What's the Deal with Texas Democrats?

The Lonestar State holds its Democratic presidential primary next week. Bennett Ross of the Houston Chronicle sorts through the local polls and the state's unusual means of divvying delegates.

ALISON STEWART, host:

So who will Texan Democrats want as their candidate? Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton? Maybe Lyle Lovett.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Yeah.

STEWART: I'm for it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: In a state that's 790 miles long, 660 miles wide with 31 primary districts in between and a slightly baffling dual primary caucus system, it is hard to predict who's going to come out the big winner on March 4th, if there is a big winner.

Bennett Roth is the Houston Chronicle's Washington correspondent.

Hey, Bennett.

Mr. BENNETT ROTH (Washington Correspondent, Houston Chronicle): Hi. How are you?

STEWART: I'm doing a-okay. So one state organizer for Hillary Clinton told the New York Times that working in Texas is like running a national campaign because of how diverse every region in the huge stat is. Can you give us sort of a snapshot, a breakdown of the demographics?

Mr. ROTH: Yes. I mean, it is almost a little bit of a microcosm. I mean, you have about 25 percent of the electorate's going to be of Hispanic, 19 percent African-American. But you also have Vietnamese and other Asian voters, and plus just the breadth of the state - I mean, El Paso is half way to Los Angeles from Huston to give you an idea how long the state is.

STEWART: That's amazing.

Mr. ROTH: And east Texas, for example, is more like the South. West Texas is maybe more like New Mexico. Huston is almost like Los Angeles. It's just an amazing state.

STEWART: So, it also has an amazing primary and caucus system all wrapped into one night. Can you help us understand what's called - what a so-called Texas two step, where there's a primary during the day and then there's caucusing at night?

Mr. ROTH: Yeah. I mean, you often get your calculators out with this. I mean, you have 31 Senate districts. The delegates are allotted based on - some of the delegates are allotted based on past performance in the districts in the presidential and Senate campaign. Therefore, some of the districts in Huston and Dallas and Austin have a large number of delegates. Many of them are African-American or have a lot of, well, you know, younger voters like Austin because of younger voters. Unfortunately, in the valley where Hillary Clinton is strongest, the Rio Grand Valley and in many Hispanic areas, voting participation has not been that high in the past, therefore they have far fewer delegates. And so that's during the day when people go to the polls. At night, people then go to their caucuses and will take some more delegates that will be finally decided, actually, allotted at a June convention.

STEWART: So it's a little bit of a use it or lose it strategy when it comes - not strategy, but a plan - either you vote and you get more delegates or you don't vote and you don't have delegates?

Mr. ROTH: Well, I mean, you vote and you get delegates and then there's more delegates. Right. If you come back to the caucus, more delegates are allotted. Not quite - not nearly as many, but there are more - and another group of delegates is allotted at, you know, after these caucuses are held after you vote. Right. So you do vote twice.

STEWART: Wow. So this - but the caucus system is a hold over, right? This has only been in place for 30 some-odd years?

Mr. ROTH: Yeah. And as one politician told me, it was devised at a time to please everyone, but they never thought they'd really have to use it. I mean, you have to remember, they haven't had a competitive democratic primary here since 1988 when Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen were on the ballet, as well as Al Gore and Jesse Jackson.

STEWART: Well, let's talk about - a little bit about those demographics that you've mentioned earlier - 25 percent of the population, Latino, 19 percent African-American. Hillary Clinton has done really well with the Latino vote, obviously, Barack Obama has done really with the black vote, receiving eight out of 10 black votes from the previous primaries. Which group do you think is going to be the swing group in Texas?

Mr. ROTH: Well, you also have, you know, a group of Anglo, white voters, many of them living, say, in east Texas. And these would be, you know, maybe working class. Many of them, you know, men and women there. Earlier polls show them going for Hillary Clinton, but Obama clearly has made some in roads.

STEWART: In terms of covering these two candidates in Texas, has either one zeroed in on something that you think is important in terms of - I mean, we've heard a lot to talk about the economy and a lot to talk about NAFTA, but of these two Democratic candidates, of all the ads, of all the stump speeches, has one of them hit the right tone?

Mr. ROTH: Well, I think…

STEWART: For Texans.

Mr. ROTH: …Obama clearly has got the excitement. You know, he comes down here -he had a huge rally in Huston, 18,000 thousand people downtown. In Austin, he had 12,000 people. And it's not a - I can't say a particular issue with him. I think it's just that people were seeing how well he was doing in other states and just - he just seems like, you know, I guess, you know, he's a fresh face.

Hillary Clinton - I mean, her emphasis on health care does resonate here. Texas has the highest rate of uninsured in the nation.

STEWART: Hmm.

Mr. ROTH: So I do think her emphasis on that issue is important.

STEWART: And she has long term roots in the state.

Mr. ROTH: She does. Way back to 1972, she came down here. She was a Yale law student. She was dating Bill Clinton then. He had come down to work on the McGovern campaign, and she came down and did vote a registration and worked all across the state but was largely based in Austin, and made a lot of friends back then. Some of them who are helping her today. Her state director, Garry Mauro, the former land commissioner is her state director now. They've been very loyal to her.

However, you have to remember, these are people - I mean, they were young, enthusiastic McGovern-ites like that back then, but they're part of the old guard now. And there's a whole new generation of Democrats coming up here who don't have allegiances to them.

STEWART: Bennett Roth is the Houston Chronicle's Washington correspondent. We're talking to him a little bit about who might be coming to the polls on March 4th and for whom they might be voting.

Now, Texas allows voters to declare party affiliation at the polls.

Mr. ROTH: Yes.

STEWART: So what's your prediction on how some Republicans might use that flexibility?

Mr. ROTH: Well, the indication are is a large trunk, as many as 25 percent in some areas, the Republicans will move over to the Democratic. It's very easy. You just in on that day and say I'm a Democrat today. And for several reasons, from my interviews, one, there is a strong dislike of Hillary Clinton among many of the conservative Republicans here, and this is - they feel a way just to knock her out. And two, the Republican campaign, the Republican primary is not very suspenseful. It's pretty clear that John McCain's going to win. And from what I can tell, there isn't an awful lot of enthusiasm for John McCain to begin with. So they'll - I guess they can have more of a role in the Democratic race.

STEWART: No - nothing for hometown fellow Ron Paul? No love?

Mr. ROTH: Poor Ron Paul. He has some support, but frankly, Ron Paul's got to concentrate on his own race.

STEWART: Right.

Mr. ROTH: Down south of Houston, he's got a spirited primary challenger down there. So he's been spending most of his time down at his district trying to shore up support.

STEWART: Bennett Roth is the Houston Chronicle Washington correspondent.

Hey, thanks for sharing your reporting with us.

Mr. ROTH: Thank you.

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