The Itsy Bitsy Primaries of Texas

| Thu Aug. 18, 2011 10:08 PM EDT

In Texas, the Democratic Party is so weak that the only election that really matters is the Republican primary. But:

In the 2002, 2006, and 2010 votes in which [Rick] Perry was elected governor, only around 4 percent of the voting-age population turned out for the Republican primary.

That's....stupefying. But basically right, according to the Texas Secretary of State. In the 2000 Republican primary runoff (Perry's first gubernatorial race), 1.55% of the eligible population voted. In the 2002 primary, it was 4.01%. In the 2006 primary it was 3.94%. In the 2010 primary, turnout skyrocketed to 8.0%.

How unusual is this? I'm not sure, but I went ahead and looked up the primary turnout numbers for my state, California. We turn out about 24% of the eligible population in our gubernatorial primary elections, which are held on the same schedule as Texas. That's for both parties, so figure that's about 14% for the dominant party (Democrats, in our case), more than 3x the typical Texas turnout for their dominant party.

I don't really know what to make of this. At first I thought maybe it was because Perry was an incumbent for most of those elections, so the primary just didn't generate much excitement. But the turnout in 2000 was only 1.55%, and the turnout in the 1994 primary, when George Bush first ran, was 1.54%. Or maybe it's ballot initiatives that make the difference: we had lots of 'em and Texas didn't in those elections. But whatever the reason, Texas Republicans just don't vote much in their primaries.

Kinda weird. Harvey Tucker, professor of political science at Texas A&M, explains:

In Texas, the “people who vote in primary elections are unusual people,” Tucker stressed to me. “They are more extreme, further to the right.” In other words, Perry was able to repeatedly vault himself to the governorship largely not because he was a persuasive campaigner, but because he catered to the extreme views of a minority of die-hard conservatives.

Well, primary voters everywhere tend to be more extreme than the general population. But Texas does everything bigger, and I guess they do that bigger too. I wonder if Perry will figure that out in time?

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