Click on the maps to see how diversity and voting patterns intersect in Fort Bend and Harris County.
SUGAR LAND, FORT BEND CO. – On the edge of Sugar Land, Karim Qussad was taking a stroll around the lake at Eldridge Park with his wife and young daughter. The family moved a few months ago to Texas from Boston. It’s the second time Qussad, who’s originally from Jordan, has lived in Houston. But this time feels different.
“I’m just surprised because the area where I live, I asked my nephew and niece, ‘Where are the white people?’” Qussad said. “There are no white people. I’m not discriminating but that thought came through my mind. I just see black people and Indian and Oriental people, which is very nice, actually.”
What’s diversity have to do with how people vote?
The daily scene at this park in Fort Bend County reflects why this area southwest of Houston is often hailed as one of the most diverse places in the country and a vision of America’s future.
But how that diversity impacts politics doesn’t necessarily follow the conventional wisdom. It says that as the minority population grows in Texas, it will turn the reliably red Republican state into a shade of Democratic blue.
In both Fort Bend and Harris counties, neighboring voting precincts with similar, diverse populations can have very different politics: one going red, the other going blue.
That’s according to an analysis of demographics and voting data by Houston Public Media and the University of Houston.
“To me, it means diversity is a very in vogue word but diversity is more complex than what we understand,” said Jerónimo Cortina, a political science associate professor at the University of Houston.
Further interviews and analysis reveal that there are different factors behind that phenomenon, including residents moving there from other states, lured by new jobs; how districts get mapped; some residents abstaining from voting; and old-fashioned political outreach.
As the demographics in Greater Houston continue to change, these voting trends could shift local politics and also impact state and national elections.
Martha Acevedo, Sugar Land resident but originally from Puerto Rico, says she hadn’t thought about how diversity impacts politics in her local area. The precincts either side of Eldridge Park voted completely differently in the last election, one going blue and the other going red even though they’re both diverse in population. (Video: Matt Prendergast for Houston Public Media)
Kevin Dang, who is originally from Vietnam, lives in Sugar Land. He says diversity is very important when it comes to politics. (Video: Matt Prendergast for Houston Public Media)
What we learned from the voting data
On this recent morning at Eldridge Park, a woman in a long black robe – known as an abaya – held pink hand weights as she exercised. Martha Acevedo, a nursing grad student born in Puerto Rico, walked her two small dogs with her mom. Kevin Dang finished up a run with his buddy. They both immigrated from Vietnam years ago.
How do neighborhoods like this vote?
To find out, Cortina analyzed voting data and the impact of diversity precinct-by-precinct in Fort Bend and Harris counties. He considered an area diverse if there was more than a 50-50 chance that two random people are of different backgrounds, called a diversity index. It’s a common tool used by researchers and the U.S. Census.
Cortina found that there was a stronger correlation between diversity and presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. He noted, however, that that connection was not statistically significant enough to be considered a cause behind voting results.
For example, in Fort Bend, 22 out of the 152 precincts analyzed fell into that category: high diversity and support for Clinton. In contrast, only four places with high diversity scores cast a clear majority of ballots for Trump. (Not all Fort Bend precincts were included in the analysis; precincts whose boundaries had changed from 2012 to 2016 were excluded because there was insufficient demographic data.)
“Diversity doesn’t necessarily mean people from different nationalities, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations,” Cortina said. “It’s more about the relationships people establish within those communities, with others and with themselves,” Cortina said. He explained that those relationships have to be equal, “where people see each other as an equal, regardless of their background, whatever that is.”
North of Houston: New residents, new politics
The analysis discovered the same phenomenon in other parts of Greater Houston.
In northern Harris County, the four miles separating Spring and Humble is filling up fast with new construction. But these suburbs still have some green spaces, like Pundt Park outside Spring and the Mercer Arboretum and Botanic Gardens near Humble.
The two parks serve neighborhoods within walking distance of each other, both have similar diversity. But politically, they’re polar opposites.
In the first one — Pundt Park within Precinct 588 — Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by roughly two to one last November. But in the second one — Mercer Gardens near Humble in Precinct 587 — Clinton beat Trump two to one. Yet they both score high on a diversity index.
Allen Carter is the Democratic Chair for Precinct 587 in Harris County. “A lot of time, I get a lot of communication from…very conservative groups, which if I lived somewhere else, I probably wouldn’t get that kind of communication”, he said. (Video: Matt Prendergast for Houston Public Media)
Allen Carter, the Democratic chair for Precinct 587, said that historically this part of Harris County has leaned more to the right. But that’s changing, Carter explained, as new people move in from elsewhere in Houston and from across the country and beyond.
“You have African-American, Hispanic. They tend to be Democratic, because they just happen to believe the Democrats have their interests more at heart,” Carter said.
“When we try to say, ‘Well these differences must be based upon an ethnic basis,’ that would be a faulty premise,” said Jack Cagle, the Republican commissioner of Harris County Precinct 4. It stretches across northern Harris County and includes these two neighborhoods.
