Election 2018 The Anatomy of a Wave


Political Profile | By Christopher Hill –

On November 6th, there were two Democratic elected officials locally. The day after, there were 11, including the top spot in the county. If you look at the five seats where no Democrat ran against a Republican, it could – no, it would – have been even more dramatic. Decades of Republican dominance ended on that evening. The question on many minds is, “Was this an aberration, or is this the new normal for Fort Bend County?”

Since the election took place, teams on both sides of the aisle have been poring through the data pondering that very question. We sat down with Chris Elam, a retired Republican strategist who formerly served as the deputy executive director of the Republican Party of Texas. For years, Elam has been producing breakdowns of each election for those interested in reviewing the data. This year, many eyes have been on his data analysis. For this article, he provided the statistical backup but not the suppositions or analysis around the data.

“Everyone keeps looking for a silver bullet – the lone voting group that upended the numbers. It makes politicians feel more comfortable when they can identify a key sector, so then they can develop a plan for the demographic. Unfortunately, there isn’t one, unless you view volume as a single voting group.”

Volume

Democratic gains in the county, precinct by precinct. The gradient uses darker blue, which represents the biggest gains, shifting to red to represent the biggest GOP gains.

Volume is the first and most natural step to take in looking at this election. We live in one of the fastest growing areas in the nation. Since 2014, the county has added over 80,000 people, and  65% of that population is of voting age. That means in just four years, there are now over 50,000 new potential voters in the system. Of course, some do not register, and a significant sample of them do not vote, but this can begin to explain how rapid shifts in the voting pattern can occur in a relatively short amount of time.

Once we know the sample size, there are lots of ways to look at how they break politically. The least scientific method is to access various builders’ sales data to see the most significant blocks of people moving into the area to determine if there are large blocks from specific regions. As you would expect, the results vary widely based on the local geography, but there are some consistent correlations. The largest groups moving to the area come from the coasts of the United States, as well as from out of the country. Knowing the general (and this is an important term, as this is not the scientific part of this article) political bent of those areas, we can conservatively view the groups coming into the county as “lean Democratic.” For the math, we could use 60/40 as the analysis metric. In that case, there would be 30,000 more Democratic-leaning individuals in this county than there were in 2014.

To get a bit more scientific, we look at new party registrations. In 2014, there were 363,147 registered voters. They split 43% Democrat vs. 57% Republican in the 2014 midterm election. In 2018, the numbers had increased to 428,000, a gain of almost 65,000 registered voters. In the 2018 general election, the new split was 53% Democrat and 47% Republican. Elam believes that the considerable growth in registered voters indicates a significant advantage in the increase of Democratic voters since 2014.

“You can get deep into the numbers and go precinct by precinct and see the increases. There were some small gains by the Republicans in traditionally Democratic areas, but much larger gains dwarfed those increases by Democrats in traditionally Republican areas.”

Review the maps of Fort Bend that Elam provided, highlighting first, the partisan voting changes from 2014 to 2018 of the 160+ precincts that break out through the county, and second, the precincts where in 2018, Senator Ted Cruz performed worse than President Donald Trump in 2016. These maps show the changes in coloration of the county’s Democrat vs. Republican voting in just four years.

The Trump Effect

Locally, the Democrats wanted to make the election a referendum on President Trump. “Had Enough? Vote Democratic” signs were prevalent. The advertisements left some on the right scratching their heads. High growth and relatively low taxes locally were both positives, especially when looking at comparable counties across the country. The sign wasn’t about things here locally; it was meant to remind folks of the perceived dysfunction in Washington, D.C. A Pew Research study right after the election found that 64% of the population viewed Trump as a critical

consideration in their vote, and 39% of those said their vote was one against the current administration, while a much smaller number, 25%, said they were voting in the affirmative for Trump. This mirrored their survey before the election. Clearly despite not being on the ticket, the president was on the minds of those at the ballot box. Later in their survey, enthusiasm was measured. For Republicans, it was about half and half (52% to 48%), whether they were there in support of Trump or if Trump was a non-factor in their vote. On the Democratic side, a whopping 71% of those surveyed viewed their vote as a referendum on President Trump.

What about Turnout?

According to polls, the wind was at the back of Democrats. When one party has the momentum, it is often confounded by a lack of energy on the other side. Of the identified voters (the 46% of the electorate identified with one specific party), the turnout on each side was impressive. Of that known group, the Republicans turned out over 90%, a strong turnout. However, the Democrats matched and exceeded that with almost 93%. This election wasn’t about one side showing up and one side staying away from the polls. It was about the new kids on the block.

New Voters and the Beto Effect

Precinct by precinct, where Cruz 2018 underperformed Trump 2016. Darker colors indicate the largest areas of underperformance.

If we look at the county judge race, we can start to see the gaps and understand the Democrats’ advantage and how few saw the results coming. When we examine voters with a history (those who have voted in previous primaries), the GOP had a significant vote advantage in the county. However, that only tells a part of the story. Of those who voted, only 46% of them were known to be “Democrat-leaning” or “Republican-leaning.” While no one knows how people vote once they’re in the voting booth, the data is available to see who voted in a specific primary and then match them up as a lean if they then vote in the general election. The assumption is that if you voted in the Democratic primary, then you will most likely vote for Democrats in the general election and vice versa. For the 2018 election, less than half of the potential vote was known. The rest were new to the area or new to voting.

