How Democrats Are Aiming to Make Texas a Swing State

National Journal
Elahe Izadi
See more stories about...
Elahe Izadi
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.”

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4428) }}

What We're Following See More »
LGBT Amendment Sinks Energy and Water Approps
1 hours ago

The House voted down the otherwise uncontroversial Energy and Water appropriations bill Thursday after Democrats succeeded in attaching an amendment affirming LGBT job discrimination protections for military contractors. More than 40 Republicans supported the amendment, but when it came to vote on the bill, 130 Republicans joined all but six Democrats to sink the bill. Speaker Paul Ryan said Democrats voting against the bill after securing the amendment shows their intention was to scuttle the process. Democrats, however, blamed other so-called poison-pill amendments for their votes against the bill. Nonetheless, Ryan said he intends to continue the appropriations process.

UAW: Time to Unite Behind Hillary
1 hours ago

"It's about time for unity," said UAW President Dennis Williams. "We're endorsing Hillary Clinton. She's gotten 3 million more votes than Bernie, a million more votes than Donald Trump. She's our nominee." He called Sanders "a great friend of the UAW" while saying Trump "does not support the economic security of UAW families." Some 28 percent of UAW members indicated their support for Trump in an internal survey.

70,000 Have Missed American Airlines Flights This Year
2 hours ago

"Airport screening delays have caused more than 70,000 American Airlines customers and 40,000 checked bags to miss their flights this year, an executive for the airline told a U.S. congressional subcommittee on Thursday. A shortage of staff and a surge in air travelers have created a nightmare scenario for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), with airport wait times in places like Chicago stretching beyond two hours."

Trump Clinches Enough Delegates for the Nomination
3 hours ago

"Donald Trump on Thursday reached the number of delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination for president, completing an unlikely rise that has upended the political landscape and sets the stage for a bitter fall campaign. Trump was put over the top in the Associated Press delegate count by a small number of the party's unbound delegates who told the AP they would support him at the convention."

What Did Sen. Cotton Say About Harry Reid?
4 hours ago

That the minority leader curses the Senate with his "cancerous leadership." After Reid tried to halt a defense bill, Cotton took to the floor and blasted Reid, adding, "As a junior senator, I preside over the Senate. I usually do in the morning, which means I'm forced to listen to the bitter, vulgar, incoherent ramblings of the Minority Leader. Normally, like other Americans, I ignore them."