They haven’t held statewide office since 1998. They lost control of the state Legislature in 2002. And last year many of them got drawn into congressional districts where it will be almost impossible for them to elect one of their own to the U.S. House of Representatives.
But a Houston Chronicle poll suggests Texas Democrats aren’t counting themselves out, and analysts say Republicans shouldn’t either.
“They still think they can be influential in Texas politics, even though they got killed,” said Rice University political scientist Bob Stein, who analyzed the poll for the Chronicle.
The Zogby International poll of 800 Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery county residents shows that about 40 percent identify themselves as Democrats, and 90 percent of those say they follow politics very closely or somewhat closely — about the same percentage of attention described by Republicans.
Even though many more of them will be represented by Republicans when the next Congress convenes in January, area Democrats remain about as confident as Republicans that they can have some influence on government.
Thirty-four percent of Democrats and 35 percent of Republicans believe they are able to influence the decisions of government a lot. A slightly higher percentage in both parties believe they have at least a little influence.
And the Democrats would like to initiate a turnaround: almost 80 percent of them say the country is heading in the wrong direction, while about that percentage of Republicans say it’s heading in the right direction.
Stein says Democratic fortunes in Texas may be changing. Hispanics and blacks, historically Democratic constituencies, were almost as likely to say they intended to vote as whites, the poll showed. In the past, they have voted in lower numbers than whites, and still might. That won’t be known until Tuesday’s vote is counted and analyzed.
But Stein said their increased interest has helped stoke Democratic enthusiasm.
“Rank-and-file Democrats know that there is something coming; they can sense it,” he said.
Stein said the Democrats’ continuing belief that they can influence government suggests that rather than being demoralized, Democrats are more engaged and more likely to vote.
Gerry Birnberg, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party, agrees with the conclusion but not necessarily the premise.
“It’s not quite, in my view, that they believe they can effect change as it is that they want to send a message that they are pissed,” he said. “There is a passion, anger and emotional involvement.”
If the party does “well enough” in 2004, by, for example, electing a couple of Democrats to Harris County district judge positions — or at least decreasing the margins by which Republicans win — then Birnberg believes the table is set for a resurgence in 2006.
“It’s not so much based on demographics as it’s based on our ability to recruit candidates and raise money,” he said.
What this poll didn’t ask is a question about whether one’s vote in the Presidential election really matters. Everyone knows that Bush will carry Texas as he did in 2000. The difference, from where I sit, is that this year Democrats are eager to cast their vote for their candidate. They want to send a message. In 2000, the overwhelming opinion was “who cares, it doesn’t matter”. That’s why Ralph Nader rang up 10% in Travis County; one could say there was a different message being sent. There’s actual excitement here, which I haven’t seen in a long time.
One measure of this, I believe, will be how John Kerry does in the strongest Republican counties. As noted yesterday, some of those counties have had extremely strong turnout so far. If Kerry does better in the Dentons and Collins than Gore did in 2000, I believe it’s because Democrats everywhere are energized, even in places where there’s little reason for them to bother. I could be wrong about this, of course, but I’ll be very interested to see how those numbers end up.
UPDATE: This is what I’m talking about.
As a self-described liberal living in the conservative bastion of The Woodlands, Ann Horst knows her vote is unlikely to have much influence on the presidential, congressional and legislative races in her area. But she’s voting anyway, she says, because that’s one sure way to make herself heard.
“To me, it’s never a waste of time to vote,” Horst said. “Voting is crucial. Whether it’s going to make a difference in Texas, no. But I need to have my vote out there.”
Bryan Webber of Spring is one of those voters. A 21-year-old first-time voter, Webber said he looks forward to casting his ballot for Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee. Like Horst, Webber knows that his vote is unlikely to shift Texas away from Bush, but he said he feels compelled to vote anyway.
“I don’t really necessarily agree with the Electoral College because … it does send a message that my vote doesn’t really count,” Webber said. “I think they should do it by the popular vote anyway. But I still feel like it’s really a privilege to be able to vote. It’s something that you believe in.”
There are balancing quotes in the article from Republicans who feel the same way. My point is that I think you’d have had no problems getting those quotes from Republicans around here four years ago as well, but not from Democrats. That’s the difference.
The sidebar on the poll, which is apparently in the dead-tree version of the Chron only, shows Bush leading Kerry in Harris County by a 51-44 margin, with 1% going to Badnarik and 4% undecided. I stand by what I said before about the margins in the big urban counties. Remember, Bush got better than 54% in Harris County in 2000 while Gore by himself got a bit more than 43%. The poll also indicated that Kerry led by wide margins among 18-24 year olds, and 25-34 year olds. That’s the best thing I’ve read all week.