Reality Check: Will Clinton Win Texas?

The third in a series of four posts in which Stumper reality-checks the Democratic contest. Stay tuned for Ohio later today.

UPDATE, 12.19.08: The polls are getting closer. Survey USA has Clinton leading by five percent--and CNN pegs the gap at two. Hold on, buckeroos. This is going to be a wild ride.

For Hillary Clinton, February has been the cruelest month. So far, she has lost eight straight nominating contests, and faces two more on Tuesday that Barack Obama is favored to win. Not that any of this is a surprise. After Super Tuesday, her staffers made it clear that they didn't expect Clinton to capture any of the February match ups. Her sights, they said, were set on March 4, when Ohio and Texas will award a combined 389 delegates. "Meet me in Texas," she said on the night of the Potomac Primary, challenging Obama. "We're ready." She was speaking from El Paso.

There's no doubt that the demographics of the Lone Star State are favorable to Clinton. She typically trounces Obama three to two among Latinos, who in 2004 made up 24 percent of the Texas primary electorate and are expected to turnout in record numbers next month. And 73 percent of those who voted in the 2004 primary made less than $75,000 a year, playing to Clinton's strength among blue-collar Dems. What's more, she has a 30-year head start in the stateafter volunteering there for McGovern in 1972 and visiting repeatedly as First Lady (her husband's efforts to reach out to Latinos don't hurt). So far, the polls reflect these advantages, pegging her post-Potomac Primary lead at a hearty 10.3 percent.

All of which makes it seem as if Clinton has Texas by the horns. But don't count Obama out yet. He has two "secret weapons" in the state--and if they work as planned on March 4, he could very well finish strong enough to break Clinton's firewall and maintain his momentum heading into the spring.

1) Younger Latinos:

As Henry Cisneros, a Clinton backer who was the mayor of San Antonio and a cabinet member in her husband's administration, told my NEWSWEEK colleague Arian Campo-Flores, much of Clinton's Texas strategy is based on brand loyalty, which is "unusually" strong among Latinos. Obama, the thinking goes, may be "new"--but who the heck knows if he's "improved." "Down here, con la gente [with the people]... Obama is not recognized through the rank-and-file raza," says Paul Elizondo, a county commissioner in San Antonio who's endorsed Clinton. "We have a saying here: 'El no trae nada.' He's never done anything for anybody here."

The thing is, many Texas Latinos may be too young to care. The average Hispanic voter in the state is under 40--a number that's sure to sink closer to 26, the average age of Hispanics statewide, if turnout increases as predicted. (Everyone wants to participate when the primary actually counts). As in Arizona, where Obama won 45 percent of the Latino vote largely on the strength of his youth support, the campaign is hoping this new generation of voters is more receptive than its elders to the candidate. One encouraging sign: newly elected Brownsville state Rep. Eddie Lucio III, 29, has broken with his father, longtime state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., to support Obama over Clinton--"even though he grew up looking at family photos of his parents and grandparents with the Clintons." "Those memories and those links and those ties, to a lot of young people who have been voting for only a few years, have been lost on them," says Juan Garcia, a Harvard Law School classmate of Obama's and now a first-term legislator in Texas.

Team Obama is hammering the generational divide hard, devoting one of its two ads airing in Latino radio markets to younger voters. "Obama is talking to me about the opportunity to go to college, and about ensuring my parents and grandparents have the healthcare they need," it says. "That's why I'm talking to others -- my parents, my uncles, and my friends" about supporting Obama. And they're citing former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk as a case study of why the much-discussed "tensions" between blacks and Latinos may be exaggerated. An Obama-esque African American pol who's now advising the campaign, Kirk not only won about 70% of the Latino vote in his mayoral runs--he also beat out a Latino candidate and a member of the powerful Bentsen political family in the 2002 U.S. Senate primary and went on to carry the heavily Latino Rio Grande Valley in the general election.

Will this put Obama over the top with Latinos? Probably not. But it may be enough to neutralize Clinton's advantage--especially considering...

2) The System 

... the rules governing Texas's nominating contest are almost guaranteed to funk Clinton and favor Obama. For starters, only two-thirds of the state's 193 pledged delegates will be awarded through the primary process. How will the other third be divvied up? In 8,000 caucuses that take place after the polls close--and are only open to people who voted in the primary. Thanks to his aggressive on-the-ground organizing and passionate, upscale supporters, Obama tends to dominate caucuses (he's won 10 of 11 so far); the overworked, underpaid blue-collar Dems in Clinton's base are less likely to vote during the day and return at night to slog through time-consuming rounds of alignment and realignment. Secondly,Democratic turnout in 2004 and 2006 determines how delegates are distributed over 31 state Senate districts--meaning that there simply aren't enough delegates at stake in heavily-Hispanic, low-voting South Texas for Clinton to rely on big margins there. By one analysis, Clinton could win the state's 10 most-Hispanic districts 60 to 40 percent and still emerge with just a two-delegate advantage among Hispanics statewide, while wins in high-turnout Dallas and Houston--where Obama expects to receive significant support--could yield three or four times as many delegates. (Overall, blacks should account for 20 percent of primary voters, and Latinos roughly the same--giving Obama an organizational advantage.) Finally, the state's primary is open to Republicans and Independents--groups that Obama has been winning three- or four-to-one.

This is not to say that Clinton won't "win" the Lone Star State--she very well may. But if Obama can cut into her Latino support over the next few weeks--he's built from 26 percent in Nevada to 36 percent on Super Tuesday to 54 percent in Virginia--the rules will make it very difficult for Clinton to emerge from Texas any closer in the overall delegate count, even if she captures more votes. At this point, it's unclear whether a popular-vote victory will be enough to propel her forward--or if Obama's 140-delegate edge will still be the story of the day.