03/28/2008 02:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Houston Key To Unlocking A Texas Win

Greater Houston holds more than a quarter of the total Texas delegates that Democratic contenders Clinton and Obama will be fighting over. Two forces, other than whatever magic the candidates themselves can bring, will shape the outcome--and no, one of them is not the Latino vote. The first shaping force is Houston herself, which is the second-most ethnically diverse city in the country. Only the five boroughs of New York have populations who have come from a larger number of different places around the world. The University of Houston is the most culturally diverse school in the nation.

This multiculturalism is immediately apparent at the Clinton Campaign Kickoff in Houston on Sunday afternoon. Although a Clinton field office has yet to open here, the local volunteers have already got going. Wisely, they have chosen a culturally neutral Kickoff venue, the front driveway of a union hall in an area of scrubbed city blocks (ready for "urban renewal") near the downtown Hilton (This is the Communications Workers' Union Hall--not that it matters-- because unions have never been powerful in Texas and will not matter here in the upcoming election.) In this no-man's land, however, swaying to canned music for Clinton are Pakistanis, Indians, Vietnamese, Chinese, Koreans, Malaysians, Latinos and Latinas, Hispanics from the Caribbean, Brazilians, Nigerians, Anglos and a few African-Americans. And these are just the folk I can place.

When the ubiquitous Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Houston, national co-chair of the HRC Campaign) says to the enthusiastic crowd, "You are a rainbow coalition," most of the people in the driveway don't know that Lee is quoting American history, but they are the real thing. Here is Clinton's strength in Houston/Harris County: prosperous middle class immigrants-turned-citizens, as well as prosperous Mexican-Americans, many of whose families have lived in Texas for generations. None of these folk are the poorer, lower middle class and/or old folk widely considered to be Clinton's base. But the Democrats among these Houston demographics are devoted to Hillary Clinton. Except for the Mexican-Americans, many of these folk have not been in the U.S. long enough to have a history with Bill Clinton. The former president is not in the picture; it's all about Hillary herself. Sheila Jackson Lee perfectly captures what these loyalists love about her: "She rolls up her sleeves and gets the job done."

Juan Diaz, a personable student from the University of Houston who is also the light-weight boxing champion of the world, talks sweetly about the need for "change" and the need for "vision," while his fellow Clintonites cradle in their arms his winning title belts, massive cigar band-shaped and tooled leather, gilded and bejeweled, which sparkle in the mid-afternoon sun.

There has been a population explosion in Harris County since the 2000 Census, which is the last complete study of its demographics. So the percentage of votes in the upcoming election from citizens who were not born in the U.S. is anybody's guess. It's an especial wild card because the Chairman of the Democratic Party in Harris County said at the County Kickoff on Saturday that he is expecting at least 230,000 voters on March 4th, an increase of almost 200,000 since the 2006 elections. The multiplicity of ethnicities encompasses Spanish-speakers, suggesting a truth about them in Texas: there is no monolithic Latino vote in the Lone Star State. As the Clinton Rally shows, the term Latino is a misnomer in Harris County, home to many Hispanics, like Cubans and Filipinos, who are not from Latin America. Moreover, even among the Latino population, there are different cultures and priorities and even different ways of speaking Spanish. Salvadorans don't always get along with Colombians, and so forth. Nevertheless, Hillary Clinton's lock on the Mexican-American vote per se, especially in the Rio Grande Valley, is just that--a lock--and likely it extends to urban Harris County. In this demographic, Bill Clinton is revered; his picture, next to that of the Virgin, hangs on the wall of many a Tex-Mex restaurant.

Perhaps Barack Obama can peel away some of the other Spanish-speaking vote in Greater Houston. Certainly, his campaign intends to try. At the Obama Kickoff the day before the Clinton Kickoff, Toni Guerrero, a young Latina, said that the plan among young Houston Latinos who favor Obama is to work on their parents until they "come over to the other side." Also, it's important to remember that, although Obama has started late in wooing Latinos, he has made some progress. He did better with Latinos in California than in Nevada. He did better than expected with Latinos in Arizona. He won the Latino vote in Connecticut. He carried Latinos in Illinois and in the Colorado Caucus. Therefore, it's reasonable to assume that Obama will chip away at that voter bloc Clinton is most counting on in Texas.

