Turnout may be up in this week’s Texas primaries, but experts say it won’t be nearly enough to change the bottom line: The votes of a few will choose the officials who govern us all.
Historically, turnout in the state’s Republican primary has been 6 to 8 percent, while in the Democratic primary it has sunk to 3 to 6 percent over the past 15 years.
Democrats had a one-time big bump to the 16 percent range in the 2008 primary when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton battled for the presidential nomination. And Democrats hope to get another boost this year from the interest stirred up by Fort Worth state Sen. Wendy Davis’ gubernatorial campaign.
Experts say turning a primary surge into a general election victory in November is difficult.
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“People can choose, one time in the calendar year, which primary they are going to vote in,” said Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, an associate political science professor at the University of North Texas. “That [turnout] isn’t going to translate into more votes in the general election.”
This year, 364,952 Republicans and 224,676 Democrats from the state’s 15 largest counties voted early in Tuesday’s primary, state records show. Early voting ended Friday.
While still trailing, more Democrats voted early this year than in the past two primary elections, prompting party officials to say their momentum is growing and they hope to find more success than in the past.
“We are voting more than we have in 2010 and 2012, which is especially exciting,” said Deborah Peoples, who heads the Tarrant County Democratic Party. “As a Democrat, I have to believe that 2014 is going to be our year. You can’t say to wait 10 years. You have to work hard for it to be right now, this year.”
At the same time, Republicans are poised to have more voters at the polls as they look to continue their dominance. No Democrat has been elected to statewide office since 1994.
Tarrant County Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Hall said she’s pleased with early voting in Texas, particularly here in one of the reddest counties in the country.
“The most important race in a political season is the primary,” she said. “That’s when people get to make the [real] choices. … Everybody seems to be working really hard this time to turn out their voters.”
Texans who didn’t vote early will head to the polls Tuesday.
Top of the ballot
Statewide, 589,628 Texans, or nearly 7 percent of the state’s 8.6 million registered voters, cast early ballots, according to data from the 15 largest counties provided by the Texas secretary of state’s office.
Among those were more than 75,000 Tarrant County residents — 52,719 Republicans and 22,621 Democrats.
Republicans dominated turnout in most of the large counties, except for Cameron, El Paso, Hidalgo and Travis.
“The ratio of Republican to Democratic voters has remained roughly the same, with about 1.5 GOP voters for every Democratic voter in the state’s 15 most populous counties,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.
Since 1990, Texas Republicans have cast more ballots in six primaries — 2012, 2010, 2006, 2000, 1998 and 1996, state election records show.
Democrats had higher turnouts in six primaries as well — 2008, 2004, 2002, 1994, 1992 and 1990, records show.
“The parties oscillated back in forth in terms of winning the turnout battle, with the victor often determined by who had a competitive presidential primary and who did not,” Jones said.
But no matter which party had a better showing in the primary, Republican candidates claimed the top post on the ballot, whether president or governor, in all but one of those years.
The exception was Democrat Ann Richards, who was elected governor in 1990.
From the 1970s until the early 1990s, when the Democrats were in power in Texas, participation as a percentage of the voting-age population in their primaries regularly hit double digits. It peaked in 1972, when 28 percent of the voting-age population cast ballots.
Republicans have dominated the last two decades.
Four times George W. Bush was at the top of the ballot, first in his quest to become governor and later as he sought the presidency. His dad topped the ballot in 1992.
And Gov. Rick Perry led the ballot three times, running for governor in 2002, 2006 and 2010.
Republican presidential candidates have found success in Texas, even if they lost nationwide.
Even in years when more Democrats turned out for the primary, the GOP presidential candidates — John McCain in 2008, Bob Dole in 1996 and George H.W. Bush in 1992 — walked away as victors in Texas.
Significant this year, Peoples said, is that Democrats are heading to the polls.
“Republicans have all these contested primaries,” she said. “We have so many candidates in noncontested races, and people are turning out. Not only that, but we are seeing an uptick in the vote in some areas.
“We are seeing Democrats vote.”
Now party leaders need to make sure Democrats stay engaged, especially in Tarrant County, which many view as a bellwether of the state’s political leanings.
“We refuse to cede Tarrant County,” Peoples said. “We have to start believing every part of this county has great Democrats in it. There are Democrats all over Tarrant County, and we will find them and get them out to vote. This very well could be the year.”
Hall said she believes Republicans will easily retain their dominance in this county and in other areas.
“I’m pleased with the numbers we are seeing,” she said. “I don’t think [Democrats] are going to make significant advances here in Tarrant County. I don’t expect them to close in on us that much.
“We are making sure people are aware there’s an election and our candidates are working very hard.”
She said any Democratic increase locally or statewide is likely due to Battleground Texas, an effort by campaign workers for President Barack Obama to help turn the state Democratic.
“They are really working here, really setting up for the 2016 election,” she said. “Everybody seems to be working really hard this time to turn out their voters.”
But Hall said she is confident that Republican voters will maintain their enthusiasm.
“I think it will carry over to November,” she said.
Staff writer John Gravois contributed to this report, which includes material from The Texas Tribune.