In Part One of this series, we looked at the relationship between statewide results and Harris County results for statewide candidates. In the last three elections, statewide Democratic candidates have done on average more than nine points better in Harris County than they did overall. In the next two posts, we’re going to look at the county candidates, to see how those results compare to the statewides and what if anything we can infer about this year.
Two things should be noted up front, one of which I touched on in the previous post. First, nearly all of the statewide races have at least one third party candidate in them, and in those races the third party candidate(s) can take three to five percent of the total vote. That has the effect of lowering the percentages of both D and R candidates in those races. County candidates, on the other hand, rarely face a third or fourth contestant. In county judicial races, third party candidates are unheard of. Because of this, county Democratic candidates tend to do better than statewide Democratic candidates.
It is also the case, as noted before, that there have been a lot of, shall we say, less than compelling statewide Democratic candidates. They lack money and name recognition and that in turn helps contribute to the vote totals that the third party contenders get, where that effect tends to be greater in the lower-profile races. Harris County candidates aren’t always the highest profile, but I believe the local organizing efforts have helped them outperform the less well-known statewide candidates. All of this comes wrapped in the usual “in general, with some exceptions, some years are different than others” qualifiers. I’m just setting the table.
With all that, I will present the numbers for judicial races. I’m starting this time in 2006 – like I said, the 2002 election is just not relevant to anything anymore, and the 2004 election was marked with a large number of uncontested races.
2006 2008 2010 2012 Havg 42.90 Havg 50.62 Havg 43.46 Havg 48.59 Jmin 46.90 Jmin 48.58 Jmin 42.57 Jmin 48.19 Jmax 50.12 Jmax 52.48 Jmax 45.70 Jmax 51.38 Drop 1.09 Drop 2.93 Drop 7.66 Drop 1.20 2014 2016 2018 2020 Havg 44.76 Havg 49.80 Havg 55.25 Havg 53.83 Jmin 43.64 Jmin 50.93 Jmin 53.83 Jmin 52.56 Jmax 47.16 Jmax 54.11 Jmax 57.16 Jmax 55.51 Drop 3.44 Drop 3.02 Drop 4.15 Drop 3.40
“Havg” is the average percentage by Democratic statewide candidates for that year – you can go back and look at the first post for the list, I didn’t want to overwhelm this post with numbers. “Jmin” and “Jmax” are the lowest and highest percentages achieved by non-statewide Democratic judicial candidates that year. In other words, for the county, district, and appellate (1st and 14th Circuit) courts. “Drop” is the difference between the highest scoring statewide candidate and the lowest scoring local judicial candidate.
I have used average vote totals among judicial candidates in years past as a simple measure of partisanship in the county. I’m using percentages here because I want a quick visual representation of winning and losing. I am using the range here rather than an average because I want to figure out at what level of statewide performance am I comfortable saying that all local countywide Dems are likely to win, and at what level do I think some, most, or all may lose. I think this conveys the information I wanted to get across in a fairly straightforward manner.
The first thing to notice is that consistently there is a three to four point range between the top-performing Democratic judicial candidate and the low performer. I’ve studied this for years and have no idea why. I can’t see any obvious correlation to candidates’ gender, race, position on the ballot, endorsements, anything. It’s just random, as far as I can tell. The point is, there is a range. Conditions need to be such that the top candidates are at 54% or higher for the bottom ones to win. Maybe 53% is enough – you will note that the range was tighter in 2020 than in previous years, and it’s a hair less than three percentage points. But really, for me to feel comfortable, I’d want the toppers at 54%.
You may also notice, as I mentioned above, that the local judicial candidates tend to outperform the statewide candidates. 2016 is a stark example of this, as more than half of the statewides finished below fifty percent, though all of them ended up carrying the county. Yet all of the judicial candidates won easily, with the low judicial performer outdoing all of the statewides except Hillary Clinton. In 2018, a much stronger year for Dems, the bottom scorer among judicial candidates still did better than the Dem candidates for Governor, Comptroller, Land Commissioner, and Railroad Commissioner. Nearly all judicial Democrats won in 2008, while more than half of them won in the weaker year of 2012. My expectation is that even in a mediocre year like 2012, at least some Dems would make it across the finish line. It would take a bad year to sink them all. I just don’t see that happening.
You might look at the 2010 numbers, and maybe even the 2018 numbers, and worry that if the top of the ticket is defined by a real outlier, the gap between that candidate and the bottom rung of the judicial ladder could be too far apart. I absolutely do not expect a “Bill White in 2010” scenario, where someone gets at least six points more than any other statewide Dem. Beto in 2018 was barely one point ahead of Justin Nelson, and less than two points ahead of four other candidates. Two judicial candidates came even closer to Beto’s performance than Nelson did. It’s my opinion that if there’s a significant gap between the top and bottom of the statewide ticket, it’s because the one(s) at the bottom tanked, not because the top dog was so dominant. Bill White was a unicorn. The closest analog to him is Adrian Garcia in 2008, and he was running against a thoroughly scandal-plagued incumbent.
How much of an effect is there with the lack of straight ticket voting? It’s a little hard to say since we just have the one election to analyze, but my view in 2020 was that a lot of people did a fine job of voting all the way down the ballot. I expect that to be largely true this year as well. When the numbers are in, I’ll look at them and see if there’s a reason to change my mind.
To me, the main concern is that the statewide Dems will not do as well as the current polling suggests they might. We need the base level to be sufficiently high, that’s pretty much the ballgame. There is also a range in the county executive office elections, and there have been a couple of outliers over the years – I’ll be examining those phenomena in future posts – and every year is different. My bottom line remains that if the baseline at the state candidate level is 53-54% for Harris County, it will be another sweep year. I think the statewides will perform more like the locals this year, as they are overall better and better-funded than most other years. If we get a decent poll of Harris County, I’ll review and if needed revise my thinking. Until then, this is where I am.