As the Texas presidential primary nears, the threshold to earn delegates here is looming large for some Democratic candidates, especially Michael Bloomberg, who has invested far more in the state than anyone else.
Texas will award 228 delegates March 3, the second-largest delegate trove among the 14 states that vote on Super Tuesday. Of those, 149 are awarded based on the results in each of the 31 state Senate districts. Another 79 are awarded based on the results of the statewide vote. A candidate must reach 15% in a district to compete for its delegates and 15% statewide to be eligible for statewide delegates.
Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have led recent public polls in Texas that indicate they should have little trouble surpassing 15% statewide. It is a different story, though, for candidates like Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Bloomberg. Warren has hit 15% in three out of the five last surveys tracked by RealClearPolitics, while Bloomberg has crossed the threshold in two of them. Buttigieg, meanwhile, did not top 15% in any of them.
That means candidates other than Biden or Sanders could be shut out of statewide delegates and left trying to pick up delegates where they can in the Senate districts.
The stakes are arguably the highest for Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor who is effectively starting his campaign on Super Tuesday after skipping the first four early voting states. He has spent tens of millions of dollars on TV ads in Texas while building easily the biggest campaign here, with 19 offices and 160 staffers.
Bloomberg’s campaign voiced confidence Tuesday that it will cross the delegate thresholds. On a call with reporters, Texas state director Ashlea Graves Turner said the campaign was not worried about the thresholds and that the “data that we’re using to inform our decision-making on the ground is solid.”
“We are very confident in our ground game,” added Will Dubbs, the campaign’s deputy states director. “And when it comes to these small margins and getting these small delegate advantages in Senate districts across Texas, we’re confident that our on-the-ground organization is gonna push us over.”
For party officials, this is the first time in recent memory that Texas’ delegate thresholds are truly coming into play. By the time of at least the last several presidential primaries in Texas, there were not nearly as many remaining viable candidates splitting up the vote in a way that drew doubt about whether many could get 15%.
Hillary Clinton won the 2016 Texas primary with 65% of the vote, and Sanders got 33%.
This time around, there are at least three times more viable candidates still running, and many are focusing on Texas to varying degrees. While Bloomberg has planted his flag in the state, Warren was the earliest of the remaining candidates to put staff on the ground here — in August — and is up to over 60 staffers on the ground.
In a Feb. 12 memo, Warren campaign manager Roger Lau expressed confidence about Warren’s ability to seriously advance her campaign on Super Tuesday. While Lau did not directly address Texas, he said the campaign was on track to pick up statewide delegates in all but one of the Super Tuesday states and hit the 15% threshold in nearly two-thirds of the legislative districts that award delegates nationwide that day.
In one of the latest Texas polls, released by the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs, Biden and Sanders were virtually tied at 22.5% and 22.1%, respectively, while the only other candidate over 15% was Warren, with 18.3%. Bloomberg got 13.4%, and Buttigieg received 11.9%.
“I think it’s gonna be very difficult for Bloomberg [to cross 15%], even with the $30 million he spent in this state,” said Renée Cross, senior director of the Hobby School, noting the survey was done before Bloomberg had a rocky debate-stage debut in Nevada. “His performance certainly didn’t help him any.”
Under the results of the Hobby School poll, Biden would get 29 of the 79 statewide delegates, Sanders 27 and Warren 23. The pollsters used their own methodology to project the allocation of the 149 district-level delegates, concluding Sanders would receive 58 delegates, Biden 51, Warren 38, Bloomberg 1 and Buttigieg 1.
The district-level delegates provide opportunities for candidates to tailor their efforts to regions where other candidates may or may not be competing. For example, the Warren campaign is spending nearly $400,000 on a TV ad buy that includes two of the state’s largest markets — Austin and San Antonio — but also four smaller ones: Beaumont, Odessa, Waco and Corpus Christi. Each of those four markets touches state Senate districts that have not gotten much attention from the candidates so far.
The number of delegates up for grabs in each district varies depending on how Democratic the district is, ranging from two delegates available in places like Senate District 31, which includes the Panhandle and part of West Texas, to 10 delegates in Senate District 14, which takes in most of Austin.
So while some candidates — like Buttigieg — have not had the heaviest presence in Texas, they may be making more of a play at the district level. The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who has not visited Texas to campaign publicly since the fall, has scheduled a Sunday evening rally in Dallas. While the campaign has not announced the site yet, the area is home to Senate District 23, one of three bright-blue districts that offer seven delegates each, the second biggest district-level trove after Senate District 14.
Dubbs said the Bloomberg campaign feels “very strong” about its prospects in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio but that the campaign is “targeting everywhere.”
“Whoever’s gonna be successful on primary day is gonna be the person who can organize in every single Senate district and maximize your delegate counts across the entire state, so that’s what we think is gonna be our secret weapon,” Dubbs told reporters.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has endorsed Bloomberg and was also on the call, mentioned two Houston-based Senate districts, 13 and 15, where there are seven and six delegates up for grabs, respectively.
“My hope is that the city of Houston will really come strong for Mike,” Turner said.
Disclosure: University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.