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A closer look at the turnout issue in 2014

I wrote yesterday about turnout for this year’s election. The main problem that Democrats face this year is that turnout has basically been flat for them since 2002 in the off year elections. I began to write a post to illustrate this last year, back when Battleground Texas was being viewed as a long-term experiment in increasing Democratic turnout, before we had Wendy Davis and a race we want and hope to win this year, but between the endless legislative summer and the short turnaround into the 2013 elections, not to mention the change in story line for this year, I never finished it. Now that we’re focusing on 2014, this is the time to polish that off.

I had previously suggested that BGT set some benchmarks for the 2014 election, back when we didn’t have anyone running statewide. We have the candidates and an updated mission now, but we still need to be clear about where we start out. What I did was take a look at the county by county results in the contested Railroad Commissioner races of 2006 and 2010. I did this for two reasons: One, generally speaking a low-level race like that is almost entirely a recapitulation of party ID, and two, 2006 Democratic candidate Dale Henry and 2010 Democratic candidate Jeff Weems got nearly identical vote totals – 1,752,947 for Henry, and 1,757,183 for Weems. I’m not taking into account their percentages or the vote total of any other candidate, because we’re focusing exclusively on Democratic turnout. The first questions to consider, therefore, are where did Weems do better than Henry, and where did he do worse? Here are the counties in which Weems did the best relative to 2006:

County Henry Weems Diff ==================================== Harris 253,845 335,689 81,844 Dallas 192,780 210,021 17,241 Hidalgo 27,213 44,372 17,159 Fort Bend 41,013 55,472 14,459 Bexar 116,909 128,360 11,451 Webb 12,012 19,451 7,439 Travis 121,035 125,283 4,248 Maverick 2,427 4,719 2,292 Collin 40,184 41,712 1,528 Hays 13,146 14,497 1,351 Williamson 29,684 30,910 1,226

I’ve said before that Harris County Democrats did not have a turnout problem in 2010. This is the clearest example I can give of that. All of these are counties where you’d like to see the Democrats improve, and where there is room for such improvement. It’s especially heartening to see gains in counties like Hidalgo, Webb, and Fort Bend. Maverick County deserves special mention because it’s easily the smallest county on this list, but still produced a decent-sized gain for the Dems. That’s mostly because overall turnout in Maverick in 2006 was a pathetic 14.8%. Turnout in 2010 was still only 24.1%. That’s in a county that went 72% Democratic in 2010, meaning there’s plenty of room to add a couple thousand more votes to the D column. I’d consider an improvement in Maverick County to be a necessary yardstick for measuring BGT’s progress in 2014.

Given that Weems got about as many votes as Henry, the fact that there were counties in which he gained means there were counties in which he lost as well. In fact, there were far more counties in which Weems lost ground than ones in which he gained. Here were the biggest losers:

County Henry Weems Diff ==================================== Nueces 30,018 24,021 -5,997 Tarrant 127,293 121,721 -5,572 Johnson 10,140 6,123 -4,017 Wichita 9,577 5,803 -3,774 Grayson 9,935 6,190 -3,745 McLennan 20,680 17,211 -3,469 Galveston 28,718 25,279 -3,439 Angelina 8,611 5,367 -3,244 Orange 8,060 4,903 -3,157 Parker 7,838 4,988 -2,850 Lubbock 14,537 12,169 -2,368

The good news is that Tarrant excepted, these are not strategic counties for Democrats. Of course, a vote lost in Wichita or Angelina is still a vote that has to be made up somewhere if you don’t want to lose ground overall. BGT clearly understands this, and I have no doubt that they will put resources into places like these in order to maximize Democratic turnout, even if it means just moving the needle a few points in a dark red county. The challenge is to give a reason for Democrats in places where there are no local Democratic candidates running for anything a reason to show up. I don’t envy them the task.

It should be noted that some of the counties listed above lost voters during the period. By the same token, there were numerous counties that gained quite a few voters between 2006 and 2010. Here’s a look at the 20 counties that had the largest increase in registered voters and how the Dems did in them.

County Growth Grow % Diff 06 AV% 10 AV% Ratio ============================================================ Collin 42,851 11.22% 1,528 10.52% 9.82% 0.93 Fort Bend 41,272 15.41% 14,459 15.32% 17.95% 1.17 Travis 38,234 6.75% 4,248 21.38% 20.73% 0.97 Denton 31,242 9.37% 904 10.13% 9.51% 0.94 Williamson 29,242 14.02% 1,226 14.24% 13.00% 0.91 Montgomery 22,928 10.10% -915 8.49% 7.35% 0.87 Harris 19,198 1.00% 81,844 13.23% 17.32% 1.31 Hidalgo 16,531 5.90% 17,159 9.72% 14.96% 1.54 Hays 12,609 14.73% 1,351 15.36% 14.76% 0.96 Tarrant 12,414 1.34% -5,572 13.77% 12.99% 0.94 Brazoria 7,252 4.43% -351 12.57% 11.83% 0.94 Bexar 7,172 0.80% 11,451 13.01% 14.17% 1.09 Guadalupe 6,768 9.95% -191 10.90% 9.66% 0.89 Cameron 6,552 3.91% -323 12.47% 11.82% 0.95 Parker 6,189 9.13% -2,850 11.56% 6.74% 0.58 Webb 6,097 6.01% 7,439 11.84% 18.09% 1.53 Comal 5,879 8.66% -706 10.22% 8.45% 0.83 Rockwall 5,706 14.22% -262 9.32% 7.59% 0.81

“Growth” is the increase in voter registrations; “Grow %” is the percentage increase. “Diff” is the difference between Weems’ vote total and Henry’s, so a positive number means Weems had more votes and a negative number means Henry had more. “06 AV%” and “10 AV%” is the ratio of Democratic votes to all registered voters, which is basically a straight up measure of turnout. “Ratio” is the ratio of the 06 AV% to the 10 AV%, so numbers greater than one are good. It’s good that the Dems gained votes in places like Collin, Denton, Hays, and Williamson, but they didn’t keep up with the increase in registered voters. This is what I was trying to get at with my earlier post about BGT’s efforts in Collin County. There’s a voter registration component to that, but the much bigger piece of that puzzle is reaching out to the Democrats and would-be Democrats that are already there and convincing them that their vote this fall really matters even if they lack local candidates to back, or if the local candidates they have face much longer odds than the statewide slate. It matters for this election and it matters for the future elections. We can’t just turn out voters in the strongholds, we have to turn them out everywhere. Democrats can’t and won’t be competitive statewide until that happens.

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