All week, NPR has been focusing on Texas and our demographics and asking that question of If and When Democrats will become a force again in Texas politics.
So we thought, putting demographics aside, what signs or omens should Democrats look for to know that they have the ability to capture statewide office?
Sign 1: Sweep of all countywide offices in large voting counties.
The 15 largest counties in Texas, by voter registration numbers, are Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar, Travis, Collin, El Paso, Denton, Fort Bend, Hidalgo, Montgomery, Williamson, Nueces, Galveston, and Cameron.
Blue were won by Obama, red by Romney.
If Texas were only made up of those 15 counties, Romney would have won by 91,441 votes.
What's interesting about that list is when it comes to turnout, you would have to expand the list by 5 more counties to be able to include Cameron. In the 2012 election, the counties with the largest turnout in the presidential race (by raw numbers) were: Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar, Travis, Collin, Denton, Fort Bend, Montgomery, El Paso, Williamson, Hidalgo, Galveston, Brazoria, Nueces, Lubbock, Jefferson, Bell, Smith, and Cameron.
With those 5 additional counties, Romney's margin increases to 213,591 votes.
But back to the sign at hand...a sweep of all countywide offices in large voting counties.
Looking at the 20 largest counties by voter registration and turnout, what do we find?
In terms of countywide elected positions, Democrats hold 16 of 90 in Harris; all 67 in Dallas; 24 of 50 in Bexar; all 34 in Travis; all 37 in El Paso, all 27 in Hidalgo; 2 of 16 in Galveston; 12 of 20 in Nueces; 16 of 18 in Jefferson; and 18 of 19 in Cameron. This gives Democrats a total of 253 positions in these counties. No Democrat is elected countywide in Collin, Denton, Fort Bend, Montgomery, Williamson, Brazoria, Lubbock, Bell, or Smith.
For the Republicans, they hold 74 of 90 in Harris; 48 of 48 in Tarrant; 26 of 50 in Bexar; all 22 in both Collin and Denton; all 18 in Fort Bend; all 20 in Montgomery; all 16 (each) in Williamson, Brazoria, Lubbock, and Bell; 14 of 16 in Galveston; 2 of 18 in Jefferson; 1 of 19 in Cameron; and all 13 in Smith. This gives Republicans a total of 334 positions in these counties. No Republican is elected countywide in Dallas, Travis, El Paso, and Hidalgo.
2 things: 1) we might be off by one or two officials, but we're pretty close; 2) so we're all clear, these are the offices of judges, county judge, district clerk, county courts, etc. who are elected countywide only in said county.
Those 253 positions give Democrats 43% of the countywide offices in the 20 largest voting counties to the Republicans 334 positions and 57% of the countywide offices.
Anyone care to guess the average statewide vote for both parties in 2012?
Republicans averaged 58% and Democrats averaged 42%. Pretty darn close.
So why is a sweep of countywide offices an important sign?
Reason 1: Down ballot support.
A countywide sweep shows a party has consistent support from the top of the ballot on down. In gubernatorial elections, there are a number of statewide races down from governor. Consistent support for your candidates all the way down pull those lower statewide candidates across the finish line, in addition to the top of the ticket candidate(s).
Reason 2: Countywide sweep can only happen over 2 election cycles.
A party can sweep all the countywide races on the ballot in 1 election, but to sweep all the countywide offices takes 2 elections. What good does it do you if you can only win in presidential years? Especially when a good majority of the countywide offices and statewide offices are in non-presidential years...when turnout is lower. By taking all the countywide offices, you once again have shown you have the ability to turnout your vote.
Reason 3: Party support and enthusiasm.
Sweeping countywide consistently enough, has an effect. Suddenly officials from the opposite party start to think about staying in office...even if it means switching parties. It also helps with candidate recruitment. The message being essentially: You want to get elected, you have to play on our team. In addition, there should also follow money. You may be a Republican attorney in Dallas County, but if you know it's likely to be only Democrats who get elected for the time being, guess where some your money is likely to go?
Reason 4: Partial sweeps and close calls don't cut it.
A partial or sweep of most countywide offices doesn't cut it. It's all or nothing. And even then, it better be a convincing win. Putting on a very partisan hat, a complete sweep shows the other party that even if they put up the best candidate, they're still going to lose by a good margin.
Take our home county of Bexar. It can probably be best described as a lean Democratic county. It tilts Democratic, but a good enough Republican candidate or bad enough Democratic candidate can easily result in a Republican winning. Take 2006, 2008, and 2012. 3 good election years for Democrats. In 2006 Democrats won 11 of 17 contested countywide offices. In 2008 Democrats won 3 of 4 contested countywide offices. In 2012 Democrats won 12 of 14 contested countywide offices. Even in 2 good presidential years, Democrats in Bexar County still couldn't sweep. And the presidential result in Bexar was Obama 52% to 47% to Romney. Not good enough if Democrats want to win statewide. And it showed down ballot. Of those 2 losses in 2012 for Bexar Democrats was the incumbent Sheriff.
You could also look at Harris County in 2012. Obama barely carried the county, and it showed down ballot. Looking at the 29 contested countywide offices/races, Democrats won the first 10. After that, Republicans won 13 of the remaining 19. All told, Democrats won 16 to the Republicans 13.
In both counties, the top of the ticket underperformed and it manifested in down ballot losses. Travel north to Dallas County and you find Obama scoring about 57% of the vote to Romney's 42%. What happened down ballot? A Democratic sweep with candidates scoring between 57% and 60% of the vote.
To sum up...
Dallas County was a great start, but definitely not enough. If Democrats are to have any hope of winning statewide they need to start building margins in these larger counties. You'll know they've built these margins when they're able to sweep all the countywide offices consistently.
And we're not saying Democrats have to produce sweeps in these counties in order to be successful statewide. But if you start to notice county Democratic parties producing sweeping results in some of the larger voting counties, it's probably a sign Democrats are on the upswing statewide.