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Election 2008: Previewing the Texas Primaries

Chuck Lindell
Political Reporter, Austin American-Statesman
Monday, March 3, 2008 1:00 PM

Austin American-Statesman political reporter Chuck Lindell was online Monday, March 3 at 1 p.m. ET to take your questions on the Democratic and Republican primaries and caucuses in Texas on Tuesday, and how things look in the state for November.

The transcript follows.

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Chuck Lindell: Hi everybody. I hoped to start by bragging about the Texas weather, but it's in the mid-40s and drizzling. Anyway. politics is more interesting, especially with our split primary-caucus system for Democrats. Let's begin.

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San Francisco: How long has Texas Democratic Party had this primary-plus-caucus system now called the "two-step," and why is Hillary Clinton's campaign threatening legal action because of it? Thanks for chatting today, I appreciate your taking the time out of what must be a very busy day!

Chuck Lindell: We've been doing the primary-caucus thing now for 20 years -- it just never mattered before because every nomination has been in the bag, or near enough, by the time the Texas primaries rolled around. I can talk more about why we do it later, because your second question is intriguing.

The lawsuit threats came during conference calls between the state party and both campaigns. The Clinton folks say no, they never threatened to sue -- they just reserved the right to sue if things don't work out in the caucuses.

The party leadership decided to nip this in the bud, sending letters to both campaigns noting that a lawsuit would be a great way to kill the momentum and voter support ginned up by such a hot primary. The party got what it wanted -- a commitment from both sides that a lawsuit would not be contemplated.

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Annapolis, Md.: So who's going to win? It seems that the story has become "too close to call," so which surprising result is more likely: a big win for Clinton or a big win for Obama? Also, how big a dent will Huckabee make?

Chuck Lindell: Oh, if I only knew who was going to win. That would make tomorrow's deadline a snap. Polls do show a tight race, but one thought on polling: With all due respect to pollsters (I learned that phrase from politicians), when turnout is this high, this unprecedented, I think it becomes very difficult to track voting trends.

But in the polls, you see a spread of Clinton up by 6 points to Obama up by 3 points.

I think any big win would be surprising. A big win for Obama would be more surprising, though, because he came to Texas down anywhere from 20 to 10 points. But that's quoting those darn polls again.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon! I wonder if you'd like to comment on Howard Dean's 50 State strategy, and its effect on the Obama campaign, and how it might play out in Texas in 2008 and in the state legislature (redistricting!).

Chuck Lindell: I'll turn your question around a little bit to a more Texas-centric one, because even our egos are bigger in Texas.

Democrats in Texas have high hopes that the excitement generated by the primary will translate into down-ballot victories in November. In their wildest dreams, they see a victory in a statewide race for the first time in more than a decade. Your more conservative voices (you know, for Democrats) see a chance to win farther down the ballot -- like the district court judges in Houston, who almost but not quite defeated the Republican judges in 2006.

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New Hampshire (via Austin and Abilene, Texas): I'm glad my family down in Texas finally got a taste of what we go through every four years, with the ads and the phone calls and all the other trappings of a vibrant presidential primary campaign! My question looks ahead, to ask what Texas voters would think of Kay Bailey Hutchison as a vice presidential candidate?

Chuck Lindell: Sen. Hutchison has had no problem getting re-elected in Texas, so sure, Texas GOP voters would love to see her on the ballot. I'm not sure the rest of the nation is ready to see a Texan that close to the White House. And besides, Texas and its electoral votes are pretty safely in the Republican column come November, so there's no percentage in choosing a Texas running mate. Now, a woman running mate -- that could be the thing, huh?

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Paris: As it appears that Sen. John McCain already has secured his place as the Republican party's nominee, are many Texas Republicans expected to use their votes to influence the outcome in the Democratic nominees' race? To what extent have their experiences with the tenure of George W. Bush changed Texans' -- and in particular, Texas Republicans' -- views of him and of his policies for the worse?

Chuck Lindell: The Obama campaign definitely is hoping their candidate's crossover appeal brings Republicans into the Democratic primary. (In Texas, you can choose whichever party's primary you want to vote in.) But I don't think voters think like party activists. I don't see too many using their vote to seek political advantage by jumping into the Democratic primary.

As for Bush's impact on the local Republicans, I saw a poll a couple of weeks ago that put the president's favorable rating much higher than the national average. That's about all the light I can shed on that subject, except for this: I know of no state politicians tying themselves to the Texan in the White House. That speaks volumes.

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Frederick, Md.: How big is the early vote expected to be? Will it significantly dampen any late momentum Obama has generated?

Chuck Lindell: Early voting ended Friday, and for Democrats it was eye-popping -- in the 15 largest counties, more than 890,000 people voted early. You can extrapolate a total turnout of about 1.25 million statewide for Democrats. That's about 16 percent of registered voters.

The Clinton campaign made a concerted effort to get their supporters to the polls on the day early voting opened. That's when opinion polls still had her leading but slipping. Did they bank enough votes before opinion changed? What does it portend for Obama? I want those answers too.

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Riverdale, Md.: Hi there. Folks said that Hillary Clinton's loss in Iowa was a reaction to her front-runner status -- that Democrats did not want a coronation. Do you get the sense that the voters in the primary tomorrow, especially in Texas, may react the same way toward Barack Obama, given his 11 wins and the perception of his easy treatment from the media? Thanks for taking my question.

