The Texas Primary Could Decide it All

E-mail Maggie Lineback

In the year that I have lived in Texas, I have confirmed that Texans definitely go their own way. Elections are no exception. Take for example, the Democratic primary — for a brief time last year, the state was considering moving its primary up to Super Tuesday. In the end, they decided the primary should stay put, resigned that by the time Texans voted, the whole thing would be decided. What a difference a few months make. Now Texas, along with Ohio, could decide it all.

President Clinton said, while campaigning in Texas, that his wife has to win this state. That makes it sound like the contest is winner take all. It's not. Texas has a complex and daunting system of deciding how delegates are awarded. The head of the Harris County Democratic Party said it best; something along the lines of the system works great, until it matters.

For starters, Texas Democrats have both a primary and caucuses. First the primary. It seems like pretty standard stuff. You go to the polls, either in early voting or on March 4, and pick the candidate of your choice. (A footnote on early voting — it may be prescient. In the first day of early voting in Harris County, a county that encompasses Houston, about 12,000 people turned out. In the next successive days, turnout was just as big. At a state level, they're also seeing huge numbers.)

Where Texas gets tricky is how delegates are awarded. Democratic delegates aren't doled out at a state level — they are awarded by State Senate district. Each of the 31 districts in Texas gets a certain number of delegates. That number is based on voter turnout, not from this election, but the average of the elections in 2006 and 2004. Have a headache yet?

The top three delegate getters are the districts near Austin, Houston and Dallas, urban areas where Obama is generally favored. But even those areas have only eight, seven and six delegates respectively, and, as one political analyst in Austin told us — it's a big state. Texas as a whole has 126 delegates to give out on the primary.

The districts themselves are not winner take all. Obama enthusiasts like to point out that Hillary Clinton would have to win big in each district to really add to her delegate total — otherwise, it's net sum zero. For example, take a district with four delegates. To win three, either candidate would have to take a large percentage of the vote in that district, not just a majority, otherwise the delegate split evenly. Recent polls show Clinton and Obama running neck and neck in Texas.

Here's another Texas peculiarity. Once the polls close on March 4, that's when the caucuses start. It works like this. If you're a Democrat and you vote on Tuesday, you go back after 7 p.m. to caucus. The caucuses mete out another 67 delegates, but once they're decided at the precinct level, they still have to move up the ladder until they are officially awarded at the state convention this summer.

And then there are the super delegates.

Confusing or not, I will tell you the election is ALL people are talking about here. There is a sense of excitement and history in the making. That said, we are all also kind of overdosing on it. Election ads are all we hear and see on radio and TV — Iowa, we feel your pain. I look forward to March 5, when I can again turn on the television and see car and corn chip commercials.

Although predictions are dangerous stuff, I leave you with this. In Houston, I was on the 19th floor of a hotel that was right next to the Toyota Center, where Barack Obama was set to speak last Tuesday. I had a bird's eye view. It was two hours before the event and throngs of people were already waiting outside. You hear that Obama draws huge crowds, but until I saw those people that night, I really didn't have a sense of it. If they stood for hours on a weekday night to hear him speak, it's not a stretch to think they'll take ten or twenty minutes to get out and vote for him.

That said, Hillary Clinton has proven she can pull out a victory just when things look like they're headed in a very different direction.

Maggie Lineback is a Dallas bureau producer.