TOPICS > Politics

Diversity, Economy, Immigration Shape Race in Texas

February 26, 2008 at 6:15 PM EST
Loading the player...
The tight race between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has both candidates vying for votes in the delegate-rich states of Texas and Ohio on March 4, while GOP front-runner Sen. John McCain will try to expand his lead. Texas political journalists discuss what may sway voters in their state.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: And now we take a closer look at next week’s Texas primary with four Texas political journalists: Rick Dunham, Washington bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle; Bob Ray Sanders, associate editor and columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram; Jaime Castillo, a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News; and Brandi Grissom, the capital reporter in Austin for the El Paso Times.

Bob Ray, first of all, does the reporting on the ground in Texas support what the polls seem to be saying, that it’s close but that Obama is slightly ahead?

BOB RAY SANDERS, Fort Worth Star-Telegram: I think it does. I mean, if you just judge it from the crowds alone, Jim, you will see that there’s an enthusiasm here — I mean, in the rural areas in south Texas and west Texas, as well as in the Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston areas, it seems to me that there is a movement here, and it’s gaining in strength.

JIM LEHRER: What about in south Texas around San Antonio, Jaime, where you’re working? Is it the same kind of breakdown? Or explain it to us.

JAIME CASTILLO, San Antonio Express-News: Yes, I think if this were a football game, you know, the momentum is with Obama right now. We’re seeing a similar scenario what happened in Wisconsin, where the polls tightened up right before the race and then Obama had a victory.

And it seemed like, if you go back to the week before Super Tuesday, Hillary had about a 12-point lead. And that has shrunk to what’s basically an even race. And you would think tonight’s debate would be real key in her stemming that kind of tide and momentum.

JIM LEHRER: Brandi, what have you been seeing on your rounds, both in west Texas, also in central Texas and Austin, where you’re working?

BRANDI GRISSOM, El Paso Times: Well, certainly in Austin, Obama seems to be gaining a lot of strength. In El Paso, Hillary Clinton seems to be still pretty…

JIM LEHRER: We lost your mike. Brandi, you can maybe read my lips here. We’ll be back to you. We’re going to fix that in just a moment.

Rick Dunham, you’re involved in the whole thing in Texas. You work for the Houston Chronicle, which, of course, is south Texas, the Gulf Coast area, but what are you seeing happening?

RICK DUNHAM, Houston Chronicle: Well, in Houston, Barack Obama is running very strong. In east Texas, toward the Louisiana border, Hillary Clinton has an edge. And as you get closer to the Mexican border, Hillary Clinton does very well.

But in the Harris County area, the county around Houston, Barack Obama is way ahead right now.

JIM LEHRER: Brandi, you’re back, right? You can hear me?

BRANDI GRISSOM: I can hear you.

JIM LEHRER: And more importantly, we can hear you. So anyhow you were about to say what you’re — in El Paso and in the Austin area, tell us what you’re finding.

BRANDI GRISSOM: Well, in El Paso, we did a recent poll at the Times where it showed that Hillary and Obama are really neck-and-neck, with Hillary just slightly ahead at 33 percent.

So I think that Obama seems to be, from young voters that I’ve talked to, they’re cutting in just a little bit on her support, but she still has really strong support in El Paso, especially among some of the established Democratic leadership there.

Courting Hispanic voters

Jaime Castillo
San Antonio Express-News
[I]f [Barack Obama] can move the needle towards about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, then [he] could maybe pull off what would have been a surprise a couple months back here in Texas.

JIM LEHRER: All right. But let's go back through now, beginning with you again, Bob Ray. What are the issues here? What matters to Texas Democrats right now? How are they making the choice between these two folks?

BOB RAY SANDERS: Well, I guarantee you that the economy is a large part of that, and that's what Barack Obama's message has been when he's been here last week, and I expect him to make that same speech when he gets here later this week.

It's the economy to a great degree, but it's also immigration, of course. And I think he has walked a fine line, when you start talking about, you know, whether we secure the borders or whether we're really be compassionate when it comes to those people who are already here.

And that's what he's been doing. And I think that's why he's been winning over more Hispanic voters in the last two weeks.

JIM LEHRER: Jaime, do you agree with that, that he is making some inroads into the Hispanic vote because of the immigration positions?

JAIME CASTILLO: I would think that's a little bit of a factor, and I don't discount that. You know, the Obama people kind of came into this race thinking if they got a third of the vote, then they're in the game.

