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Kris Banks: Comparing turnout, or where the vote was lost

(Note: This is the first of two guest posts submitted by Kris Banks, past President of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus.)

Democrats lost big last month. We lost at every level, from statewide all the way down to the countywide candidates. Every challenger and every incumbent lost.

That first paragraph kind of defies the rules of journalism, I guess. You’re supposed to lead with the news. Not only does everyone know what I said above, but it’s not exactly a new experience for Harris County Democrats. We’ve lost all countywide races in nearly every single election since the 1990s. The only exceptions have been 2008 and 2012.

I lead with it because it was a fact that didn’t quite square with what I saw in my precinct when I looked at the canvass. I’m Democratic chair of Precinct 60, a square section in the southwest side of Montrose between Westheimer, Richmond, Mandell and Shepherd that votes at Sydney Lanier Middle School.

It’s a solid blue precinct, and this election was no different. Wendy Davis pulled in 67 percent of the vote. Every Democrat won Precinct 60, and nearly every Republican lost – with the exception of Ed Emmett, every Republican not contested by a Democrat was defeated by the Green Party candidate in Precinct 60.

None of that was unusual. What struck me was how many votes the Democrats were getting. I knew turnout would be down from 2012. I was hit with a pang of disappointment that it was also down from 2010. In 2010, 47.2 percent of registered voters in Precinct 60 cast their ballot. In 2014, that dropped to 43.2 percent. With all the excitement I was seeing in my community for Wendy Davis and the Democratic ticket, how did we lose turnout?

Then I started looking at the numbers, and I started comparing them to my 2010 canvass. The 2014 numbers looked bigger. In 2010, the average Democrat (I’ll explain the “average Democrat” concept shortly) pulled down 671 votes. In 2014, the average Democrat won 722 votes.

So how did turnout go down? Well, I took a look at the other side. In 2010, the average Republican picked up 328 votes in Precinct 60. In 2014? 257.

Democrats didn’t drop off in my precinct. They turned out stronger than the last midterm. All of the dropoff in turnout in Precinct 60 came from Republicans.

I wish I could say it’s because I’m a particularly good precinct chair. And, you know, maybe I am. But I could see the same thing happening around Montrose. So why didn’t we win countywide? We must have lost somewhere else, and big. Where?

I’ve long loved the maps that I see Greg Wythe and others put out, and wanted to be able to make them myself. So I headed down to the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s Office, picked up a shape file, and determined I was going to teach myself how to make elections maps to answer these questions.

And here they are.

First, I wasn’t all that interested in Wendy Davis or anyone else statewide. No statewide candidate will ever win a statewide election in Texas until Harris County Democrats start winning midterms. So I needed to look at one number to figure out how Republicans did across the county. But I didn’t want to look at one race, because different dynamics might create skewed figures – for example, a candidate with a Hispanic surname might do unusually well in a majority Latino precinct.

So I took every Democrat running countywide, including the statewide, and made an average of their votes. Republicans were a little more difficult. Some of their numbers were much higher than other Republicans because they had no major party opposition. So to create the average Republican candidate, I took every countywide GOP candidate who was opposed by a Democrat.

The average Democrat got 298,145 votes in Harris County. The average Republican got 356,700.

The standard map you see has precincts colored red or blue as they were won, respectively, by Republicans and Democrats. The colors are shaded according to the margin of victory – dark red precincts are where the Republican picked up more than 70 percent of the vote, and pink ones are where the Republican won by just a hair.

Here’s that map for the average Democrat vs. the average Republican in Harris County in 2014:

Bam, and you now know nothing you didn’t know before. Democrats won African American, Latino and urban precincts, Republicans won the west side and suburbs. Some groundbreaking political analysis there. Move over, Bob Stein.

The main reason that map doesn’t matter is because it only tells you the strength of the vote in accordance to how big of a share each candidate got. That doesn’t mean much. Let’s say I’m a Democrat who wins Precinct A with 80 percent of the vote, but loses Precinct B with 40 percent of the vote. Things are looking pretty good until you find out that 200 voters turned out in Precinct A and 2,000 voters turned out in Precinct B. I’m now losing by 280 votes.

Let’s take a look at the average Republican vs. average Democrat map again. But this time, instead of the precincts shaded by the portion of the vote the winner got, they are shaded by the margin that the winner picked up there. For instance, for Precincts A and B above: the winner of Precinct A, me, got 160 votes there, and the Republican, my opponent, got 40. The margin I got there was therefore 120 votes. Not that many, so even though I won 80 percent, it would be light blue. In Precinct B, my opponent picked up 400 votes, so it would be a darker shade of red.