“The unknowns represented 54% of the voter pool, 140,187 voters. Coming into the election, the Republicans had an advantage of 22,817 from the known voters. The unknowns wiped that out and added at least 14,782 votes, which was the margin of victory for the new County Judge KP George. In total, it was a nearly 38,000-vote shift for the Democrats. Of those with no primary history, the margin was 63% to 37% in favor of the Democrats.”

That’s awfully close to the 60/40 generic math we used previously.

So what electrified this audience? Clearly, Trump affected the enthusiasm of the counter vote, but it was more than that. After the 2016 election, voter registrations only went up 1%. Those mortified at Trump’s rise to power motivated just a slight increase. However, there was a significant spike from November 2017 to the 2018 general election — the Beto wave. The money spent by the campaign to register, educate and mobilize was sizeable. Unconfirmed reports have over 800 paid workers statewide, which included a small staff in Fort Bend County for over eight months, firming up lists and mobilizing volunteers. In contrast, the Republicans had an established Senate candidate with a skeleton staff, by comparison, and limited public activation.

When you look at the two years from the presidential election to the midterm, 31,536 people registered to vote for the first time in Fort Bend County. This number represented 72% of the first time voters pool. The remaining percents registered to vote before the last presidential election. Since a majority of that 72% signed up in the year before the midterm (the time Beto had announced and was actively campaigning), it is not a leap to conclude that his momentum generated many of those registrations. Of course, there are other factors. The Democrats locally were more focused on legislation, and as established previously, the reelection mood of the country was leaning Democratic. However, most elections are won by enthusiasm.  Anecdotally, and through the numbers, we can see Representative O’Rourke pushed the wind into the backs of a lot of Democratic candidates.

Was This a One-Time Thing?

Will the Republicans be wandering in the desert as the Democrats had done for the past three decades? To answer this question, we first have to ask a few questions.

1. Is the growth of Fort Bend County slowing? If it is, then there will be fewer people from left-leaning locations arriving in the county. The trend line of growth for the past two decades leads one to believe that growth will be consistent until we reach a point at which the county is built-out. In 2020, there will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 new Democrat-leaning individuals in the county compared to the Republicans’ 10,000.

2. Will President Trump’s approval ratings increase? More importantly, will he be able to bring large blocks of fresh Republicans to the table, bringing increased momentum to the Republican Party? The national stage affects the local scene now more than ever. To date, there has been little growth nationally with polls showing his base remains stable but not growing. Does he have the ability to build on what he has been unable to develop so far?

3. Do you believe the newly elected Democrats will be able to serve effectively? A wave brings in all levels of talent. The Republicans created a slogan that championed their ability to lead the county. Their past results were impressive. Now a new group of politicians hold most of the reins. In 2018, the voting priority was a specific letter at the end of a candidate’s name. If the D’s falter, it could provide an opportunity for the R’s.

4. Can the Republicans find an enthusiastic candidate to evangelize? There was little fire at the top of the 2018 Republican ticket to counter “Beto-mania,” and this was noticeable. The 2020 elections bring Trump and Senator Cornyn to the forefront. In 2022, there will not be a Senator at the top, but the House may have two seats, including a new area district. Can any of these positions provide a positive updraft for Republicans?

In 2012, Barack Obama lost Fort Bend by nearly seven percentage points, which equated to almost 15,000 votes. Four years later, Hillary Clinton surprised many people by winning Fort Bend County by virtually the same number President Obama lost by. In four years, the county swung by 14 points, a considerable margin. However, Clinton had no coattails. The undercard went red, and the Republicans even picked up a seat when Vincent Morales became the new commissioner of Precinct 1.

In our last election, Representative O’Rourke may not have won, but every county Democrat who won on election day should thank him, as he brought the coattails that were not present two years ago. This combined with a volume of new voters moving in from progressive-leaning locations and their intense disdain for the president created the wave that changed our county political landscape. In a wave, there are few key points to ponder, few key demographics to target. Instead, you have to let it wash over you in victory and defeat, regroup and prepare anew. After all, 2020 will be here before you know it.

Get Your Popcorn Ready for 2022

While many are focused on 2020 and the buildup to what is sure to be a circus election, 2022 will be the far more exciting campaign season. For the local Republicans, it could be the first opportunity to have momentum at their backs.  If President Trump loses his reelection bid and the Democrats hold all three chambers, then, if history is our guide, conservatism – or some variation of it – will probably have a revival. National could influence local again, as it did in 2010 and 2018.

Even more interesting will be the new positions in the county. In 2020, we will have a census and with that comes redistricting, which again will be controlled by the Republican governor’s office. While nothing is written in stone at this point (and without delving into the potential judicial changes), new seats could include a state senator with more of Fort Bend County, a new state representative and a new congressional position in the area. Our growth, and the new voters that growth represents, will have that representation beginning in 2022.

So save your popcorn from 2020, because while that show may be entertaining to watch, the discussions behind the scene and choices in front of voters for 2022 will create one of the most dynamic and historic non-presidential year elections our county has ever seen.