In response to Tuesday’s Texas primary, voter turnout has been at the center of much speculation and debate — especially regarding the future of the state’s Democratic Party. And there’s a good reason why.
Nearly twice as many Democrats voted in this election as in the 2014 midterms, and many of them voted early, which gave liberals a head start on their excitement. But Twitter engaged in a fierce debate about how meaningful the increased turnout really is.
On one side, people tweeted about a “Texas sized Blue Tsunami” crashing over the state.
Texas sized Blue Tsunami crashes over shores! Democrats in the 10 largest counties in Texas out-voted Republicans by nearly 90,000 votes! Compared to 2014 where Republicans had a 70,000 edge in voter turnout! That's 160,000 swing in Voter turn out! Holy Shit! Cruz is in Trouble!— 4mvp (@44mmvvpp) March 5, 2018
On the other, analysts like the Upshot’s Nate Cohn and the Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman said to hold off on any immediate celebration, and that Democratic gains had probably been overhyped.
GOP edge now at about 22 points, 61 to 39 percent. Dems should gain back some ground, but I suspect this won't prove to be the night they were imagining. None of their top candidates are posting great numbers. And this doesn't look like the vote of a 'blue' Texas— Nate Cohn (@Nate_Cohn) March 7, 2018
Hard to disagree. Dems will still show great gains over '14/'10, but GOP will still hold very solid lead in primary vote and lots of DCCC-favored scenarios not panning out. https://t.co/IVsapjLHXG— Dave Wasserman (@Redistrict) March 7, 2018
So what’s really going on here?
Jim Henson, a political science professor and pollster at the University of Texas Austin, told Vox that Democrats are currently more politically active in Texas than they have been in a while. That’s partly due to national enthusiasm and the huge fields of candidates in the three major congressional races. He says these factors don’t automatically translate to huge upsets in the fall, especially in the US Senate race.
“I don’t think anybody’s wandering around Wednesday morning feeling like the world got turned upside down,” Henson said.
Why people got so hyped over a Texas primary election
A key source of confusion originated from the discrepancy between the results of early and election day voting. Democratic voters skew younger and are therefore less likely to have a stable address and polling place they return to year after year. They’re more likely to stop in at a location that allows them to vote before election day.
More than 650,000 Texans voted early; 370,000 of those were Democrats, creating the impression that Democrats had an edge. In reality, this wasn’t exactly the case.
It helps to understand how big a hole Texas Democrats are in to begin with. Though the state doesn’t require voters to register by party, Republican voters tend to far outnumber Democrats in the state, so any percentage increase in Democratic votes would still be dwarfed by the overall numbers.
Emily Ramshaw, editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune, thinks news media contributed to this misconception, saying media organizations need to be cautious in their coverage of the early vote turnout.
“Journalists love a fight. They love a fair fight. And so I think they look at these numbers and they immediately thought, this might be something bigger than we thought,” she said.
Overall, the researchers we spoke with fell more or less in the middle of the debate, some on the side of, “This is a really good thing for Democrats,” and others arguing, “This is actually disappointing.”
1) Texas Democrats seem reenergized
The Democratic Party in Texas hasn’t historically been known for its enthusiasm. Joshua Blank, the manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project, called the party’s attitude over the previous few years “anemic” and explained that excitement is “a necessary condition for Democrats to start doing better in elections here,” regardless of its bearing on the general election.
Ramshaw pointed to the surge in early voting as evidence for a rejuvenated party, describing Democrats’ desire to “rush to the polls.”
2) The areas in which the Democratic Party is growing is where Texas is seeing population growth generally
The metro and suburban areas where the Democratic Party saw the majority of votes originate happen to be areas in Texas that are expanding the most rapidly, which means turnout will likely continue to rise.
Texas is also a fairly urban state to begin with, “and it’s not surprising for Dems to be strong there,” Blank explained.
3) Yes, Republican turnout was also up. But Democratic turnout was up more.
Republicans saw a roughly 16 percent increase in voter turnout, while Democrats had a 98 percent increase.
“Yes, Republican turnout is growing at the same time, but I think Democrats have shown that they have the capacity to narrow the gap,” said Ramshaw.
Again, it’s worth remembering how low Democratic turnout normally is in the state.
4) Democrats are laying the groundwork for a more competitive future
There’s no question that the Republican Party has formidable and well-established structural advantages in Texas, so the goal isn’t necessarily to try to beat them overnight. Instead, the Texas Democratic Party needs to start getting its own structures in place.
For example, the surge in turnout means Democrats have lengthened their “roster” of potential voters, with twice as many people to target in future elections.
1) Metro and urban areas, where Democratic turnout spiked, don’t speak for all of Texas
Republican voting in Texas is far more consistent and far less variable in elections of all types, and this primary is no exception. Texas continues to be a deep-red, GOP-led state.
And “when it comes to the statewide races, at the end of the day, it’s the total tally of votes that counts,” said Ramshaw.
2) Republicans easily outnumbered Democrats at the polls
Despite Democrats having a higher percentage increase in voter turnout, far more Republicans than Democrats ultimately cast votes. The breakdown was 1.54 million to 1.04 million — a result that, as NBC News’s Alex Seitz-Wald wrote, emphasized “just how difficult it will be for Democrats to take the country’s second-largest state.”
3) The DSCC is unlikely to sink additional resources into Texas
Purple Texas would really have to come through in a statewide election. While a few promising House races came out of the primary, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), which is defending a lot of Senate seats this year, is unlikely to invest heavily in a state where it’s notoriously expensive to reach voters. This is bad news for rising Democratic star Beto O’Rourke, who is mounting a serious campaign against incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz.
Campaign resources also don’t happen in a vacuum. “The question really is should we put resources into Texas, and if so where should we not put resources into?” said Blank.
“Before national Democrats are going to think about sinking national resources in Texas, I think Texas Democrats are going to have to show better examples of competitiveness than they have before now,” he continued.
After all, as Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith told Vox’s Dylan Scott, “Beto O’Rourke, who has been lionized by the national media, is traveling around the state doing all the things; he’s going to places where Democrats don’t typically campaign, he’s raising a lot of money. He was held to below 62 percent of the vote in the primary. He had a woman run against him whom nobody had heard of but who had a Hispanic name, and she got border county after border country.”
Ramshaw agreed, saying that the national party might be reluctant to go all in for O’Rourke.
“I imagine they’re taking a pretty hard look and thinking, Texas is so expensive to play and we have a US Senate candidate who just barely broke 60 percent of the vote in his own party, and not a whole lot of other folks to throw our money behind,” Ramshaw said.
This post has been updated to clarify sourcing.