Thursday, February 28, 2008

It's mighty reckless....*

Much as I appreciate the attention being paid to my home state (and Texas has always had a "larger-than-life" image), all I can say is: "What took you so long?", and: "Where were you in 2000 when you needed to pay attention to Texas?"

All this attention on Texas is due to one thing: Hillary Clinton is about to lose the Democratic Party nomination. Seeing as the conventional wisdom held all along it was hers to lose, this is, of course, big political news. Nothing succeeds in news like the narrative everyone has already agreed to write. But now we're getting noticed, and this TPM Election Central post is typical of the breed. Yes, Texas is a "perplexing and complex state," thanks for noticing. It is also "strangely large," and I have to give the NYTimes credit for getting the geographic and cultural differences about right (at least in a newspaper article). There is East Texas, which is really western Louisiana; Central Texas, which is all German/Polish/Mittel Europ, and prickly in their independence (God love 'em!); North Texas is represented by the dichotomy of uber-evangelical Dallas (once home to many of the former reigning Lords of Evangelical TeeVee) and Fort Worth (the former "cowtown" known to its natives as "Foat Wuth," as in the unofficial motto of the city: "Foat Wuth, Ah Luv Yew!"). Then there's the Pandhandle, West Texas (NOT the Panhandle), the Trans-Pecos region, the Valley, South Texas, and....well, you get the idea. "Five Texases," Babe Schwartz calls it; five at least, is about right.

It is too damned big, and too durned ornery, and overall Molly Ivins (of course) described it better than anybody. And she tried to warn you about Bush, but nobody would listen then. We were just a peckerwood state which didn't bear close examination or consideration, because after all, the DC press vets Presidential candidates, not East Texas liberal journalists who actually know how to cook French food (even by the time of her death the New York Times couldn't quite believe that). Well, we are peckerwoods no more, at least for a brief time. But allow me to enlighten you, as TMP Election Central sadly does not, as to just how complex things are in Texas.

True, as TPMEC notes, Hillary has strong support among Texas "Latinos" (or whatever gawdawful label we're going to apply to a group as disparate as any group of "whites," joined only, more or less, by a common language). But what the article doesn't mention is, that doesn't do Hillary a whole lot of good in Texas. You see, the Texas primary selects delegates for the candidates, and delegates in the Texas Democratic Party are apportioned by state Senate districts, and further, apportioned according to how many Democrats voted in that district in the last 2 general elections.

Still with me? The problem for Hillary is, the districts where the Latino vote is strong are also the districts where Democratic votes are few. Obama, as the article notes, has strong support in places like Austin, where Democratic votes are very common; which means Obama stands to win more delegates than Hillary, even if she wins more votes from South Texas (or wherever; "Latinos" are present throughout Texas). Then there's the "Texas Two-Step," as the NYT article labels it: the fact that we vote for delegates in a primary, and then get to caucus on Tuesday night for the rest of the delegates, who won't finally be selected until the state convention in June. And, of course, since Texas does everything big as well as weird, we have a handful of Texas "superdelegates" (not really, but the same idea as the national non-elected delegates) who have to be selected before the national convention in August.

The NYT article explains it rather nicely, but you get the idea. Texas is big, Texas is complex, and Texas won't settle this matter next Tuesday, no matter what happens. It may put the final nail in Hillary's coffin, at least so far as her donors are concerned; but then again, it may be months before anybody knows that, either. And by then, attention will have shifted away from Texas again.

Now, why is everybody suddenly paying attention to Texas? The same reason anyone in politics pays attention to anything: power. It may be that Texas, with its 228 delegates, will decide this thing. It may also be that Democrats will win the White House. So suddenly Texas is "interesting" again. Pity it wasn't interesting in 2000, when recent history could have told everyone a thing or two about the governance, or lack thereof, of G.W. Bush. But, so it goes.

Fact is, Texas is even weirder than you think. Tex-Mex is as regional and varietal as French wines, and probably as deserving of legal protection. I have dined in restaurants with the same menu in the same town (all three part of a local chain), and could tell the difference between the meals blindfolded (there is North Texas Tex-Mex, which the northernmost restaurant served; Central Texas Tex-Mex, and South Texas Tex-Mex, each subtly represented by the restaurants in the center of town and south side. Not to mention Gulf Coast Tex-Mex, Houston Tex-Mex, East Texas Tex-Mex, West Texas Tex-Mex, El Paso Tex-Mex, and then we get into South Texas and... you get the idea.) And then there's Southern cooking (grits, greens, and fried chicken); chicken fried steak (the Texas version of wienerschnitzel), all manner of German and polish sausages; gumbos and seafood on the Gulf Coast; and the Texas obsession with red meat. And this doesn't even touch on the varieties of pecan pie. The food alone is an international smorgasbord.

People here are crazy, ornery, ignorant, friendly, kind, and flat out crazy, and apparently plumb loco for the Democratic candidates this year. Texas has been a one-party state pretty much since Reconstruction, and while it rolled over in the middle of the night from one-party Democratic to one-party Republican a decade or so ago (even after bearing the brunt of Reagan's inattention to S&L regulation; I told you we were ornery!), the numbers and enthusiasm this year must might mean Texas is at least beginning to show shades of deep purple, if not outright blue.

Early voter turnout as of February 26 in the Democratic primary is almost 512,000. To put that in perspective, the early voting turnout for both parties in 2004 was just over 272,000. The Democratic party portion of that vote was just under 166,000 Cumulative turnout for Republicans, as of February 26, 2008: just under 173,000. Hard to believe half a million voters (or more) won't make a difference in November, and early voting isnt' finished yet. It goes on until Friday, so that number will likely only climb.

But then again, Texas is ornery; and peculiar. I just wish people wouldn't take us for granted so often; or ignore the interesting results ornery and peculiar can produce. After all, who else has given the country LBJ and GWB as well as Lyle Lovett and Tommy Lee Jones? And we made Willie Nelson a household name!

That's right, you're not from Texas....

*Calm down; it's an anti-litter campaign, not a statement of state chauvinism.

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