Texas Primary: Four Trends, All to Obama's Advantage

Clinton, Obama, and Texas

Photo Illustration: Everett Bogue; Photos: Getty Images


With less than a week to go before the next round of Democratic primaries, Texas is the state to watch. It’s big, it’s critically important, it’s a dead heat (Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are separated by an average of 1.2 points in the most recent polls). And, because its delegate-selection process is governed by wacky, convoluted rules that hardly anybody fully understands, it’s ripe for projections based on our special insights. Here, then, are four trends to watch — and what they mean for your favorite candidate.

The Latino Vote Could Split
What’s left of the Democratic machine in Texas is now concentrated in the heavily Mexican-American Rio Grande Valley, and Clinton has made the border a second home as she tries to amp up her support among Latinos. But guess what: There are many different Latino communities in Texas. Mexican-Americans along the border have benefited from NAFTA and are indeed showing strong loyalty to Clinton. But urban Latinos — there are now more Hispanics in the city of Houston than in the entire Rio Grande Valley — are younger and more susceptible to Obama’s appeal. Voting patterns in other states have also shown that Latinos who have been in the U.S. for multiple generations were more influenced by favorable coverage of Obama in English-language media and Ted Kennedy’s endorsement. It’s the newer immigrants who were more likely to support Clinton. Odds are that overall, Latinos will divide as they did in New Mexico, where they broke about 61-36 percent for Clinton, instead of giving her the monolithic support she is seeking.

Blacks and Students Will Generate More Delegates Than Latinos
Obama is harvesting from richer fields than Clinton, and he has the state party to thank. Next Tuesday’s primary will allocate 126 delegates, but not according to the candidates’ statewide support. Instead, they will be awarded in each of Texas’ 31 State Senate districts. (Complicating things further, not all of those districts will award the same number of delegates: Some have as few as three, while others have as many as eight, depending on the number of Democratic votes the district cast for president in 2004 and governor in 2006.)

The idea behind this breakdown is to reward heavily Democratic areas with more delegates — which isn’t, by the way, crazy. But it has produced extra representation for areas with many black voters or ultraliberals, two groups who have turned out reliably for Democratic candidates in recent years. And it has yielded fewer delegates for districts dominated by Latinos, who split among four candidates in a wild gubernatorial race in 2006, and a chunk of whom favored George W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004.

So Senate District 13 in Houston and District 23 in Dallas, which are represented by the only African-Americans in the Texas Senate, plus District 14, which includes the University of Texas at Austin, will award a combined 21 delegates next week. In contrast, the six districts who have Latino senators have a total of just 22 delegates.

Republican Gerrymandering Will Help Obama
In the early nineties, Texas went through an insane redistricting at the state level. Local Republicans re-mapped as many African-Americans as they could into a few districts, while scattering other minorities and Democrats as widely as possible. Democratic governor Ann Richards said, “They have carved up this state like a non-union meat-cutter working on a one-legged turkey,” but the plan succeeded. The GOP took control of the Texas State Senate for the first time in more than 120 years, and the redistricting inspired Tom DeLay to try something similar at the federal level.

Today, this means Obama is likely to carry heavily black districts by huge margins, winning nearly all their delegates. But he’ll still pick up chunks of delegates in other districts, thanks to proportional representation.

This is particularly true in Clinton-supporting districts that award an even number of delegates. For example, fifteen districts will award four delegates apiece. In these locales, one candidate must exceed 62.5 percent of the vote to grab three of the four delegates. If Obama loses a four-delegate district but gets anywhere from 37.5 to 50 percent of the vote, he will achieve a 2-2 split in delegates.

Texans Who Really Care Get to … Vote Twice?
Beyond the 126 delegates selected by primary voting, caucuses will award another 67 delegates. And these so-called "precinct conventions" — in which registered Democrats gather, as in a town-hall meeting, to discuss the candidates and then cast their votes — will take place after the primary polls close, at 7:15 p.m. Texas time. So Texas Dems can just wait around for everyone to finish voting in the primary or return to their polling place in the evening and … vote again. Here as elsewhere, the advantage goes to Obama, whose committed supporters and organizing skills have racked up huge margins for him in other caucus states.

Bottom Line: Clinton Could Win the Battle and Lose the War
Add up delegates district by district, and it’s quite possible Hillary could win the popular vote by 3.5 or even 8 points in Texas yet still trail Obama in delegates. Unbelievably enough, her campaign didn’t realize the dangers in the Texas system until this month, and their Texas ground game has been weak.

Clinton’s signature moment in Texas came right at the beginning of her campaign there, when she strode into a concertlike rally in El Paso on the night of February 12, greeting some 12,000 delirious supporters. It was a great appearance, but El Paso’s Senate District 29 will award only three delegates next week. Hillary is very likely to win two of them and almost certain not to win all three. So however strong her support is in the area, Clinton’s net gain out of El Paso will probably be a single delegate.

Instead of Texas, perhaps the Clintons should have looked to another March 4 contest for bulwark support, to a state with an older population and a thoroughly machine-dominated Democratic state party. Hillary’s true firewall: Rhode Island. —Peter Keating

For a complete guide to presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.