Texas Democrats’ electoral woes are well known. The once-dominant party hasn’t won a statewide race since 1994 and has been the minority in the Texas Senate since 1997 and the Texas House since 2003.
What’s gotten less attention is the underlying problem for Texas Democrats that helps explain the party’s descent into political purgatory: partisan identification.
The proportion of Texas voters who identify as Democrats has dropped dramatically over the past two decades, from 39 percent in 1990 to 28 percent in 2010.
On top of their statewide losing streak, which appears likely to continue next week, this is a serious problem for Texas Democrats, given that the best predictor of how people vote is their partisan identification, or party ID. This deterioration in Democratic identification in Texas is most evident among Anglos, but also present among Hispanics.
This analysis draws from a forthcoming Baker Institute report on Texans’ voting behavior that uses data from the national exit polls conducted concurrently with the six gubernatorial and five presidential elections held in Texas between 1990 and 2010. No exit poll was conducted in 2012. Voters were asked: “No matter how you voted today, do you usually think of yourself as a: Democrat, Republican, independent or something else?”
The figure below charts the evolution of the proportion of African-American, Anglo and Hispanic voters identifying as Democrats (blue line) and Republicans (red line) from 1990 to 2010. The straight dashed line running alongside the blue and red lines is the respective linear trend line, providing a “best fit” for the time series data.
An overwhelming majority of African-American voters identified as Democrats throughout the entire period. The proportion ranged from a high of 87 percent in 2000 to a low of 69 percent in 2006, with the most recent value, in 2010, closer to the lower end, at 72 percent.
Only a minute share of African-American voters in Texas identify as Republicans. The high-water mark for the GOP was 10 percent in 1990. That bottomed out at 1 percent in 2008 before rising back to the party’s historic average (5 percent) in 2010.
In 1990, the last time a Democrat was elected governor in Texas, 31 percent of Anglos identified as Democrats and 42 percent as Republicans. Twenty years and five gubernatorial defeats later, the share of Anglos who thought of themselves as Democrats had been halved to 15 percent.
While the proportion of Democratic identifiers plummeted between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of Anglos who thought of themselves as Republicans increased. That number peaked at 55 percent in 2004 and was 50 percent in 2010.
The twin forces of a Republican rise and a Democratic decline steadily expanded the party ID gap among Anglos. In 1990, the gap between the percentage of Anglos identifying as Republican and as Democrat was 11 percentage points in the GOP’s favor. By 2010, the gap had more than tripled to 35 points.
The percentage of Hispanic voters who identify as Democrats has fluctuated over the past 20 years. But in every election, a substantially higher number of Hispanic voters have thought of themselves as Democrats than Republicans. Between 1990 and 2010, there was a modest erosion of Hispanic Democratic identification, with an average of 64 percent of Hispanic voters identifying as Democrats during the first three elections of this period versus 50 percent during the final three.
The trend line for Republican Hispanic identifiers has a gradual positive slope, indicating that the proportion of Hispanics identifying as Republicans has increased over time, but at a modest rate. In the three last elections of this time period, an average of about one in every five Hispanic voters identified as a Republican.
Pre-election surveys indicate that the 2014 exit poll will likely show party ID among Texas Hispanics to be roughly similar to that of 2010 — around one-half Democratic and between a quarter and one-fifth Republican. Texas Democrats are actively engaged in Hispanic voter mobilization, but these efforts have been partially undermined by the party’s association with the Obama administration, whose mixed record on immigration has alienated many Hispanics. But due in part to the harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric of some Republicans in Texas and beyond, the proportion of Hispanic voters who identify as Republican is unlikely to grow this election cycle, and could possibly shrink.
For Texas Democrats, the Republicans’ 3-to-1 party ID advantage among Anglo voters and the narrowing Democratic advantage among Hispanic voters should be a cause for concern. Until Democrats are able to increase their share of both the Anglo and Hispanic vote, any discussion of a return to majority status in the Lone Star State is likely to remain nothing more than wishful thinking.
Democrats can, however, take some solace for at least two reasons. First, in recent election cycles, more than a third of Anglo voters didn’t identify with either party, meaning there’s room for Democratic growth. Second, these data only reflect the partisan identification of those who turned out to vote, and it’s all but certain that most of the non-voting Texans being targeted by the state Democratic Party and groups like Battleground Texas aren’t going to vote for — or identify as — Republicans.
Disclosure: Rice University is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.