How Democrats Are Aiming to Make Texas a Swing State

National Journal
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Elahe Izad
Sept. 8, 2013, 8 a.m.

AUS­TIN, Texas — Col­lege foot­ball is prac­tic­ally a re­li­gion in Texas, where tail­gat­ing starts just after sun­rise and cars jam up Aus­tin roads on game day.

But on open­ing day — and dur­ing Labor Day week­end, no less — a group of more than 50 people op­ted against mid-morn­ing drink­ing in fa­vor of meet­ing in a church to en­gage in the most mundane of civic activ­it­ies: get­ting dep­u­tized to re­gister people to vote.

Most of the people at this par­tic­u­lar, non­par­tis­an county-run train­ing found out about it through Battle­ground Texas, a newly formed Demo­crat­ic group run by former Obama cam­paign op­er­at­ives whose goal is to make Texas a com­pet­it­ive state in pres­id­en­tial races.

Demo­graph­ic pro­jec­tions show Texas’s His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tion is mush­room­ing, giv­ing rise to op­tim­ism among Demo­crats that they can turn Texas in­to a purple, swing state. But ex­perts say a grow­ing His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tion won’t auto­mat­ic­ally trans­late in­to dra­mat­ic in­creases in act­ive voters, and Demo­crats will also need to win a lar­ger share of the white vote to be suc­cess­ful.

The Num­bers

Texas is one of the na­tion’s fast­est-grow­ing states, and much of that growth is owed to the boom­ing His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tion. By 2020, His­pan­ics will out­num­ber non-His­pan­ic whites, or “Anglos,” as they’re called in Texas.

“This is not new to the last 10 or 20 years,” says Rice Uni­versity pro­fess­or Steve Mur­dock, a former Texas state demo­graph­er. “If you look at Texas his­tory, it’s been a long-term kind of pat­tern of change.”

High­er birth rates and lower av­er­age ages among His­pan­ics also mean the state’s pop­u­la­tion is trend­ing young­er, Mur­dock said.

All of that seems to spell op­por­tun­ity for Demo­crats. Exit polls wer­en’t con­duc­ted in Texas last year, but CNN exit polls in 2008 showed 63 per­cent of Lati­nos sup­por­ted Barack Obama, versus 35 per­cent who voted for Sen. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz. In 2004, 49 per­cent of Lati­nos voted for Pres­id­ent Bush.

The oth­er trend is that His­pan­ic chil­dren born here after im­mig­ra­tion boons in re­cent dec­ades will soon be eli­gible to vote.

“There is vir­tu­ally no new net His­pan­ic im­mig­ra­tion since 2007, so our His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tion is go­ing to shift much more dra­mat­ic­ally,” says Richard Mur­ray, dir­ect­or of the Uni­versity of Hou­s­ton’s Sur­vey Re­search In­sti­tute. And giv­en that, re­cent em­phas­is on im­mig­ra­tion re­form could po­ten­tially politi­cize young His­pan­ic voters, he adds, cit­ing ex­amples of his stu­dents who are cit­izens but have re­l­at­ives who aren’t.

“They take this is­sue very ser­i­ously. They’re liv­ing with it,” Mur­ray says. “They know their par­ents are sub­ject to de­port­a­tion at any time.”

Demo­graph­ic shifts in Texas, however, don’t ne­ces­sar­ily mean shifts in vot­ing power. Ac­cord­ing to U.S. Census Bur­eau es­tim­ates, just 39 per­cent of His­pan­ic cit­izens in Texas voted in 2012, com­pared with 54 per­cent of all Texas cit­izens (61 per­cent of non-His­pan­ic white cit­izens voted). In 2008, Latino voters made up 20 per­cent of the elect­or­ate, exit polling showed.

Ant­o­nio Gonza­lez, pres­id­ent of the Wil­li­am C. Velasquez In­sti­tute, says low turnout isn’t a uniquely Texas His­pan­ic prob­lem, giv­en that turnout is low in Texas gen­er­ally.

“When you have more in­ter­me­di­ation, you have high­er turnout; you have great­er par­ti­cip­a­tion, [and] people are more or­gan­ized,” he says, adding that “voter in­ter­me­di­ation” hasn’t been hap­pen­ing in Texas in re­cent years. “It af­fects vot­ing across eth­nic groups.”

Na­tion­al Demo­crats haven’t fought for votes in Texas — even among Lati­nos — for some time now. “You don’t undo 20 years of neg­lect in four years. We look at the equa­tion from the point of view of em­power­ment,” Gonza­lez says.

Battle­ground Texas of­fi­cials in­sist they are in the state for the long haul. And how to start in­creas­ing His­pan­ic voter turnout?

“You do it by ask­ing people for their votes, run­ning cam­paigns where people are ac­tiv­ated,” says Battle­ground Texas Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or Jenn Brown. “And they are talk­ing to their neigh­bors about why vot­ing is im­port­ant to them and why it mat­ters to their com­munity.”

The “Anglo” Vote

In 2008, only 26 per­cent of white Tex­ans voted for Obama, ac­cord­ing to exit polls. His per­form­ance was no bet­ter among col­lege-edu­cated whites, which were a key part of Obama’s win­ning co­ali­tion in 2012.

“There are no more white Demo­crats — it’s an ex­ag­ger­ated state­ment — but fig­ur­at­ively, the change in Texas isn’t with His­pan­ics, it’s with whites,” Gonza­lez says. “White voters aban­doned the Demo­crat­ic Party 20 years ago.”