Aldo Flores moved to the Spring area five years ago from Monterrey, Mexico. He says,”You see all kinds of people, really, you know, from all around the world.” (Video: Matt Prendergast for Houston Public Media)
(From left to right): Sandy Brassard and Linda Sandhop are friends who bike together in Mercer Botanic Garden’s near Humble. They say their tennis team is pretty diverse and describe it as looking like “the United Nations.” (Video: Matt Prendergast for Houston Public Media)
Melba Leal is a resident of Spring and she says she’s surprised that a precinct so close to her voted for a different presidential candidate. Voting Precinct 587 and Precinct 588, four miles apart, voted for different candidates in the last presidential election. (Video Matt Prendergast for Houston Public Media)
Cagle noted that these areas fall into two different U.S. congressional districts. Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee represents the area near Humble, while Republican Rep. Ted Poe represents the one near Spring. It would be hard to find two members of Congress farther apart on the political spectrum.
“You could very easily say, well, these districts or these homes are Democratic because Sheila Jackson Lee is a member of the Democratic Party,” Cagle said. “Or you could say that they got districted into her area, because that was the tendency from which they came from, and in order to satisfy the Voting Rights Act, they were carved out and put into her district so that we could meet those legal requirements.”
In other words, the congressional districts were designed to support one member of Congress or the other: Gerrymandered.
But Cagle argued there’s another factor at work.
“Many of the folks in our precinct, I think, don’t think in terms of colors as much as maybe economics,” he said. “Or if you had to say that they thought of a color, the color that they think about is green.”
Cagle believes that people will likely support the candidate or party who will help them provide for their families, and he noted that many of the new arrivals in his territory are coming to work in the oil and natural gas industry.
In fact, just west of Interstate 45, the massive ExxonMobil campus is drawing new workers and helping grow the area’s population.
But at the same time, many of the new residents hail from swing states like Ohio and Virginia and solid blue states like California.
The question remains whether the new arrivals agree with the politics of north Harris County as is – or whether they’re bringing the politics of their former homes with them.
Red or blue in Fort Bend?
The same kind of political split happened back at Eldridge Park in Sugarland. Two precincts that border the park scored high on the diversity index, but voted differently.
One of those areas — Precinct 3098 with the Townewest neighborhood – went blue, voting more than 60 percent for Clinton. The other area – Precinct 4020 in the Covington Woods subdivision – voted strongly for Trump, then the GOP nominee and now the U.S. President. Precinct 4020 scored 54% on the diversity index, while Precinct 3098, scored 71%.
Jack Cagle is the Harris County Commissioner for Precinct 4. “Many of the folks in our precinct, I think, don’t think in terms of colors as much as maybe economics. Or if you had to say that they thought of a color, the color that they think about is green” he said. (Video: Matt Prendergast for Houston Public Media)
“The Democratic mantra is diversity is going to wreck the Republican Party and flip Texas. And Fort Bend shows that that’s not true,” said Mike Gibson, chair of the Fort Bend County GOP.
Democrats, of course, disagree and see Fort Bend as a future base.
In fact, in the November 2016 election, both parties claimed victory in Fort Bend.
At the top of the ticket, the Democrats turned the county blue. Clinton won the traditionally red county with an almost seven-point margin. That marked a 13-point swing from the 2012 presidential election.
But at the local level, Republicans not only kept all countywide offices, they also took an open county-court-at law seat and defeated a two-term incumbent county official, leaving only one Democrat on the commissioners court.
“We have worked very, very hard,” said Gibson.
He said that his party’s analysis shows that some voters, in particular some Hispanic voters, sat out the election, tipping the presidential scale to Clinton.
But on the whole, Gibson took the local election results as proof that his two-prong strategy is working: focus on local elections and grow the party.
Since Gibson became chair five and half years ago, he has made outreach with diverse groups in Fort Bend a priority. He can quickly list leaders on his team who have different ethnic backgrounds. There are more young Republican clubs at local high schools, with diverse student members. And Gibson has recruited members of the Texas Asian Republican Club to be precinct chairs, key grassroots positions.
“Obviously, if we sit and do nothing and we’re only 30 percent of the population, guess what?” said Gibson, who is white.
“If you don’t get out there and work and spread the message and show people that you care, that you want them involved, then they’ll go the other way or they won’t participate at all in the process,” he explained.
Micheal Gibson is Fort Bend GOP Party Chair. “The Democratic mantra is diversity is going to wreck the Republican Party and flip Texas. And Fort Bend shows that that’s not true” he says. (Video: Matt Prendergast for Houston Public Media)
‘It doesn’t add up’
Still, that connection between diversity and the GOP puzzles the chair of Fort Bend’s Democratic Party, Cynthia Ginyard.
“I cannot understand it myself,” Ginyard said. “How does it add up? It doesn’t add up.”
On the campaign trail, Trump made a wall with Mexico a cornerstone of his platform. He suggested a shutdown on Muslims and described Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals.
In his tenure in office so far, Trump has swiftly signed executive orders to fulfill those campaign promises, including building a border wall, closing the border to all refugees and enacting an immigration freeze for people from seven predominantly-Muslim countries.
Considering the connection between diversity and voting, Ginyard said that multiple factors must be at play and not just diversity, especially in a place like Fort Bend where no demographic has a clear majority. Ginyard said that Democratic efforts will focus on voter education and registration, including engaging with minority groups, like immigrants from African countries.
“You can’t let diversity drive the results or the outcome of an election,” she said. “So you have to look at the big picture, what’s important to people.”