Some in the political chattering class think the end results in Harris County this yearwon’t be all that different than what we’ve seen before.
Harris County may be awash in Democratic hopefuls for the upcoming primary elections, but don’t expect that enthusiasm to translate into another blue wave this fall.
Yes, local demographics are slowly pushing the region further left, and President Donald Trump – who dragged down the Republican ticket here two years ago – gives progressives a ready campaign talking point. Democrats also point to their nearly full primary slate as evidence of newfound strength.
It is unlikely those factors will be enough, however, to counteract Republicans’ longtime advantage in Harris County midterms, political scientists and consultants said. Not only do local conservatives turn out more consistently in non-presidential years, but Republicans also have the benefit of popular state- and countywide incumbents on the ballot, advantages made only more powerful by straight-ticket voting in November.
“There is a very slow, but steady demographic shift that will favor Democrats. I don’t know if it’s enough this year for a gubernatorial cycle,” Democratic strategist Grant Martin said.
Rice University political scientist Mark Jones agreed.
“Greg Abbott represents a red seawall here in Texas that I think will in many ways blunt the anti-Trump wave, and in doing so help hundreds of down-ballot Republican candidates across the state achieve victory,” he said.
Fewer than 54,000 Harris County voters cast ballots in the Democratic primary four years ago, compared to nearly 140,000 in the Republican primary. Come November, Republicans dominated down the ballot.
Though primary turnout certainly is not predictive of November performance, it can be, as University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus put it, “a good pulse check.”
Rottinghaus said he anticipates Democrats will perform better locally than they did in 2014, but still come up short in most local races, in large part because of their turnout problem.
“You’re definitely going to find a narrowed margin for most of these offices,” Rottinghaus said. Still, he added, “it would be hard to unseat the natural advantage Republicans have in the midterm.”
I feel like there are a lot of numbers thrown around in the story but without much context to them. Take the primary turnout totals, for instance. It’s true that Republicans drew a lot more people to the polls in March than the Democrats, but their margin in November was considerably less than it was in 2010, when the primary tallies were 101K for Dems and 159K for the GOP. Will anyone revise their predictions for November if the March turnout figures don’t fit with this “pulse check” hypothesis? Put a pin in this for now and we’ll check back later if it’s relevant.
But let’s come back to the November numbers for 2010 and 2014 for a minute. Let’s look at them as a percentage of Presidential turnout from the previous election
2008 Pres 2010 Lt Gov Share
R 571,883 431,690 75.5%
D 590,982 329,129 55.7%
2012 Pres 2014 Lt Gov Share
R 586,073 340,808 58.2%
D 587,044 317,241 54.0%
I’m using the Lt. Governor race here because of the significant number of crossover votes Bill White – who you may recall won Harris County – received in the Governor’s race. He did so much better than all the other Dems on the ticket that using his results would skew things. Now 2010 was clearly off the charts. If the share of the Presidential year vote is a measure of intensity, the Republicans had that in spades. I’m pretty sure no one is expecting that to happen again, however, so let’s look at the more conventional year of 2014. The intensity gap was about four points in the Republicans’ favor, but that was enough for them to achieve separation and sweep the downballot races.
What does that have to do with this year? The key difference is that there were a lot more voters in 2016 (1,338,898) than there were in either 2008 (1,188,731) or 2012 (1,204,167), and that the Democratic advantage was also a lot bigger. I’m going to switch my metric here to the 2016 judicial average, since there were even more crossovers for Hillary Clinton than there were for Bill White. In 2016, the average Republican judicial candidate got 606,114 votes, and the average Democratic judicial candidate got 661,284. That’s a pretty big difference, and it has implications for the intensity measure. To wit:
If Democratic intensity in 2018 is at 55.7%, which is what it was in 2010, then Dems should expect a base vote of about 368,335.
If Democratic intensity in 2018 is at 54.0%, which is what it was in 2014, then Dems should expect a base vote of about 357,093.
Well guess what? If Republican intensity is at 58.2%, which is what it was in 2014, then the Rs should expect a base vote of about 352,758. Which, you might notice, is less than what the Democrats would expect. In order to match the Democratic base, Rs would need 60.8% to equal the former total, and 58.9% for the latter.
In other words, if intensity levels are exactly what they were in 2014, Democrats should expect to win most countywide races. Republicans will need to be more intense than they were in 2014 just to keep up. And if Democratic intensity is up, say at 60%? That’s a base of 396,770, and it would require a Republican intensity level of 65.5% to equal it.
Where did this apparent Democratic advantage come from? Very simply, from more registered voters. In 2016, there were 2,182,980 people registered in Harris County, compared to 1,942,566 in 2012 and 1,892,731 in 2008. I’ve noted this before, but it’s important to remember that while turnout was up in an absolute sense in 2016 over 2012 and 2008, it was actually down as a percentage of registered voters. It was just that there were so many more RVs, and that more than made up for it. And by the way, voter registration is higher today than it was in 2016.
Now none of this comes with any guarantees. Democratic intensity could be down from 2010 and 2014. Republicans could be more fired up than we think they will be, in particular more than they were in 2014. My point is that at least one of those conditions will need to hold true for Republicans to win Harris County this year. If you think that will happen, then you need to explain which of those numbers are the reason for it.
Oh, and that “red seawall” that Greg Abbott represents? Republicans may have swept the races in 2014, but they didn’t actually dominate. 2010, where they were winning the county by 12-16 points in most races, that was domination. Abbott got 51.41% in 2014 and won by a bit less than four and a half points. Which was enough, obviously, but isn’t exactly a big cushion. Like I said, the Republicans will have to improve on 2014 to stay ahead. Can they do that? Sure, it could happen, and I’d be an idiot to say otherwise. Will it happen? You tell me, and account for these numbers when you do.