And if they can move the needle towards about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, then they could maybe pull off what would have been a surprise a couple months back here in Texas.

And I think, in addition to things like immigration and those issues, he's also just captured the narrative of this campaign. You know, this change thing, which a lot of people think is unspecific and not tangible, but it seems to be working.

JIM LEHRER: Jaime, just in general, if it's 40 percent or 30 percent of the percentage of the total vote of Democrats are Hispanic going into this, what is your estimate there?

JAIME CASTILLO: What is my estimate?

JIM LEHRER: Yes. In other words, the percentage of the Democratic vote a week from tonight, how many -- what will that be Hispanic-wise?

JAIME CASTILLO: Everyone is thinking about a third, 33 percent to 35 percent, right in that area.

Obama's lead among black voters

Bob Ray Sanders
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
[W]e saw African-Americans leave church on Sunday morning in buses and vans going to the polls to vote early....I've got a feeling that the African-American vote will have a significant impact on what the turnout will be.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

All right. Now, Brandi, what about black voters, African-Americans in the big cities around Austin, and also in Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, as well as San Antonio?

BRANDI GRISSOM: I think those voters seem to play a major role for Senator Obama in his campaign. And I think that's one of the reasons you have seen him recently focusing a lot more on cities like Austin and Dallas and Houston, where they have those urban centers with a lot of black voters, with whom he's been performing very well.

You haven't seen much of his campaign at all in the border and especially in El Paso, where he has yet to make an appearance.

His campaign is making a first really large event in El Paso tomorrow with George Lopez. So that area with Hispanic voters has fewer delegates, but some of the other big cities with black voters have a large amount of delegates.

JIM LEHRER: Rick, is -- yes, go ahead.

BOB RAY SANDERS: Jim, excuse me. What I was about to say is that the apportionment of those delegates are based on how people voted in senatorial districts four years ago.

So those urban areas like Houston and Dallas, which have large black populations, had much greater turnout than those areas in south Texas. So more delegates are going to come from there. That's one reason Obama is really focused on those areas.

JIM LEHRER: All right, I'll ask you the same question I asked Jaime about the Hispanic vote. The African-American vote among Democrats is roughly how much?

BOB RAY SANDERS: Well, in certain areas, in our area, it's about 25 percent in Tarrant County. It's closer to 35 percent in Dallas County.

But in Texas overall, what is happening, we saw African-Americans leave church on Sunday morning in buses and vans going to the polls to vote early. The early vote here is going to be tremendous. It already is. And I've got a feeling that the African-American vote will have a significant impact on what the turnout will be.

JIM LEHRER: Rick, how do you break all this down now as we go into this, in terms of -- any way you want to do it. I mean, you can do it on a racial grounds, east Texas, whatever. What makes sense, to break it down?

RICK DUNHAM: Well, I think the first way to break it down is ethnic. The African-American vote is usually 20 percent to 25 percent of the Democratic vote. A poll out today had Barack Obama ahead 85 percent to 13 percent there.

The Latino vote will be roughly a third. And as everybody has been saying, it's roughly 2 to 1 for Hillary Clinton, a little less than in some of the other states, like California.

And the non-Hispanic white vote is really split among Democrats between rural voters, who tend to be more moderate, and urban white voters, who tend to be more liberal. And Hillary Clinton is winning in the rural areas. She's winning in west Texas; she's winning in east Texas. In the cities, she's having problems with white voters and black voters, but she's holding her own among Latino voters.

Generational differences

Brandi Grissom
El Paso Times
[I]n El Paso at least, many of the older voters who have long known the Clinton family tend to vote for her and to support her campaign. And the younger voters are more interested in change, and they're responding more to the Obama message of hope.

JIM LEHRER: What about -- how does the gender break down?

RICK DUNHAM: There is a huge gender gap. Again, I was looking at the polling numbers that have come out in the last week, and there's a 40-point difference. Barack Obama has a 20-point lead among men, even more than 20 points; Hillary Clinton has roughly a 20-point lead among women.

So there is a huge difference there. There's also a huge age difference. Voters who are Barack Obama's age or younger favor him by more than 20 points. A poll came out today showed voters as old as John McCain or older favor Hillary Clinton more than 70 percent to 22 percent.

JIM LEHRER: Regardless of their gender and regardless of their race?

RICK DUNHAM: That's right. Exactly.

