The pessimism of the poli-sci profs

A trio of academic pundits thinks things aren’t going well for the pro-HERO forces.


Turnout is up sharply from previous Houston municipal elections, with the largest increases occurring in predominantly Republican and African-American precincts, where a majority of voters are likely to oppose HERO, according to Bob Stein, a political scientist at Rice University.

“I’ve actually looked at the scenario, and think [HERO] could go down, and go down by a big margin,” Stein said. “That’s the worst part. If it goes down closely, the council members and the mayor might try to amend it, but if it goes down by a big margin, it really becomes difficult to do much with.”

Mark Jones, another Rice political scientist, agreed that early voting returns, along with public opinion polls showing only a slim margin in favor of the ordinance, should be cause for concern for HERO supporters.

“If I had to do an even-money bet, I’d say it may not pass, but I think it really is too close to call,” Jones said.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political scientist, said the rare ballot presence of a viable Republican mayoral candidate, Bill King, is driving up GOP turnout. Meanwhile, well-known Democratic state Representative Sylvester Turner, the mayoral frontrunner, is fueling an increase among African-American voters, who polls show as less likely to support HERO than whites, or Hispanic or Latino voters.

“There are significant splits in communities that are otherwise inclined to vote more with Democrats or vote more liberally on HERO that create problems for its passage,” Rottinghaus said. “We’ve had kind of a perfect storm of alignment between conservative politics and conservative voters in a way we don’t normally see in Houston mayoral elections.”


HERO supporters suggest the increase in turnout is part of a historic trend toward more voters casting ballots early as opposed to on Election Day.

But Stein countered that much of the increase has been among “unexpected voters,” which he defines as those who haven’t cast ballots in at least two of the last three mayoral races. A significant number of those unexpected voters are from heavily GOP and black precincts.


“I just think the anti-HERO people have the right message, and I think the pro-HERO people may have the money, but like in the Spanish Civil War, having the right song might in this case be more valuable,” said Stein, who helped conduct the KHOU/KUHF poll. “Whether it’s true or not doesn’t really matter.”

Groups supporting the ordinance have raised more than $3 million, swamping opponents, but Rottinghaus said no amount of paid messaging can overcome an energized voter base.

Stein said Houston Unites should have done more to highlight the potential negative economic consequences of repealing HERO, an argument the KHOU/KUHF also found to be persuasive, rather than trying to humanize transgender people or characterize the ordinance as “the right thing to do.”

Jones said a lack of Spanish-language outreach to Hispanic voters could also contribute to HERO’s possible demise, pointing to the pro-HERO campaign’s failure to advertise on Univision or Telemundo.

Rottinghaus said the anti-HERO campaign simply beat supporters to the punch.

“They established early on the narrative about this being about public safety as opposed to being about discrimination, and that took hold and was difficult to undo,” he said.

I’ll stipulate up front that a lack of Spanish-language advertising is puzzling and disappointing (Campos pointed this out on Thursday). As far as the messaging goes, when one side of a campaign is completely unrestrained by any concern for the truth, they’re likely to have an advantage. It certainly would have been nice if the good guys could have gotten an earlier start, but campaigns don’t just materialize out of thin air, and all things considered I thought Houston Unites came together pretty quickly. I also think there’s been a fair amount of messaging by the pro-HERO side about economic consequences, but that’s a subjective evaluation and is likely colored by how you see the big picture.

My main complaint about this story is the lack of context. When I hear someone say that there’s a surge in “unexpected” voters, I want to know what the numbers are. I’ve already shown that 30 to 35% of voters in a given city election are “unexpected” by the “voted in at least two of the last three elections” definition, so when you say there’s a lot of these voters, give me a number. Forty percent? Fifty? More? The work I did was on the city as a whole – I didn’t break it down by geography, since the Council redistricting of 2011 makes that a much harder task for me – so even saying there’s fifty percent “unexpected” in this place or that, you’ve got to tell me what that number was in 2013 and/or 2009 so I can get a basis for comparison. If you yourself don’t know that answer, then maybe this isn’t a “surge” but something we see all the time but hadn’t thought to look for it before now. It would also help to know if you are distinguishing between people with no recent history and those who are regular even-year voters who are showing up for the first time in a city election. Show me your work and I’ll have more faith in it.

Another point that may be worth considering here is that Stein’s own poll showed that the opinions of African-American women were not set in stone on HERO. They were persuaded by both the reprehensible bathroom lie, and also by the economic argument; the latter actually moved their opinions more than the former. It would be nice to know what the last thing they heard about HERO before they voted was. Stein’s poll is the one being cited here, but of course there were two other polls that showed HERO leading, too. I don’t know what they had to say on this subject, though.

To be fair, my issues here may be a failing of the writer and not the quoted experts. Maybe the number of people like me who care about this stuff is small enough that no one thinks it’s worthwhile to put it in a general-interest story. I’m not disputing the overall points that are being made here – I do think this will be a closer vote than the polls have shown, and I am concerned about who is and isn’t voting – I’m just frustrated by not having my own questions answered.

One other thing:

LGBT advocates say if HERO is repealed, it could have far-reaching consequences, with HERO opponents’ strategy being replicated in other campaigns across the country. The HERO vote is the nation’s most significant referendum on LGBT equality since the United States Supreme Court’s June ruling in favor of same-sex marriage.

According to Rottinghaus, it’s also about the future of state politics.

