Saturday, March 8, 2014

How to Analyze the Texas Gubernatorial Primaries

The Austin American-Statesman editorialized that the Texas Democratic Party has a problem because its gubernatorial nominee, Wendy Davis, underperformed, winning only 79 percent of the vote and losing some border counties to Ray Madrigal. They also pointed out that only 546,000 Texans voted in the Democratic Party’s primary compared to 1.3 million Texans who voted in the Republican Party’s primary. The conclusion is the most distasteful part of the editorial and demonstrates a poor understanding of primary elections as opposed to general elections:

No Democrat has won a statewide race since 1994, which is another way of saying the winner of the Republican primaries and runoffs has won every statewide election for almost two decades. The same is expected to hold true this year. Politics can surprise, and Democrats may yet prove formidable in November, but the story coming out of Tuesday’s primaries is Texas is solidly Republican and drifting ever further to the right.

Of course, it’s true that no Democratic candidate for statewide office has won since 1994 and winning the Republican primary election has resulted in winning the general election. However, why does that mean that “The same is expected to hold true this year?” Why, also, is the story coming out of Tuesday’s primaries that “Texas is solidly Republican and drifting ever further to the right?”
In order to reach the conclusions that the editorial writers reached in the last paragraph, there should be some supporting data concerning the sweep of all statewide elected offices in 2014 as well as support for the contention that Tuesday’s primary elections demonstrated that Texas is solidly Republican and becoming more conservative. I find no support for any of those contentions.
First, let’s look at the source for Senator Davis’ votes in the primary. Among the 10 counties that contributed more than 10,000 votes to the Democratic Party’s primary vote total, Davis won 81 percent of the vote. Her highest percentages came from Travis and Tarrant Counties, where she won 96 and 94 percent of the vote, respectively. In Cameron County, she won 54 percent of the vote. In Hidalgo and Webb Counties, she won 47 and 44 percent of the vote, respectively. Several pundits suggest that the results in Hidalgo and Webb Counties, as well as other counties where Hispanics constitute a large percentage of the population, indicate that Davis has a problem with Hispanic support. But how many votes did Gregg Abbott receive in the same counties? In Hidalgo County, Abbott got 4,760 votes, and he got 725 votes in Webb County. Davis, on the other hand, received 16,944 votes in Hidalgo County and 10,466 votes in Webb County. Does Davis have a problem when the choice is between Davis and Abbott? Davis received nearly three times the votes received by Abbott in Hidalgo County and more than 10 times the votes in Webb County. Given the general election choice, it is Abbott and not Davis that has a problem with Hispanic voters.

Is Texas solidly Republican? If Texas were solidly Republican, the Republican Party would have been able to attract more than 1.3 million voters in the primary, and more importantly, a majority of Texans would identify with the Republican Party. However, in terms of party identification of Texas registered voters, the parties are nearly evenly divided, with 33 percent identifying with the Republican Party, 28 percent identifying with the Democratic Party, and 32 percent identifying with neither major party (i.e., they are independents). 

Is Texas drifting ever further to the right? The best way to determine whether Texas has become more conservative is to compare the position of Texans on issues of public policy. Unfortunately, the UT/Texas Tribune Poll doesn’t poll a sample of Texans; it polls registered voters. Also, the same questions are not asked in each poll; so it’s difficult to compare even registered voters in 2010 and 2014, for example. However, in recent polls, respondents are asked to place themselves ideologically on a 7-point scale from extremely liberal to extremely conservative. We know that people may not accurately position themselves on that scale; however, we can expect the errors in self-placement to be congruent from one poll to the next. If Texans have drifted ever more conservative, then their placements over four years of polling should reflect that drift rightward. So let’s look at the results:

The results, regardless of category, seem very consistent. If anything, Texans have been more likely to place themselves in the middle ideologically in 2014. The percentage of conservatives is 48 in 2014 versus 52 in 2010. Also, the percentage of liberals is 20 in 2014 versus 22 in 2010. Furthermore, we know that many people who identify themselves as conservative actually hold liberal positions on public policies (see John Sides here).

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