The Republican Conundrum
What would a McCain win mean for Texas Republicans?
The first thing to understand about Texas is that unlike any other state, even California, we operate like several separate states. Almost every part of Texas has a unique culture. There is no such thing as a campaign plan for all of Texas. Every campaign must do things differently in each region of the state. Every region has its own type of leaders. Dallas Republican leaders are very formal. West Texas Republican leaders all wear boots. The diversity tends to cut down on surprises. We will never wake up to find Jesse “The Body” Ventura elected as our governor. Voters within a given media market might go berserk and “send a message,” but it’s unlikely different regions would send the same message.
Geography and the culture it helps to engender impact elections. In broad terms, geography determines how people create wealth, which determines how they relate to government. People who live in hilly areas tend to be independent and averse to government. Cultures that grew around river bottoms tend to believe in government since their prosperity depends on cooperation.
If you correlate how much each county voted for secession in 1861 with how Democratic that county voted in 1984, you would find a very high correlation. East Texans voted almost 99 percent for secession and were still solidly Democratic in 1984. The Hill Country, mostly settled by Germans, was the only part of Texas to oppose secession; it’s still the most Republican area of the state. Midwesterners who didn’t give a hoot about the South settled the Metroplex. This area was evenly split on secession. Still, because it had no Southern roots, Dallas was able to become the first Republican urban stronghold in Texas.
I expect the effect of geography and culture on voter preference will be made clear by how well Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee does in different regions of the state. The Republican Party of Texas was not part of this Southern culture. Heck, Republicans occupied Texas during Reconstruction, and for almost 100 years Republicans couldn’t win races in Texas. As best as I can determine, after the 1964 election Republicans held only six seats in Texas: a Congressional seat in Dallas, a lone state House seat in Midland (which was taken over two years later by Tom Craddick, who is still there and thinks he has to fight the entire world), and four local seats, compared to the more than 4,000 held by Democrats at the time.
Although East Texas today is mostly Republican, it still has many pockets of yellow dog Democrats. This will be Huckabee’s base in Texas. He should take most of East Texas and some of rural North Texas. Southerners settled the Red River as far west as the Panhandle. Unfortunately for Huckabee, the rest of Texas is Southern in spirit only. Most Texas Republicans are Yankees, like I am, who want to fit in so much that we become Southerners and cowboys who learn to speak Texan. We live in upper middle-class developments with names like Circle C Ranch, in counties like Collin, Montgomery and Williamson. In fact, thanks to the ubiquity of cars and highways, and the ability to telecommute, Republican newcomers in search of the rural life are now swamping many rural areas.
Ironically, while Republican voting strength is gaining in rural and suburban areas, we are losing our urban vote. Part of this is culture. People who live in urban areas depend on government. They have special problems with education, crime, transportation and job creation and believe in help from government.
I suspect McCain will heavily win the suburban Republican vote, and the state. Huckabee does not resonate with suburban Republicans who will make up about half of our primary vote. They don’t love McCain but they are familiar with him and don’t fear him. He is a known variable. The one area of uncertainty is caused by the allocation of delegates. We are called a winner-take-all state, but that’s misleading. If a candidate wins in each of our 32 congressional districts he will get all 140 of our delegates.
But because of how diverse Texas is, it is almost impossible to win in every congressional district. Three delegates represent each district. This leads to a paradox shared by many other states. Texas has 13 congressional districts held by Democrats. Most Democratic congressional districts are in South Texas or large urban areas, yet the few Republicans who vote in those primaries elect the same three delegates to the national convention, as do the 50,000-plus Republican voters who vote in strong Republican districts. A smart candidate will figure out how to mine Republican delegates from heavy Democratic areas. This will work against Huckabee, since these areas lack the communication systems that would enable him to contact voters and win votes. I expect McCain to carry Texas with 55 percent of the vote and to win 125 of the 140 national delegates.
Now and into the future, the breakdown of both parties’ communication is a major factor in transferring power away from the established parties. When I first entered politics in 1968, both parties were strong. This is no longer true. Today parties make news only when they screw up. When is the last time the press or TV ran a story based on what a party leader said? Probably less than one percent of all voters could name a party chairman.
This isn’t because party leaders have become incompetent. It is because Internet blogs, radio talk shows and cable TV’s nonstop political analysis have almost totally replaced traditional forms of party communication. That’s a real problem, because getting recognition on the new media requires great drama and emotion. These outlets aren’t interested in problem solving, which is too boring for talk shows. Many Republicans do not understand that Rush, Hannity, O’Reilly, et al. are entertainers whose job is to make money, which they do by generating unrelenting controversy. The organizing that used to be done by the party is largely done by private groups outside the formal party structure.
Presidential elections are very different from off-year elections. I would estimate that 70 percent of the legislative seats picked up by Republicans from Democrats over the last 40 years came during presidential election years. The reason is that in off-year elections the turnout is lower and most voters tend to know and like the incumbents. In presidential elections about 50 percent more voters will turn out than in off years. These 50 percent are casting votes for a president but usually fill out the entire ballot just because they are there. They usually know nothing about the local incumbents. So their votes will at best be based on ideology and at worst simply be cast on a straight party basis. When Reagan won in 1984, Republicans picked up 17 legislative house seats.
Probably the longest-lasting impact of the 2008 primaries on the Texas Republican Party will be that our party will become even more conservative, if that’s possible. Many moderate Republicans will vote in the Democratic primary. Leadership in the Republican Party of Texas will be determined by the motivated voters who show up at precinct meetings after the polls close. Huckabee supporters will dominate those meetings and will ultimately dominate the state convention in June.
I don’t foresee a McCain candidacy changing the Republican Party of Texas, any more than, say, Bob Dole did in 1996. Dole at least was well liked. McCain ignites no passions and brings no new ideas; he will attract almost no new voters. We Reaganites fought to take over the Republican Party in 1976 and 1980. There are no McCainites waiting in the wings who want to run the Republican Party.
If there is a major change in Texas politics in 2008 it will be caused by the Democrats. Even I have been chagrined to learn that my 13-year-old son Ernesto favors Barack Obama. The world is changing.
Royal Masset is a Republican consultant based in Austin. He worked for the Republican Party of Texas from 1983 until 1999 mostly as Political Director. In 1996 he received the Campaigns and Elections Magazine Rising Star Award, the highest award given to political consultants, for helping to elect 3,000 Republicans.