Thanks largely to a huge surge in Democratic turnout, Texans in the 15 largest counties have smashed the record for early voting in a non-presidential year, raising Democratic hopes that they will benefit from an excitement gap in the fall.
“The one thing you have to measure is, are our people enthusiastic now compared to their people, and the answer is a resounding, ‘Yes,’” Ed Espinoza, executive director of Progress Texas, which provides research and strategy to help elect Democrats, said Sunday.
While there is no necessary correlation between primary and general election turnout, more than twice as many people voted early in the Democratic primaries in 2018 as in 2014, while Republican early voting crept up by 15 percent, according to final figures posted Saturday by the Texas Secretary of State’s office. Altogether, 885,574 Texas voted in person or by mail over the 11 days of early voting, which ended Friday. The primary is Tuesday.
That figure is up from 592,153 early votes in the comparable period before the 2014 March primary in the last midterm elections — a nearly 50 percent increase.
In 2014, Republican participation outpaced Democratic participation — 365,423 voters to 226,730. This year, participation in Democratic primaries outstripped participation in Republican primaries — 465,245 to 420,329.
Joshua Blank, manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, cautioned that looking at elections between 1998 and 2016, there is no evidence of a relationship between partisan primary turnout and general election performance, and that out of the three elections in the last 20 years in which Democrats held a primary participation advantage, in 1998 and 2004 the Republican electoral advantage turned out to be larger than in any other elections over that span of time.
Of this year’s early voting totals, Blank said, “Democrats looking more enthused than usual doesn’t mean Republicans are less enthused than usual. They look just as enthused or more enthused than usual, just not as enthused as the Democrats, and in normal elections, Republican turnout is just so much more consistent than the Democratic turnout. Maybe this is the time that’s different.”
The biggest single reason why more Democrats may be turning out to vote than in the past is that they have more to vote for — 1,844 candidates compared to 1,365 candidates two years ago, according to figures compiled by the Texas Democratic Party. For the first time in at least 25 years, Democratic candidates are running in every congressional district — 111 candidates in 36 districts. There are 180 Democratic candidates running for 133 state House seats, and 24 Democrats competing in 14 state Senate districts.
“What it really means for sure is that a lot of Democrats who vote in the generals but don’t always vote in the primaries are now voting in the primaries, which shows Democrats are enthusiastic, they’re paying attention, the party is able to draw them out,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist in Austin.
“They’re blowing up the early voting numbers from the last midterm, they’re showing up in droves,” said Steinhauser, who managed U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s 2014 re-election campaign. “It’s double what it was in 2014,” when Cornyn beat Democrat David Alameel by 27 points and Greg Abbott beat Wendy Davis by 20 points.
“It’s going to be lot tougher this cycle,” Steinhauser said.
“The midterm elections are a referendum on the party in power,” said David Carney, Abbott’s chief strategist, who said that it hardly matters who the Democrats run for governor.
“They are not going to have any influence in this race,” Carney said. “It’s all going to be the national forces, what’s going on in the media, quite honestly, the national media, which is focused on the drama of what is going on every day in Washington and that is the environment we are going to be dealing with.”
In Travis County, 61,772 people early voted on the Democratic side, and 21,483 voted on the Republican side. Four years ago, 23,088 people voted early on the Democratic side, and 17,249 voted early on the Republican side.
Early voting this year in the Democratic contests was so high in Travis County that it slightly exceeded participation in 2016, a presidential year, when 61,104 residents voted early in the Democratic primaries and 32,350 participated on the Republican side.
The same was true in Williamson County, where, while more people voted early in the Republican primaries than in Democratic ones this year, turnout on the Democratic side was well more than three times greater than four years ago, and higher than it was in 2016.
More than 1.1 million Texans voted early in the largest fifteen counties in 2016.
Derek Ryan, an Austin-based political consultant and former research director of the Texas Republican Party, who tracks early voting in the 20 counties with the largest Republican vote, found that first-time primary voters made up 10.8 percent of all early voters in the Republican primary, and 23.7 percent of early voters in the Democratic primary.
The average age for a Republican early voter was 62.8 years old. The average age for a Democratic early voter was 55.7 years old. Voters aged 30 and younger made up 9.3 percent of the early voters in the Democratic primary, but only 3.2 percent of the early voters in the Republican primary. Women made up 59 percent of Democratic early voters, and just under half of Republican early voters.
Espinoza estimates that under normal circumstances, Texas Democrats will fall “500,000 votes shy of flipping Texas,” this fall, unless they can get a third of the 1.5 million Democrats who vote in presidential elections but not in midterms to the polls, and that the surge in early voting augurs well.
“This is where the rubber meets the road for the Democratic Party in a way that is probably more true than in previous elections,” Blank said. “The question is can they turn this perception of momentum into some unexpected electoral victories or at the very least, narrow losses where people didn’t expect them. That’s what needs to happen now. “
“The Democratic Party in Texas needs to make use of this and leverage this for this election and the next one, and they will have nobody to blame but themselves if they don’t do that,” Blank said.
CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to indicate that for the first time in at least 25 years, Democrats are running in all the state’s congressional districts, which now number 36, and that 111, not 110 Democrats, are competing in those 36 districts.
Early voting in 15 largest Texas counties
Democrats: 226,730 voters
Republicans: 365,423 voters
Democrats: 465,245 voters
Republicans: 420,329 voters