JIM LEHRER: In general terms?

RICK DUNHAM: Among the oldest voters, Hillary Clinton has a higher percentage among African-Americans. Among younger African-Americans, it's single-digit.

JIM LEHRER: Brandi, is that being reflected in your reporting where you're doing your reporting, as well, that this age thing is as important as anything, at least as a division point, is a major factor?

BRANDI GRISSOM: I think that's absolutely one of the factors that I've seen. Reporting in El Paso at least, many of the older voters who have long known the Clinton family tend to vote for her and to support her campaign.

And the younger voters are more interested in change, and they're responding more to the Obama message of hope. So that's what I've seen regardless of ethnic breakdown there.

JIM LEHRER: Jaime -- yes, go ahead.

BOB RAY SANDERS: I've got to tell you, this is breaking down families. I mean, we have two representatives here, the Lucio family, where the father is a state representative, as well as the son, and they're divided. The father is for Hillary Clinton; the son is for Barack Obama. And I am seeing that, you know, anecdotally everywhere I go.

Determining the Democratic nominee

Rick Dunham
Houston Chronicle
Barack Obama can lose Texas and still win the nomination. Hillary Clinton, if she loses Texas and Ohio, it's hard to see how she could catch up in delegates.

JIM LEHRER: Jaime, the conventional wisdom is that this is make-it-or-break-it in Texas for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, more so for Hillary Clinton. She's got to win in Texas. And if Barack Obama does win in Texas, then it's make-or-break in this whole nomination campaign. Do you all sense that in Texas yourselves?

JAIME CASTILLO: Yes, I just sense it because, you know, she's making the argument heretofore that, "Barack, yes, he's won all these small states, but I've been winning all the big states." And if Barack Obama can take a state like Texas from her, you know, even Bill Clinton on the stump has been alluding to the fact that she has to win Texas and Ohio. He didn't say Texas or Ohio; he said Texas and Ohio. So you do sense it.

JIM LEHRER: Do you pick up that, too, Rick, that people in Texas who are involved in the political process, even as voters, they know this is an important day?

RICK DUNHAM: Right. And as the others were saying, it's important for Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama can lose Texas and still win the nomination. Hillary Clinton, if she loses Texas and Ohio, it's hard to see how she could catch up in delegates.

And the Clinton people know it. Yesterday, I was at a breakfast with Harold Ickes. And he tried to walk back what Bill Clinton said about the need for her to win both states. He was saying that if she lost both states, then she'd have to think about it. But he left it open to a split that she would continue.

JIM LEHRER: Brandi, are you picking up the same thing, that this nomination could rest on what happens in Texas?

BRANDI GRISSOM: I think so. And I think you can see that mainly in the early voting turnout, which has just exploded all over Texas.

But in El Paso County alone, turnout as of Sunday, in just the first week of voting, was at 28,000, which is almost three times as much as it was just in the election in 2004. So I think voters really realize that and are headed to the polls to make their voice heard.

JIM LEHRER: Bob Ray, is the early voting -- you're doing a lot of early voting in Tarrant County or the Dallas-Fort Worth area, as well?

BOB RAY SANDERS: Oh, it's incredible. In the 15 largest counties of this state, 360,000 people have already voted early in the Democratic primary alone, 120,000 in Republicans.

In Tarrant County, we've had over 36,000 Democrats vote early voting, and that would have been like 13,000 in 2004. So it's 3 to 1 in some cases, 9 to 1 in other cases, early voting now to compare it to four years ago.

JIM LEHRER: Rick, finally, before we go, is there that much action in Texas on the Republican side between McCain and Huckabee, anything going on?

RICK DUNHAM: There's not a lot. I've noticed a difference in the past week, where last week it was pretty close. This week, almost all the polls have double-digit leads for McCain. I think the New York Times helped John McCain a lot with bringing conservatives back in.

But a lot of people in the middle are going to vote in the Democratic primary, either because they want to end Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign once and for all or some of them actually will be voting for Barack Obama.

But I think a lot of Republicans will decide that the Republican nomination fight is over and they want to do what they can to defeat Hillary Clinton while they have a chance.

JIM LEHRER: But it's a good point for the record that this is an open primary.

RICK DUNHAM: Exactly.

JIM LEHRER: And you don't have to be a Democrat to vote in the Democratic primary, as you do in some of these. Anyhow, well, thank you all four. Good to talk to you.