IN TEXAS, where there is no party registration and any voter can walk into the polls and vote for either party's candidates, turnout on primary day tells you something about where voters are going. In 1978, when Republicans held no statewide office, 1.8 million Texans voted in the Democratic primary for governor and 158,000 in the Republican contest. Four years later, 1.3 million votes were cast on the Democratic side and 336,000 on the Republican. This year, in the May 5 primary, just over 1 million Texans voted for Democratic governor candidates and 540,000 for Republicans.

This is not good news, to put it mildly, for Democratic Gov. Mark White. Four years ago, he soundly beat William Clements, the Republican governor who had won in an upset in 1978. But this year, Mr. White won only 54 percent against three little-known opponents, while Mr. Clements was winning 58 percent against the well-financed campaigns of Rep. Tom Loeffler and former representative and Democrat-turned-Republican Kent Hance. Texas Democrats scoffed at pre-primary polls showing Mr. White trailing, and pooh-poohed Mr. Clements' chances of making a comeback at age 69. Mr. Clements, who spent $21 million of his own money in the last two races, says he is going to spend only $6 million this time. But his Republican politics seems on the upswing in Texas, and Mr. White's brand of Democracy is in trouble.

One reason may be the economy. As oil prices have plummeted, Texas has suddenly found itself with one of the nation's highest unemployment rates and facing a $1 billion state budget deficit. For at least a sizable portion of the state's electorate, the cure for a sluggish economy is not the activist government of the Democrats but the free market of the Republicans. Still, it seems unlikely that Texans are laboring under the misapprehension that their governor has macroeconomic powers or can raise the price of oil. Texas' apparent move away from Mark White toward Bill Clements may be a move away from turmoil toward what seems, now anyway, to be tranquillity.