The downside to counting on the Latino vote, as clearly the Clinton Campaign does--or Hillary wouldn't be in El Paso instead of Waukesha--is that Tejanos may not turn out in California numbers. Even though 1 out of 5 registered voters in Texas has a Latino surname (asking ethnicity directly isn't permitted), Latino turnout, at least in Harris County, has historically been low. In state senate district no. 6, part of which is in Harris County (more on districting later), and where the population (as of the 2000 census) is 53.3% Spanish-speaking, in the 2006 gubernatorial election only 25.6% of the registered voters went to the polls. Therefore, the Hispanic vote was well under 20%. Furthermore, only Arizona has a worse record than Texas, among the fifty states, for the number of registered women voters who actually vote.

Last November a Houston Dem, a leader of a River Oaks Democratic Women's Club, told me that her group had been trying to wrest money from Howard Dean to study exactly why Texas women turn out to vote in such low numbers. She could only speculate, but she thought the answer was poverty. "There are just so many poor people, and especially poor women, in Harris County," she said. "And having overwhelming problems day-to-day makes voting a very low priority." Therefore, three of Clinton's staunchest groups of supporters--women, working class and Latinos--have historically not turned out well in Texas elections.

A further caution about the Latino vote in Texas is that the part of it outside the major urban areas--Austin, Dallas and Houston--will not count for as much even though it covers more geography. These less-delegate-rich counties are exactly where Hillary Clinton is campaigning right now--in El Paso, McAllen, Robstown and San Antonio--having chosen South Texas over Wisconsin. In a pattern that should be familiar to Californians, these parts of Texas, these voting districts, do not have as many delegates to award because delegate allocation is based on past voter turnout--specifically in Texas, the 2004 and 2006 elections as well as the district's percentage of its vote for Chris Bell, the Democrat who received the party endorsement for governor in '06. Districts that liked Bell's Democratic opponents Friedman and Strayhorn a little too much have been stripped a delegate and an alternate.

At the beginning of this piece, I wrote that two forces, other than the candidates themselves, will shape the outcome for Clinton and Obama in Houston. The second, unlike the potentially malleable minds of middle class immigrants-turned-citizens, is immutable. It is the byzantine, bizarre and bollixed Texas primary itself. Indeed Texas does not have a primary; it has a primary/caucus hybrid. On March 4th, Texas will award 126 delegates proportionally in each of 31 state senate districts. Districts with 4 delegates (the majority) will likely award 2 delegates each to Clinton and Obama. As we've seen before with proportional delegates, it's very hard for one candidate to sprint ahead. Therefore, late in the evening of the 4th, Clinton very well may declare victory in Texas, but it will not be the blow-out, clear-cut victory she needs. There is just no way to beat the system. Furthermore, there is that caucus, which starts the evening of the 4th as soon as the polls close. Texas chooses an additional 67 delegates through the caucus process, but these delegates are not awarded (and nobody knows who gets how many) until the state convention in June. This is much too late to shore up the "firewall" that Clinton has been counting on here.

Ironically, too late the Clinton camp may be mastering the caucus process at last. Even before the Houston Kickoff, the local Clintonites had already held one training session, not just on how to caucus but also on how to come out of caucus a delegate, and were soon to hold another. The Obama Campaign in Houston is only this week holding its first caucus training. There is no intrinsic reason Clinton supporters can't learn the art of caucus--especially in urban Texas, where so many of them, like in California, are take-charge, well-educated women. The Obama volunteers in Texas and their fans in the blogosphere are vaunting the Obama grassroots' caucus skills maybe a little too soon. Here in Texas they could be in for a surprise.

Tomorrow: The Obama Campaign Makes a Tactical Error in Houston, and Caucus Rustlers