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How the Texas Presidential Primaries Work Print E-mail
by Will Lutz    Mon, Feb 18, 2008, 10:19 am

It’s always amusing to see the national media try to report on Texas government and politics. Usually, national outlets get it about half-right.

Much of the national media, looking ahead to the March 4 primary, seems  to have handed the state to Hillary Clinton. The theory propagated in the popular press seems to be that Clinton’s voting strength among Latinos will carry her to victory here..

But that theory shows an alarming lack of understanding of how the Texas Democratic Party apportions delegates and how the process works. It is certainly true that Clinton has significant support in Texas. She may win here.

But Barack Obama is giving her a run for her money, and the outcome is anything but certain.

Here’s a quick overview of how the process works, along with some observations:

Proportional representation means it is unlikely one candidate will get many more delegates than the other. The rules of the Democratic National Committee require all states to award delegates proportionately. There are no winner-take-all states on the Democratic side.

Winning Texas is important for establishing national momentum. But it’s unlikely either candidate will win the state convincingly enough to get close to the majority of delegates required to cinch the nomination.

Of Texas’s 228 delegates, 32 are “superdelegates” and may vote for whomever they please. These include former U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright and all Democratic members of Congress from Texas. Additionally, all members of the Democratic National Committee (all of whom will be elected at the Democratic State Convention June 6-7 in Austin) are superdelegates. Three more unpledged delegates will  be elected at the state convention (unpledged meaning they don’t have to vote for a particular presidential candidate).

The remaining 195 delegates are pledged, meaning they are bound to vote for a specific  candidate.  Of those, 25 are party leaders and elected officials and 42 are elected at-large delegates. The actual delegates themselves, chosen at the state convention,  are based on the proportion of state convention delegates pledged to a particular presidential candidate.

The final 126 delegates (slightly more than half the delegation) are based on primary results, but all are allocated by state Senate district, in proportion to the vote received by the candidate in that district.

In other words, where  a presidential candidate’s votes come from is almost as important as the statewide aggregate total of votes.

Bottom line: a candidate would have to achieve a blowout in the Texas primary (greater than 60 percent) to get a lop-sided margin of delegates. The final delegate count won’t be certain until the state convention, and it will likely be roughly equal between the two candidates (which has been the trend in other states).

The allocation of delegates by Senate district favors Austin, inner-city Houston, and inner-city Dallas, which likely helps Obama. National delegates are apportioned to the state Senate districts based on the number of total votes received by Chris Bell in 2006 and John Kerry in 2004 in that district. We’re talking about actual votes, not share of the votes.

Senate districts are drawn based on total population, not eligible voters. That means children and illegal immigrants and convicted felons count the same as eligible citizen voters in drawing district lines. Hence, there are several districts, mostly in South Texas,  where the Democratic candidate’s share of the vote is extremely high but the actual number of votes isn’t.

This leads to some rather surprising results. The Senate districts represented by  Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio), Juan Hinojosa (D-McAllen), Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), and Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) all have four national delegates allocated to them. The Senate district represented by Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio) has six delegates allocated to it.

The Uresti, Hinojosa, Zaffirini, and Van de Putte districts are all solidly Democratic. Bell and Kerry received a higher share of the vote in these districts, but they received more actual votes in Wentworth’s district, because turnout is higher.

The four highest delegate counts are the Senate districts represented by Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) with eight delegates, Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) with seven, and Royce West (D-Dallas) and Wentworth with six each. Watson, Ellis, and West have all endorsed Obama. The Senate district represented by Sen. Mario Gallegos (D-Galena Park), by contrast, has three delegates.

Even if the theory from the national media is accurate, there are many fewer delegates to be had in South Texas and the areas where Clinton is strong than in other parts of the state. To win big with Texas delegates, one has to do well in Austin, Houston, and Dallas. It is not, therefore, coincidental that Obama wanted the Texas debate in Austin.

The endorsements have split every which way. People are coming out of the woodwork to endorse in the Democratic presidential primary:  too many to list here. But both candidates can claim  the support of a diverse group of Texas elected officials.

House Democratic Caucus chairman Jim Dunnam is backing Obama; Senate Democratic Caucus chairwoman Van de Putte is backing Clinton. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee is with Clinton, while U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson is with Obama. The endorsements are all over the map.

In a nutshell, while the Texas primary certainly matters, the Democrats may not have a winner after March 4 unless one or the other candidate pulls away.

So what about the Republicans? The status of John McCain has made the Republican contest slightly less interesting. Texas may well be Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s last stand. The Republican rules are simpler. Each congressional district gets three delegates. If one candidate gets a majority, all three delegates are pledged to that candidate. If not, it’s proportional, provided more than one candidate gets at least 20 percent.

At-large delegates (41) are all awarded to a candidate winning a majority of the statewide result, or proportionately if no one gets a majority. The state chairman and the two members of the Republican National Committee are delegates and may vote for the candidate of their choice.

The question for Texas is, can McCain finish Huckabee off here? Many prominent social conservatives are backing Huckabee, but McCain is very close to mathematically clinching the nomination.

How does this affect the down-ballot races?  That’s a wild card. With saturation coverage, it’s likely turnout in the Democratic primary will be dramatically higher, with lots of independents voting.

But will those new voters go all the way down ballot, or will they vote for president and leave? And how would they vote if they did vote, particularly in the primaries where a pro-Craddick Democrat is facing an anti-Craddick challenger? There’s no precedent.

Another question is the way higher turnout among Democrats affects the Republican primary. It is widely believed in Austin that school employees who normally vote Democrat have tried to help the Texas Parent PAC by voting in the Republican primary for the PAC’s preferred candidate. With a real race on the Democratic side, some of these folks may stay home.

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