That’s not lost on Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ives. “We need to do bet­ter with Anglo voters, par­tic­u­larly young wo­men,” says Jeremy Bird, who leads Battle­ground Texas’s ef­forts. “That is the Vir­gin­ia mod­el — bet­ter turnout among Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans and Asi­ans and His­pan­ics, but, really, you start to cut in the mar­gins with white wo­men.”

Demo­crats are hope­ful that a Wendy Dav­is run for gov­ernor would help their ef­forts, par­tic­u­larly giv­en how her ad­vocacy for abor­tion rights and fo­cus on wo­men’s-health is­sues pro­pelled her to the na­tion­al spot­light.

“In­vest­ing in get­ting the base out, that’s one egg. And then it’s broad­en­ing the base it­self and cre­at­ing a lar­ger co­ali­tion, that is a co­rol­lary ef­fort,” says Demo­crat­ic state Rep. Ra­fael An­chia. “I don’t think do­ing one alone gets you there. I think pur­su­ing them on par­al­lel tracks gets you there.”

What the Ground Game Looks Like Right Now

That takes us back to dep­u­tiz­a­tion. In Texas, you can’t re­gister someone to vote un­less you’ve been cer­ti­fied by the par­tic­u­lar county where you’re do­ing the re­gis­ter­ing. Battle­ground Texas has been fo­cused on get­ting vo­lun­teers dep­u­tized this sum­mer in its ef­forts to build out an in­fra­struc­ture ahead of an elec­tion year. “Our role is to fill the gap, to train 2,000 people in the counties — we’re really try­ing to in­ject that kind of en­ergy and fo­cus in [the] re­gis­tra­tion pro­cess,” Bird says.

Over­all civic activ­ity in Trav­is County has cer­tainly picked up since Janu­ary; voter rolls have a net in­crease of 20,000 voters, and 1,300 people have been dep­u­tized. Dep­u­tiz­a­tion is typ­ic­ally closer to 200 or 300 this time of year, says Trav­is County Tax As­sessor Col­lect­or Bruce El­fant, who con­ducts dep­u­tiz­a­tion train­ings for any group of 10 or more.

But has that en­thu­si­asm trans­lated in­to the dol­lars ne­ces­sary to build out a party in­fra­struc­ture? Battle­ground Texas, which pos­ted fun­drais­ing totals in Ju­ly, has raised $1.1 mil­lion since Feb­ru­ary, with the ma­jor­ity of con­tri­bu­tions com­ing from with­in the state. Brown says Au­gust fun­drais­ing has ex­ceeded ex­pect­a­tions.

“It is ter­rif­ic that the na­tion­al spot­light is be­ing shone on Texas. In the past, we op­er­ated like an ATM: People come to Texas and raise money and leave, and now Battle­ground and oth­er ef­forts sug­gest we’re go­ing to keep that money here,” An­chia says.

The jury is still out. “There are com­mit­ments be­ing made to Texas to turn that around, but it hasn’t really ex­cept in the smal­lest amount of in­stances,” Texas Demo­crat­ic Party Chair­man Gil­berto Hino­josa said. “In oth­er words, it’s still an ATM ma­chine.”

A Dav­is gubernat­ori­al run could change that, Hino­josa said, and uni­ons are look­ing to in­vest heav­ily in in­fra­struc­ture in Texas.

The Com­pet­it­ive Texas

In 2008, the Texas State­house was split al­most evenly between the two parties, with 76 Re­pub­lic­ans and 74 Demo­crats. “While the nar­rat­ive has been that Texas has been one of the red­dest of the red states, it’s really not. It has not been re­flec­ted even in re­cent memory,” An­chia says.

Texas Re­pub­lic­an Party Chair­man Steve Mu­n­is­teri main­tains that Texas has been a com­pet­it­ive state, and char­ac­ter­izes the no­tion that His­pan­ics will nat­ur­ally vote for Demo­crats as an off-base as­sump­tion. He points to high par­ti­cip­a­tion among re­gistered His­pan­ic voters in Texas — 71 per­cent in 2012, by census es­tim­ates — and how the GOP still wins elec­tions in Texas.

“Neither party in the state of Texas can win elec­tions un­less they have broad sup­port among mul­tiple eth­nic groups,” he says. “We can’t win only with Caucasi­an votes — we’d lose now. And Demo­crats can’t win with just His­pan­ic and Afric­an-Amer­ic­an voters. Both parties have to reach in­to each com­munity.”

While the na­tion­al GOP has just come to this real­iz­a­tion and is grap­pling with how to ad­dress it, that’s not the case in Texas, Mu­n­is­teri said. For in­stance, as Mitt Rom­ney talked of self-de­port­a­tion dur­ing his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, the Texas GOP had changed its plat­form in 2012 to call for a na­tion­al guest-work­er pro­gram and re­ferred to mass de­port­a­tion of the na­tion’s un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants as neither “equit­able nor prac­tic­al.”

As for the Demo­crats pour­ing great­er re­sources in­to Texas, Mu­n­is­teri says “it’s like phys­ics: Every re­ac­tion has a coun­ter­re­ac­tion.”

“The end res­ult is we’re get­ting a lot of help now,” he says. “Someone could ar­gue that it’s caus­ing Re­pub­lic­ans to pour re­sources in­to races when they would have spent in oth­er states, but the Demo­crats are do­ing the same thing.”

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