Pieces of Texas Turn Primary Into a Puzzle
Pieces of Texas Turn Primary Into a Puzzle
By RANDY KENNEDY
Published: February 26, 2008
CRAWFORD, Tex. When Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton
issued her gunslingers invitation to Senator Barack
Obama recently, challenging him to meet me in Texas,
the question many people here asked was, Which one?
The frontier-conservative Texas of Amarillo, in the
Panhandle, where former President Bill Clinton stumped
for his wife this month, sharing the civic center with
the annual gun show? The vast, immigrant-heavy Texas
of Houston, where more than 100 languages are spoken
in the citys schools?
Maybe the one of East Texas, with its Deep South
ethos, a region one Democratic consultant described as
being more like Mississippi than Texas? Or the
profoundly unpredictable one found here, in the
central part of the state, among the most heavily
Republican areas in the country (and home to President
Bushs ranch), yet represented in Congress by Chet
Edwards, a well-liked Democrat who recently endorsed
Its like running a national campaign, said one
veteran Texas Democrat, Garry Mauro, state director
for Mrs. Clinton. There are no similarities between
Amarillo and Brownsville and Beaumont and Texarkana
and El Paso and Austin and Houston and Dallas. These
are very separate demographic groups with very diverse
In a 1968 essay, Larry McMurtry wrote that Texas was
divided but not yet fragmented to a degree that would
raise difficulties for the novelist. Forty years
later, you could sympathize with the writer, but you
should feel really sorry for the presidential
candidate, trying to make sense of a state as large as
New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and North
Carolina combined, and probably even more diverse.
With recent polls showing that Mr. Obama has cut
deeply into Mrs. Clintons lead in Texas, or even
erased it, the state has become a political
battleground to a degree not witnessed in a
generation. And the rapidly mounting fight has
reminded national political strategists yet again of
Texas strange largeness or large strangeness a
state that Congress decided in 1845, the year it
joined the Union, might well be later divided into
four more states should it consent.
That provision stemmed from the debate over slavery,
but it was an acknowledgment of the states unwieldy
size and stark geographical differences, from prairie
towns with plainly descriptive names like Notrees and
Levelland to the swamps and cypress forests of the Big
Thicket National Preserve in the southeast to coastal
towns like Galveston, with old Victorian neighborhoods
reminiscent of San Francisco.
Five Texases is about right, maybe a couple more,
said A. R. Schwartz, known as Babe, a Democrat who
represented much of the Texas coast, including
Galveston, in the Legislature for a quarter-century.
You could say theyre just physical differences, but
they do create differences in the people.
Even within each region, the campaign calculus can be
My senatorial district was a nightmare, said Mr.
Schwartz, who now works as a lobbyist, describing how
he courted coalitions of voters in both densely urban
and extremely rural areas, home to family farms and
massive oil refineries, with large Hispanic and
African-American populations and even a small Jewish
one, to which he belonged. And then you didnt forget
to think about whether you were talking to a Baptist
or a Catholic, he said.
Laid on top of the complicated statewide map, 790
miles long and 660 miles wide at its farthest points,
there are others, like the one studied with
scientific precision now by both campaigns that
divides Texas into 31 primary-election districts and
apportions delegates according to a formula based on
the Democratic voter turnout in those districts in the
2004 presidential election and the 2006 election for
The higher the turnout in a district, the more
delegates it has to offer, meaning that urban areas
like Austin where Mr. Obama has been received in
recent days with the kind of fervor usually accorded
only Willie Nelson will award a large number. The
Austin district has eight delegates at stake, while
the district that includes Brownsville, a heavily
Hispanic area in which Mrs. Clinton has deep roots as
a Democratic organizer, will award only three.
We have grown men crying over it, Mrs. Clinton said
recently of the byzantine rules of the system, which
also includes caucuses, leading people here to refer
to March 4 as primacaucus night or the Texas
Texas is also separated into 20 media markets, among
the most of any state in the country, with the added
necessity of buying advertisements in Oklahoma and
Louisiana if you want to cover every corner of it.
Representative Edwards said that to reach all the
voters in his long, irregularly shaped district, he
would need to buy air time in five markets.
I spent $3 million in each of my last two campaigns,
and I didnt even buy media in Houston and Dallas in
those campaigns, said Mr. Edwards, whose recent
endorsement of Mr. Obama is seen as significant here
because Mr. Edwards is viewed as a coalition builder
able to survive in a place where Democrats are few and
One of them is Ben Kerr, 66, a medical clinic
administrator in Waco who was eating lunch there
Friday at a venerable old diner that serves Tater
Tots, shakes and dripping burgers but is incongruously
called the Health Camp. Mr. Kerr described living for
many years east of Houston in Port Arthur, which he
said many people considered the true capital of
Louisiana because of its Cajun population. But he now
considers himself a man of Central Texas, and as part
of a smaller area around Waco with a deeply
He said he had not yet decided between Mrs. Clinton
and Mr. Obama but was leaning that morning, after
watching their debate the night before, slightly
toward Mr. Obama. Change sounds good, he said.
Washington is just a mess.
Maybe Hillary has too much experience, he added.
Maybe shes been up there too long.
Juan Rodriguez, a Crawford-area ranch worker who grew
up near Acapulco but has lived in Texas for more than
20 years, is a good example of the areas
unpredictability for the campaigns. He is 38 and by
conventional wisdom should probably support Mrs.
Clinton, who has the backing of many influential
Hispanic politicians in the state. But as he gassed up
his pickup, Mr. Rodriguez said he would vote for Mr.
Obama, explaining that he found him more knowledgeable
and more trustworthy on immigration issues.
Bruce Buchanan, a professor of political science at
the University of Texas, said that the state had
always been a complicated, counterintuitive place to
campaign but that as populations and allegiances
shifted more Hispanic voters concentrating in urban
areas, for example, reducing their influence in the
Rio Grande Valley the regional differences had
become even trickier.
Some people have wondered, for example, why Hillary
has gone to El Paso, which is 75 percent Hispanic, and
not spent more of her time elsewhere, maybe in bigger
urban areas trying to fight for votes there, Dr.
Buchanan said. She and her team didnt see it that
way, and theres undoubtedly a lot of thinking behind
it. There are all kinds of these double feints going
on now as they try to outstrategize each other.
Mr. Mauro, the Clinton state campaign director, said
the states importance to both campaigns was
ultimately about much more than delegates. It has
emerged as a near-perfect proving ground for
Democratic candidates to make the case that they can
win in November.
Youve got to carry a big, diverse state if you want
to be the nominee of the national Democratic Party,
he said, adding of Mr. Obama, He hasnt done that
So I would suggest he has as much at stake here as we
do, Mr. Mauro said, adding that at least one thing
about Texas remained predictable: It has always
appreciated a good old-fashioned showdown.
If you cant keep more than one ball in the air, he
said, you dont deserve to be in this business.