Here it is:

Democratic parts of the map are sky blue, for the most part. The darkest shade of blue only gets used four times, three in the south and once up north. Contrast that with the blood red sea in Cypress, Kingwood and Katy. Even the inside-the-Beltway Republican areas are darker than most Dem areas.

That’s how we lost 2014, by the numbers. The Republicans ran up bigger margins in precincts where they won. We won our areas like we always do. We carried some competitive precincts in the Southwest side of town. But the turnout just wasn’t there overall.

It’s important to put these maps in context. The best comparison to the 2014 election is the 2010 election. So how did we do in comparison to 2010?

Disclosure: In 2011, Harris County drew new precinct lines to fit redistricting. Most stayed the same, but 184 new precincts were created, which were carved out of old precincts. A perfect precinct-to-precinct comparison isn’t possible, therefore. What I did was figure out how the old 2010 precincts got carved up and apportion the 2010 votes according to the 2014 figures.

For example, Precinct 16 was cut into Precincts 16 and 890. In 2014, the average Democrats got 182 votes in Precinct 16 and 159 votes in Precinct 890. So, 53.4 percent of Democrats remained in Precinct 16, and the rest went to the new Precinct 890. To make the comparison, I split the 2010 vote accordingly. In 2010, the average Democrat got 314 votes in Precinct 16. So I put 53.4 percent – 168 votes – in Precinct 16 and the remainder, 146, in Precinct 890. End of disclosure; just wanted the reader to be aware that it’s not a perfect comparison.

So how did Democrats do in comparison to 2010? Here’s a map of where Democrats gained or lost a raw number of votes, with precincts where we gained colored blue (darker shades mean we gained more) and precincts where we lost votes colored red:

Not pretty. That is a rather pink map. In the vast majority of areas, especially in core Democratic areas, we lost votes. Sometimes a lot of votes. The few areas where we gained are no match for the areas where we lost.

So how did Republicans do? They won, so they must have done well, right? Here’s the flip side map for them:

Not exactly fields of crimson. In fact, the GOP map is bluer than the Democratic map is red.

Probably most interesting is the next map. It’s sort of a combo of the two. It compares the percentage of the change in votes from 2010 to 2014. In red precincts, the change was more positive for Republicans – in most cases, where the drop in Democratic votes was greater than the drop in Republican ones. Vice versa for blue precincts. The borders of the precincts are colored according to the 2014 winner of the precinct:

Big portions of this map look inverted from the first map above, especially in Republican areas. In 2010, the average Republican got 423,281 votes. That number dropped 15.7 percent in 2014. In 2010, the average Democrat got 333,021 votes. That number dropped 10.5 percent in 2014.

Republicans won all the races, but not because they did a better job. In fact, in comparison to 2010, they did worse.

But they still won, both in 2010 and 2014. If you’re trying to figure out where the Democrats truly lost, I think those numbers are important in context. But if you want to really understand it, you have to compare the numbers to a different situation – a situation where the Democrats won.

Let’s look at 2012. In 2012, the average Democrat got 568,317 votes, and the average Republican got 551,131.

It’s truly hard to compare 2012 and 2014 because of the disparities between a presidential election and a midterm election. As a diehard Democrat, I would love to be a visionary and an optimist and say that we shouldn’t throw our hands up in the air and say “A midterm election will never have the same turnout as a presidential one!,” never say never, all that B.S. The problem is that statement is true. It’s true across the country for red and blue states alike. Maybe not to the extent it’s true in Harris County, but it’s still true.

But both Republicans and Democrats dropped in every precinct. So we can compare how much they dropped. Here’s a map comparing 2012 and 2014 like the immediately one above, where the change in votes is compared. Red means Republicans had a smaller dropoff than Democrats, vice versa for blue.

There’s your crimson field.

Both Republicans and Democrats had big drop-offs. It’s just that while Republicans lost 35.3 percent of their vote, Democrats lost 47.5 percent.

Republicans didn’t do well in 2014. They actually lost more votes than the Democrats did from the prior midterm. But when no one turns anyone out, the Republicans win by default.

I’m going to look at persuadable voters and the base soon.

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3 Comments

  1. Murvin Auzenne says:

    This is outstanding work. Thank you for your efforts

  2. Carl Whitmarsh says:

    Thank you Charles Kuffner for publishing this and especially to Kris Banks for the hard, tedious work of producing the report. Most important, informative and invaluable. Wish we had more people who showed this type initiative to find out what is really happening rather than pretending to be a consultant, charging folks out the kazoo for an uninformed opinion and then have it be totally worthless and a waste.

  3. Steve A. Tillery says:

    Thanks, Kris. Nice analysis. Your next analysis of base and persuadable voters should be very telling.