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The Lone Star Primer

Welcome to Texas: home of the most ludicrous, convoluted, and downright screwy Democratic primary system in America. Actually, it’s not even a primary; it’s a primary-caucus hybrid, the electoral equivalent of the turducken. In advance of the big March 4 primary, we’ve put together a primer to help explain the intricacies of the process.

Delegate Count
228 delegates (126 through primary; 67 through caucus; 35 unpledged superdelegates)

In-state fundraising through February 28
Hillary Clinton $4.9 million
Barack Obama $3.6 million

Demographics of Democratic primary voters
Hispanic: 37.1%
Black: 22%
White: 38.1%
Female: 51.9%
29 and under: 11%
65 and over: 26.1%
Union Members: 476,000

Latest Polls
Rasmussen (2/27) Obama 48; Clinton 44
InsiderAdvantage (2/27): Obama 43; Clinton 47
SurveyUSA (2/25): Obama 49; Clinton 45
CNN (2/24): Obama 50; Clinton 46

Why The (Ridiculously Confusing) Hybrid System Exists
Up until about 30 years ago, Texas was a strong Democratic state, and presidential caucuses--the preferred system prior to 1976--were little more than local turf wars between the liberal and the conservative wings of the party establishment. According to Dr. Patrick Cox, Associate Director for Congressional and Political History at the University of Texas, prior to the 1970s, the Texas Democrats used the “unit rule,” meaning that all delegates--often under the guidance of the governor--supported one candidate at the national convention. From about 1950 until the mid-’70s, the conservative wing dominated, most notably in the persons of governors R. Allan Shivers and John Connally, Jr.

But in the lead-up to the 1976 presidential nominations, conservative Democrats were concerned that the liberal faction was better organized--and that this would hurt the presidential aspirations of one of their own, then-senator Lloyd Bentsen. They made a forceful push for a primary, which they believed would give an edge to the more popular candidate, instead of the one with the best organization. Unable to roll the liberal wing of the party, the conservatives eventually settled on a compromise, where two-thirds of the pledged delegates (126 total) are decided by primary, and the remaining one-third (67) are decided in caucus. (Bentsen lost to Jimmy Carter anyway.)

The Primary
The Texas Democratic primary is the only one that allocates delegates by state senate district. (Most use congressional districts). The number of delegates for each of the 31 districts is not apportioned strictly by population; instead, each gets a number of delegates based on past loyalty to Democratic candidates. This year, a district’s delegate count is weighted by the percentage of support Chris Bell and John Kerry received in the 2006 gubernatorial and 2004 presidential elections.

This electoral quirk could favor Obama. In 2006, heavily Hispanic districts didn’t go heavily for Bell. For example, South Texas senate districts 20 (4 delegates), 21 (4 delegates), and 29 (3 delegates) are between 66%-78% Hispanic and supported Bell with 35%, 36%, and 37% of the vote, respectively. Bell was far more successful in comparatively white and black Democratic areas, like those around Austin (Senate District 14; 8 delegates), Houston (Senate District 13; 8 delegates), and Dallas (Senate District 23; 6 delegates).

As with other states’ primaries, there are certain voting percentages a candidate must receive in order to gain delegates. For example, in a four-delegate district (which 15 of the 31 districts are), a candidate would have to get more than 62.5 percent of the vote to get three delegates--and would need 85 percent to run the table. Given this difficult threshold, the districts most in play are the 12 districts with an odd number of delegates, since a candidate would only have to break 50 percent to gain the advantage.

One last point: The Texas Democrats and Republicans also use their respective primaries to nominate candidates for various other offices. Glen Maxey, a retired member of the Texas State legislature and volunteer adviser to the Obama campaign, explained that with McCain all but certain to win the nomination, Republicans in many solidly GOP districts may participate in the Democratic primary to affect the Democratic presidential nomination. There is some evidence that this may have occurred in the past. For example, Trinity County voted overwhelmingly in the general election for George W. Bush in 2004, with 64 percent. But in the primaries that year, Democrats got significantly higher turnout than the Republicans--3,023 to 83. In fact, more people voted on which Democratic presidential candidate to nominate than actually voted for Kerry in November. If Republicans vote in the Democratic primary, it could influence the results--they may strategically vote for Obama or Clinton depending on whom they’d prefer for McCain to run against in the general.

The Caucus
Because caucus-goers pledge their support to a specific candidate when they sign in, the Texas caucus functions like a secondary primary. One has to have voted in the primary to participate in the caucus. (As Bill Clinton put it, "[Texas] is the only place in one election that you can vote twice without going to jail.")

It is difficult to predict how many Texans will participate in this stage of the vote. Historically, Texas Democratic caucuses have had abysmal turnouts. This year, however, the caucus will play a key role determining the presidential nominee, and both nominees are actively stressing the importance of caucusing to their supporters. A record turnout is expected.

There are three phases to the caucus: the precinct caucus, which starts 15 minutes after the primaries close; the county convention caucus, held on March 29; and the state convention caucus from June 5-7. But the different stages are mostly a formality; precincts have been told to phone in their election results on the night of March 4, so we should have a good feeling for how many delegates each candidate will receive by Wednesday morning.

Adam Blinick is a web intern at The New Republic. Cara Parks is a web intern at The New Republic. Barron YoungSmith is a web intern at The New Republic.

(Thanks also to the folks at Burnt Orange Report.)

By Adam Blinick, Cara Parks, and Barron YoungSmith