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.
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.”