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08 November 2001

Houston's Mayoral Election

Houston is headed to a 1 December runoff to determine its next mayor, in an election that is proving far more interesting than the New York City mayoral election that so captivated the national media. Conservative Orlando Sanchez will square off against the inept liberal incumbent, Mayor Lee Brown (former Drug Czar, former NYC Police Commissioner when crime was high, morale was low, and incidents like Crown Heights were the norm). The elections are formally "non-partisan" although the two candidates clearly align with the Republican and Democrat parties.

Barring a set of last-minute dirty tricks from the Brown campaign (which I fully expect -- but which I think will backfire), I think Orlando Sanchez will be elected the next mayor of Houston, a feat that every expert in this city claimed was not possible when he announced his candidacy (although Orlando has been on our radar screen for a while).

To understand why, we need to drill down into the results from 6 November. Although the pro-Brown Houston Chronicle reported that Brown received 43% of the vote and Sanchez received 40% of the vote, the unofficial Harris County results actually show Brown with 42.5% (120,108 votes), Sanchez with 40.9% (115,526 votes), and Chris Bell with 16.1% (45,575 votes). I guess the Chron just thought it would be fun to boost their candidate's lead by an imaginary 1.4%. If I'm right, he's going to need a lot more help than that.

Here's why: Houston's early voting accounts for most of Brown's actual (1.6%) margin. In early voting (which accounted for 20% of the overall vote this time), Brown won 43.6% (24,654 votes), Sanchez 36.5% (20,596) votes), and Bell 19.5% (11,002). These totals more or less conform to a pre-election poll conducted from 23-31 October, with the differences in outright totals probably caused by the pollsters' underestimates of Hispanic turnout and overestimates of Black turnout, along with final decisions made by those who were undecided in the poll.

On Election Day, however, Sanchez (42.0% - 94,930 votes) essentially ran even with Brown (42.2% - 95,454 votes) as Bell's support dipped considerably (12.2% - 34,573 votes) from his early voting total. Sanchez gained mainly at the expense of Bell (presumably meaning that support solidified behind him as THE anti-Brown candidate), although he also forced Brown's percentage down from the early voting period.

If voters truly surged to Sanchez on Election Day, which appears to be the case, then Sanchez has a great deal of momentum. But even more important than the momentum, it would appear he only has to make up a few hundred votes on Mayor Brown, not the 4,600 votes suggested by the overall totals. This is HUGE. A majority -- and probably a large majority -- of Bell voters are going to vote for Sanchez, as Bell ran so hard on an anti-Brown theme that his followers simply are not going to support Brown, even if for personal reasons Bell declines to endorse Sanchez. The only question is whether those voters will stay home during the 1 December runoff, or go out and vote. If Sanchez truly needed to make up 4,600 votes, he would have to win roughly 55% of Bell's voters (25,088) assuming they turned out in the same numbers (but the turnout would likely be lower, making it even tougher for Sanchez).

Because the Election Day margin is only several hundred votes, and Sanchez seems to be surging, he only has to win a small majority of Bell's voters, and the Bell voter turnout does not even have to be as high, all other things being equal (yeah, I know -- ceteris paribus rarely prevails in politics. That's what makes life fun!). I think Sanchez will easily win 55% of the Bell voters who do turn out, and the number could be higher. If that's the case, then Sanchez will be the next mayor of Houston.

And the major media will have missed one of the most fascinating races in the country, featuring a conservative Hispanic candidate squared off against a sitting liberal African-American incumbent in a highly diverse city where most experts concluded, following the unsuccessful Rob Mosbacher run against Brown in 1997, that a conservative could never be elected Mayor. They will also have missed what might very well be the beginnings of serious statewide political possibilities for Sanchez.

[Posted @ 09:21 PM CST]

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