Beware the post-primary soothsayers

Photo by Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

Seal a tarot card inside a crystal ball, like a ship in a bottle. You now have a device just as capable of predicting general election outcomes based on primary election inputs as all the soothsayers sealed inside the post-Texas primary media bubble.

For instance, some of these sorcerer’s apprentices still cling to worn-out notions that the comparative number of voters in the Democratic and Republican primary somehow foreshadows general election results. Really? Still?

Since we’re dealing in magic anyway, let’s journey back through time to 1978. Republican Bill Clements won his party’s nomination for governor in a primary that had 158,403 total votes. Democrat John Hill won his party’s nomination in a primary with 1.77 million total votes.

Clements won the general election.

Now, if we turn our time machine back around, lingering briefly over some gubernatorial election years, we will find turnout in GOP primaries growing to 265,851 in 1982, to 554,719 in 1986, and to 855,231 in 1990, the last year the GOP lost a gubernatorial election in Texas.

Over 12 years, Republican primaries grew by 697,828 voters. Huh. Well, Texas Democratic primaries grew by almost half-a-million voters in just the last four years, from 560,033 in 2014 to 1,017,959 in 2018. Over that same period, the GOP gasped and wheezed its way to a paltry increase of a couple hundred thousand.

Therefore, Democrats are about to capture all the statewide offices which they will hold without serious jeopardy for a generation.

What, you thought I was above a little political palm reading? Fake News! Maybe I’m fixing to go all Donald Trump-like and claim my crystal ball is bigger than everyone else’s crystal ball.

No, that would be mad. This is just a gentle way of making the point that reading the future in leftover coffee grounds (there’s a word for that: tasseography!) is, well, questionable — probably even more questionable if they are coffee grounds left over from political primary campaigns.

Primary turnout can give a snapshot of the relative enthusiasm among voters for one party or another, especially when there is corroborating evidence, say, like the huge growth in the numbers of Democrats stepping forward to run for political office this year.

Still, even here we must be careful. Blue wave coming? It’s more like we felt an undersea earthquake of some indeterminate size and we will have to wait and see if it generates an actual tsunami.

However, it would also be a mistake to rule out the wave just because there hasn’t been one in recent years. That’s exactly how the prognosticators were surprised when Clements won the election in 1978.

The political ground is shaking. Democrats will soon win statewide offices here. It could happen in 2018.

Another oddball post-primary observation came from some gloating Republicans and hand-wringing Democrats. U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, they said, only got 60 percent of the vote in his primary!

Please. In what many call the most brutal campaign in modern state history, Ann Richards was pushed into a runoff by Jim Mattox in her 1990 primary. She won the general election. Primary election numbers are largely irrelevant to general election outcomes. There are so many factors and contingencies. Election landscapes are radically altered, locally and statewide.

However, the temptation to spin the numbers your way is more irresistible than ever in the Age of Make Your Own Reality In Less Than A Minute and In 280 Characters Or Less.

Gov. Greg Abbott certainly couldn’t resist it. After the primary results were in, he tweeted, “It was widely speculated prior to the Texas Primary Election that a ‘blue wave’ of Democratic support would sweep across Texas... but in actuality, there was a ‘red wave.’” Whatever.

Before leaving this magical mystery tour, we would be wise to treat skeptically even the earthquake-tsunami metaphor too easily employed above. Only people make political change happen. Engaged, committed, hardworking people. Only losers wait on waves. Even when the ground is shaking.

Progress Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Glenn W. Smith

Adviser, Progress Texas