Chuck Lindell: I was talking to a friend in Ohio about this very thing. If Obama loses both big states by wider-than-expected margins, is this an indication of buyer's remorse by the voters. Will they get in the voting booth and say "sure the guy's exciting, but is this what I want?" I think the danger here is forgetting that Obama came into Texas and Ohio needing to make up a lot of ground.

The other danger is trying to read voters. People pull the lever for many reasons -- electability, empathy, issues, likability, disgust with the opponent. Past interaction. I think we reporters tread on troubled ground when we oversimplify. That said, I'm hungry for the exit polling, aren't you?

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Riverdale, Md.: Interesting bit in The Post today on how the primary rules have shaped this race: If the Democrats were using the winner-takes-all approach of the Republicans to award delegates, the race would be all but over for Obama; and if the Republicans used the Democrats' proportional approach, the race would be quite muddy indeed.

Chuck Lindell: I wrote a story Sunday that tried to make sense for people about our Texas system. To me, the easiest way to understand Texas is to see it as three elections rolled into one.

First, there's the popular vote, which will crown the "winner" of Texas. That's the headline that both sides want to grab.

Second, there are 31 mini-primaries, because we divide 126 delegates based on the vote in our 31 state Senate districts. Some districts have more delegates because more Democrats voted there in the past two elections. Austin's district has the biggest haul, eight delegates. To get a 5-3 win here, a candidate needs only 56.3 percent of the vote. Clinton's stronghold along the border has a line of districts with four delegates. To get a 3-1 split there, she'll need to win 62.6 percent of the vote.

Finally, there are the caucuses that will help the party distribute 67 more delegates. That's seven fewer than Wisconsin divided to so much fanfare two weeks ago.

Bottom line: The delegate math does not favor Clinton, especially if she's down about 160 pledged delegates.

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washingtonpost.com: When it's time to caucus, the process gets more complicated (Austin American-Statesman, March 2)

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Burlington, Vt.: Hey Texas -- don't mess with Vermont!

Chuck Lindell: Attaboy, Burlington. I feel for you. Texas and Ohio. Ohio and Texas. When you get mentioned at all, it's:, "Oh, Vermont and Rhode Island are voting Tuesday also."

But it's hard to see past all those delegates. Texas has 228 in all.

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Bow, N.H.: Won't the exit polling have limited value because of early voting? Also, when do the early voting ballots get counted and announced?

Chuck Lindell: Early voting gets announced after the polls close. I truly do not know if they're counted in advance so that they can be published quickly.

As for exit polling, I think you need to look at the methodology. Did they sample for early voters? One thing I'm going to look for -- did early voting differ from returns by Tuesday voters? If there's not a big difference, I think you can assume people voted for pretty much the same reason.

But look, exit polls are a snapshot. Campaigns love them when they show strength and momentum; reporters love them because they help explain the most difficult question in politics (why did the vote go this way?). But they are limited. Who remembers the polls showing John Kerry as the next president of the United States? I say, use exit polls with caution.

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Denton, Texas: Howdy from a place in Texas with even worse weather than you're having! So what, in your opinion, is the biggest wild-card variable that could affect the vote here tomorrow?

Chuck Lindell: I love this question. In talking to voters, I'm struck by two things: how many Obama voters were persuaded by a friend or family family to go for Barack, and how many Clinton voters knew they were going to vote for Hillary since before the Obama train left the station.

Will word of mouth triumph? Will Obama's grassroots effort, vaunted as it is, cancel out Clinton's natural advantages? That to me is the biggest wild card, because I don't think anybody can measure it.

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Shelton, Wash.: So how's that Celine Dion theme song Hillary chose going over in Texas?

Chuck Lindell: Being a Springsteen man, my ears don't even register a Dion song. Are they playing it?

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Austin, Texas: Early voting has been very strong in the Democratic primaries in Texas. All over the country, turnout has been way up, especially for Democrats. What, if anything, does this portend for the general election?

Chuck Lindell: I am leery of answering a question with an answer that is seven months away. These are the facts: Texas Democrats are energized. They're voting in huge numbers, largely I think because they're not used to having any electoral impact in this Republican state. Now, will that energy and enthusiasm stick with them? That's the question we're all going to be asking up to November.

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Atlanta: Texas is such a huge state, and this is shaping up to be a really close race. Is it possible that because of early and absentee voting we might not even know who wins for a few days?

Chuck Lindell: The real question will be, can the Democratic Party give us timely results on the caucuses? They're held precinct-by-precinct, and that means Texas will have 8,332 caucuses tomorrow night. Precincts will elect one delegate for every 15 votes the last Democratic gubernatorial candidate received in 2006. One Austin precinct has 103 delegates to elect. I'm expecting a long night.

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Chattanooga, Tenn.: What are the latest poll numbers for tomorrow's primary?

Chuck Lindell: I'll close with this one, and sorry if I couldn't get to your question.

I'll start with my belief that polls lose credibility when the voting turnout is this high. A poll came out today that had Clinton up 50-46. But here's where the volatility comes in. Clinton had overwhelming support from white voters in this poll. Last week, the same poll had Obama with overwhelming white support. That makes it tough to put much stock in the polling.

Suffice it to say that all polls do agree on one thing: This race is too close to call.

Thanks for your time, and for the good questions. It hass been fun.

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