.69% 2002 RR Comm 3.69% 48.16% 2002 Sup Ct CJ 1.83% 49.09% 2002 Sup Ct 1 2.35% 48.83% 2002 Sup Ct 2 1.75% 49.13% 2002 CCA 1 3.18% 48.41% 2002 CCA 3 1.73% 49.14%

“Third%” is the percentage of the vote that went to Libertarian and/or Green candidates. “Min Win%” is the minimum percentage required to have won that race, given the third party share of the vote. Of the 40 races shown, 48.8% would have been enough to have won 27 of them, and eight of the thirteen losers were in 2002. Note that I did not include the 2006 Governor’s race, which had five candidates counting the Libertarian and which was won by Rick Perry with 39%. Author Stefan Hankin intended this “rosiest” scenario to demonstrate just how hopeless things are for Dems right now, but actually proved the opposite. A Dem who could get to 48.8% of the vote has close to a 70% chance of winning, historically speaking, and that’s probably an underestimate given more recent trends. Just getting to 48% would have won six of these forty race, or a 15% chance. That’s better odds than Vegas will give you. I’m not saying it would be easy to get to 48.8% of the vote. Heck, I’m not even saying there is a path to 48.8% of the vote. But if there is one, I’ll take my chances with it. The hill is steep, but it’s not as steep as Stefan Hankin portrays it.

3. Since we’re talking about off-year elections, it’s important to remember that Republican turnout is a variable as well. Remember, in 2006 Republicans not named Rick Perry collected between 2.1 million and 2.6 million votes. In 2010, the range was 2.7 million to 3.1 million, and in 2002 it was 2.3 million to 2.9 million. The level of base Republican turnout will be a huge factor. I believe demography, enthusiasm, and the efforts of Battleground Texas et al are capable of pushing Democratic turnout into the 2.1 million to 2.3 million range, with the possibility of more if the intensity level can be maintained. (Less is also a possibility, perhaps the most likely possibility, but we’re being optimistic for these purposes.) A good candidate may be capable of taking 100,000 or more votes from the Republican – Bill White took over 200,000 votes from Rick Perry in 2010. Hillarymania aside, Dems’ chances in the short term may be better in an off year race because Republican turnout isn’t going to be maximized, and there’s more slack to pick up people who do vote in Presidential years but not other years. That’s basically what the Rs did in 2010, after all. Obviously, Dems can’t control the level of Republican turnout, but there’s no need to fear it or to expect it to be optimized.

It’s been three weeks since the Wendy Davis filibuster that got Texas Dems (and Dems elsewhere) all fired up and talking about turning the state blue, and after a slew of articles that fawned over Davis and the newfound activist energy in the state we’ve had the inevitable backlash stories apparently meant to pop the balloons. Besides this one, there’s been not one, not two, but three stories in the Trib reminding us, as if we didn’t already know it, that Texas is a red state and that Democrats face many difficult challenges in changing that. I suppose there are a few Dems here who have their heads in the clouds, but most of us quite familiar with all this, thanks. Difficult is not the same as impossible, however, and if we’ve learned anything over the past decade it’s that no two election cycles are the same. No one had ever seen half a million Presidential year voters come out in a midterm election until it happened in 2010. No one expected Team Obama to replicate its 2008 success with low-propensity voters in 2012 until it did. The safe bet is that things will be as they have been, until the day that they aren’t. It is tough to talk about what may happen with Democrats in Texas in 2014 right now because so far none of them have announced their candidacy for any statewide office. It may well be that 2014 will be another same-old same-old year for Dems, with little more than small-bore gains in the Legislature and local governments attempted. Or it may be something completely different. The past will tell us something about the future, but it won’t tell us everything.

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5 Responses to What it takes to win statewide

  1. Some important counter-points made here, but what I don’t get… Why does no one ever talk about NEW voters? We compare all of these past election results and just assume that the electorate is exactly the same as it was. But in reality, we all know that the population of Texas increases by the hour, and very few of these new residents are registered to vote. Harris County is no better example of this, gaining 1 million people between 2000 and 2010, and probably up another 250k now that its 2013. To just write off all of these new residents and assume they’ll NEVER vote is to accept the status quo.

  2. TL – That was my point about Republican turnout levels and the potential impact of Battleground Texas. I have written about this a few times before. Dems have been flat in statewide turnout in off years since 2002. That has to change for any of this to be truly realistic.

  3. You used “Bill White” and “good candidate” in the same sentence. Thanks for an early morning laugh.

    Leftist: Dems really need white suburbanites and exurbanites who have moved to Texas from other states. These are generally folks who will be at least somewhat informed and somewhat active.

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