Evan Smith has a brief essay in Newsweek in which he takes the position that Texas will not be truly competitive at the Presidential level until 2016 at the earliest. He invited people to argue with him on this; Democratic operative Glenn Smith was the first to take him up on it. I'm going to throw in my two cents' worth here.
Couple of things first. One, I actually think Smith is making the smart money bet, at least if we're wagering on who will win Texas' electoral votes in 2012. Being competitive is a more nebulous concept, but let's not get bogged down in that. I think we'll know it if and when we see it. I'm making two assumptions in my argument here. One is that the economy has substantially improved by 2012. If not - if things are as bad as they are now - the question won't be whether Obama can win Texas but whether he can still win Illinois. And two, that Team Obama will make some kind of genuine effort to compete here. I agree with Glenn Smith that the result this year could have been better had the Obama campaign directed resources here instead of using the locals to help efforts in Ohio and New Mexico and wherever else. On those assumptions, I see three ways in which Obama can improve his performance here.
1. He'll do better in East Texas and in general in the counties where he underperformed John Kerry. I believe one of the effects of not running a campaign here was that there was nothing to counteract the underground campaign - forwarded emails, talk radio blather, etc - that painted Obama in a dark and scary light. I suspect that helped contribute to the abnormally large number of people in Texas who still thought he was a Muslim. Even if Obama runs no formal campaign in Texas in 2012, I think some of this antagonism towards him will soften, if for no better reason than he'll be on TV and in the papers every day as The President instead of some newcomer on the scene with a weird name. At the very least, I'd expect him to run closer to the Democratic baseline vote in these counties.
2. He'll do better in South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley. Not that he didn't do pretty well in these counties to begin with - places like Hidalgo and Cameron and Webb went much more Democratic last year than in 2004. But again, as I noted in my analysis of Obama's performance in Harris County's Latino-majority State Rep. districts, he lagged the Democratic field. Here's a peek at what I mean:
County Obama Noriega Houston Yanez
Cameron +17,809 +23,797 +25,562 +30,002
El Paso +60,238 +61,572 +68,217 +70,077
Hidalgo +50,593 +52,809 +54,927 +60,599
Nueces - 4,479 + 120 + 7,695 + 7,035
Webb +20,333 +26,176 +25,561 +28,236
3. There's still room to grow in the big counties, especially Harris. You know that I believe the coordinated campaign here did a great job. There's always room for improvement, however, especially if there are more resources available as there would be with a national campaign here. There's a lot of voters out west and northwest in Harris to be tapped into. Most importantly, the 2012 campaign will have the benefit of two things the 2008 did not have: The experience of doing this before, and a whole lot of incumbent countywide officeholders running for re-election. Harris in particular may take another big step in the Democratic direction in 2012.
Does this put Obama over the top in 2012? I won't go that far - it is a big gap to close, after all. But I think this puts Texas firmly into the "in play" category, and in a competitive environment, who knows what can happen? Again, it comes down to whether or not Team Obama chooses to make an effort. If they don't try, then we're all wasting our time even thinking about it. For now, let's get our new President inaugurated, and go from there.Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 19, 2009 to The making of the President