“How much can the Democrats push Texas to be more liberal?” he said, pointing to an anti-HERO TV ad from GOP Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. “The fact that he’s put his own money behind this shows there’s a growing concern amongst Republicans that as the demographics in Texas change, that some of the politics will change, and the Republicans need to find ways to counteract this progressive movement before it starts.”

There is clearly a disconnect between what the people of Texas think and what the people who are elected by the people who show up to vote think. At some point, that becomes unsustainable. Along similar lines, there’s an increasingly obvious disconnect between business interests who have strongly supported HERO (and who oppose draconian immigration restrictions, among other things) and the Republican leadership they have also generally supported. Again, at some point that becomes unsustainable. I don’t know where that point is, and for all I know I won’t live long enough to see it. But it’s out there, and we may get to it when we least expect it.

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11 Responses to The pessimism of the poli-sci profs

  1. Mainstream says:

    From my limited perspective, I don’t see young people energized to vote Tuesday, and if the average age of City of Houston voters continues to be 68 or more, I think HERO is in for a tough night. Opponents often suggest that they oppose this ordinance, but do not oppose the principle of non-discrimination in housing or employment, and suggest they will support a future ordinance more narrowly crafted. I don’t think they are being truthful, but we may have a chance to find out.

  2. paul kubosh says:

    Mainstream I think you are correct. In my son’s Political Science class at U. of H. they took a poll and the “kids” were for Hero 75% to 25%.

    Who knows what the actual vote would be. However, if Hero fails then there should be plenty of money out there to run an equal rights charter amendment. You could probably get the required number of signatures for less than $100,000. You submit those to the City Secretary and wham You got another election. That is what I would do.

  3. Steve Houston says:

    On the flip side, you could probably start a charter amendment to prohibit men using women’s restrooms, lockers, and such (other than to clean them when empty of patrons) too. 😉

  4. paul kubosh says:

    yeah well I am not spending my money on that…I also don’t have sally field and three million dollars to run it. Instead of the progressives crying, moaning and name calling like a bunch of whinnying conservatives why don’t they just take a page out of the conservative playbook. If they have and know the will of the people then just put a little sweat equity and muscle behind it and put it to a vote.

  5. John says:

    We need to raise the threshold for initiative and referendum in this city… We are starting to look like California. They have divisive elections all the time. We need to stick to representative government.

  6. Steve Houston says:

    PK, my comment was based on how virtually every negative thing said about HERO has been tied to the bathroom/locker room bit, despite the fact that there is no existing law prohibiting a man from using such facilities. If HERO falls, men will STILL be able to use women’s bathrooms so if that is really the issue, you’d think opponents would spend a modicum of time/energy changing it, if that is really their biggest issue with the ordinance.

  7. paul kubosh says:


    Men will still be able to use Women’s restrooms? Men in women’s restrooms would lead to an immediate arrest. Just like the guy that was arrested in the woman’s restroom in the City of Houston Municipal Court this year.

  8. Steve Houston says:

    PK, the devil is in the details. The long standing city ordinance requires the suspect makes a disturbance, which can take the form of any other crime or harassing other occupants. Absent making a disturbance of some sort, the person hasn’t broken the law. Nothing in HERO allows a man to create a disturbance by using a woman’s bathroom, nor does it empower him to take pictures of other occupants, harass or attack them. As that has been the focal point of discussion, and the cause of greatest distress, it seems fair to mention HERO rising or falling doesn’t change that in any way.

    The existing bathroom ordinance was given national attention 25 years ago today in what became known as “Pottygate”. The NY Times pointed out:
    “After 23 minutes of deliberation, a Municipal Court jury of four women and two men unanimously decided that the woman, Denise Wells, had not violated a municipal ordinance when she used the men’s room. The ordinance prohibits entering “any public restroom designated for the exclusive use of the sex opposite to such person’s sex . . . in a manner calculated to cause a disturbance.

  9. Robbie Westmoreland says:

    Ordinance 28-20 is interesting to me, because it looks tailored to selective enforcement. I’ll wager that just as few people are actually ticketed on it as are ticketed for the cell phones in school zones ordinance, and that the danger associated with the two is roughly equivalent.

    But the wording of the ordinance practically screams “officer, eyeball the situation and decide whether you need an excuse to cite the individual in question with a crime.”

    The only other place in city ordinances I could find much discussion of gender labeling of restroom facilities with with regard to “dance halls.” I don’t frequent that sort of establishment, fearing corruption from the floozies and ruffians that no doubt haunt them. The sorts who use words like “swell” and “so’s your old man.”

  10. Steve Houston says:

    Every once in awhile, some officer will arrest a person for it or write them a ticket, then the charge gets dismissed or the city loses the case in court. The city gets egg on its face across the country but the ordinance remains the same. It has nothing to do with HERO and has been around since before PK went to law school but the practice of people using a different restroom happens every day all over town. HERO winning or losing won’t change any of that.

    Sec. 28-20. – Entering restrooms of opposite sex.

    It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly and intentionally enter any public restroom designated for the exclusive use of the sex opposite to such person’s sex without the permission of the owner, tenant, manager, lessee or other person in charge of the premises, in a manner calculated to cause a disturbance.

  11. paul kubosh says:

    “but the practice of people using a different restroom happens every day all over town. HERO winning or losing won’t change any of that.”

    Well i agree with you on that one.

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