Considerations for the Texas primaries

Photo by Shelby Knowles

In just over 30 days, Texas will hold its 2016 primary elections, nearly three months earlier than the most recent presidential primary in 2012. Political prognosticators will be focusing shortly on the number of people expected to participate in each party’s primary, the implications of this factor on the fates of various candidates and the impact of presidential voters on down-ticket contests. Here are a few points to consider when looking to March 1, 2016.

The overriding uncertainty for the 2016 primaries in a state without party registration is not how many will vote but in which political party’s primary they will participate. When the 2008 primary was held on a comparable date (March 4), a lively Democratic presidential nominating battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton caught the public’s attention. Reflecting the state Democratic Party’s convoluted delegate selection process, Clinton won the popular vote by roughly a 100,000-vote margin, but Obama captured a majority of the state’s delegates. This contest attracted a record 2,875,000 Texas voters. Meanwhile, John McCain had to fight off a resurgent Mike Huckabee in a race that attracted some 1,362,322 voters to the Republican primary.

Four years later, with President Obama seeking re-nomination against token opposition, 590,000 Texans chose to take part in the Democratic primary. Meanwhile, the GOP primary attracted some 1,450,000 voters even though Mitt Romney had virtually wrapped up the party’s nomination. This year, lively contests in both mean one can anticipate a heavy turnout in both parties' March 1 primaries, reaching over 1 million on the Democratic side and approaching 2 million GOP voters.

Many of those who vote in this year’s primary are likely to have had no history of past primary voting. According to a study done for the Texas GOP, in 2008, 64 percent of the 2.8 million Democratic primary voters had no primary history over the previous 10 years, while another 9.7 percent had previously voted only in a Republican primary. For the GOP, some 52.7 percent of its primary electorate had not voted in any primary over the past 10 years, while another 9.7 percent had voted only in the Democratic primary. If approximated this year, any candidate who appeals solely to the traditional party base of past primary voters will be missing the majority of those who will cast votes in the March 1 election.

Beyond the presidential nominating battle, voters will find few contests. Unlike the primaries of 2008 and 2012, there is no U.S. Senate election, and the only contested statewide Democratic race is a low-profile race for Railroad Commission. Here the drop-off factor becomes important, as a large number of presidential voters simply do not continue down the ballot. In both 2008 and 2012, roughly one in four who voted for a Republican presidential candidate failed to vote in the down-ballot statewide races, and the drop-off was even greater for state legislative and county positions. A similar pattern took place in the Democratic primaries.

This traditional drop-off in participation for down-ballot races may mean that many voters attracted by Donald Trump, Ben Carson and even Ted Cruz simply will not take part in the lively challenges to a number of state legislators as well as the smaller number of contested congressional races. While an anti-incumbent sentiment appears to be at work this year, such a drop-off in voting lessens the impact of a high turnout of new primary participants and may well result in better-known incumbents having the advantage on primary day.

Wayne Thorburn

Author; former executive director of the Texas Republican Party