As the city of Houston prepares for its first new mayor in nearly a decade, attention is being laser-focused on a particular set of Houstonians: the city’s “likely voters.” These are the folks that pollsters determine are most likely to turn out to vote in an election, through analyzing past voter participation and demographic signifiers.
But likely voters are not a perfect stand in for the city’s population as a whole. They tend to be older, whiter and wealthier than the average Houstonian. And this misalignment can not only swing elections; it can also shift candidates’ priorities on the campaign trail toward concerns that don’t always fully reflect the city’s wants and needs.
“The mayor is not chosen by all Houstonians,” says Mark Jones, a senior research fellow at the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs and a professor of political science at Rice University. “They’re chosen by the people who turn out to vote.”
This summer, Jones co-authored a UH report about the preferences of Houston’s likely voters in this year’s mayoral campaign. Unsurprisingly, the survey found that respondents were most concerned about crime: 83 percent said crime should be a top priority.
That seems to reflect the city’s desires as a whole: Earlier this month, the Houston Landing, in conjunction with Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, released a survey that polled Houstonians — regardless of their likelihood to vote — and found that 81 percent of residents feel it’s important for the next mayor to reduce crime.
But go beyond that top-level concern — a constant in both local and national elections, even during times like now, when crime stats are actually dropping — and you’ll start to see important differences between the two polls.
Case in point: housing concerns
While 44 percent of likely voters in the UH study said that affordable housing should be a top issue in this mayoral election, 73 percent of respondents in the Landing’s survey said making housing more affordable was among their top priorities.
Let’s dig into that.
In the Landing’s survey, concerns about housing affordability noticeably shifted according to Houstonians’ level of education: 84 percent of folks with only a high school diploma prioritized affordable housing; it dropped to 77 percent for those who attended some college, and to 55 percent for those with a college degree.
There are also stark differences between owners and renters: 60 percent of homeowners said housing affordability is “very important,” compared with 84 percent of renters.
In a system where we amplify the voices of “likely voters” — those who are generally more educated and affluent — we miss these key notes.
I’m a millennial — you know, the generation that was unable to buy houses because we’ve been too busy splurging on avocado toast. And let me tell you something about my Houston friends: Those of us who’ve been lucky enough to buy a home have stopped talking as much about how painful it is to attempt to reach that rung on the American Dream ladder. But my friends — most of whom are not homeowners, despite being well into their 30s at this point — feel as though the goal post for homeownership affordability continues to move as they race toward it.
“Millennials are concerned about their own futures, in terms of the economy and it becoming much more expensive,” says Michael Adams, a professor of political science and public administration at Texas Southern University.
“We don’t want to create a city where people cannot afford to live in it,” Adams says. “And we see a lot of young people having to go back home and stay with their parents, and their future is kind of uncertain.”
But millennials are underrepresented in the voter pool. And that’s likely to be even more evident in this mayoral election than in other years.
“Young people vote at a rate far below their share of the population, and that’s especially true in the more specialized, lower-visibility, lower-turnout elections,” says Jones.
“The elections where the demographics of the electorate are closest to the population are the general election, then midterm,” he continues. “City elections tend to be most skewed on average to an older, whiter electorate, and education and wealth tend to get correlated as well.”
This particular mayoral election lacks a youthful frontrunner. As Texas Monthly pointed out earlier this summer, the leading candidates, state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, are both in their 70s — more than twice the age of Houston’s median resident, who is 34.
“The issue with millennials is I think they may be tuned out and they may not vote, because they may not be able to identify with the people who are running, who tend to be career politicians and they tend to be somewhat wealthy,” says Adams.
But here’s the thing: Houston’s next mayor will serve everyone who lives within the city limits. Their constituents are those who voted for them, those who voted against them and those who did not show up for the election. So when we talk about which concerns are bubbling to the top during a horse-race campaign like the one taking shape in our city this fall, we should widen our lens.
What’s the point of a ‘likely voter?’
“Likely voter” surveys do serve a purpose. Jones notes that the UH survey provides the public and the media with information campaigns already have, which they may not be sharing.
“It shows where the race is,” he says. “For voters to be able to most effectively use their right of suffrage, they need to know more or less what the lay of the land is.”
But the desires of likely voters cannot become a feedback loop in which a mayor is constantly running a popularity contest for class president rather than tackling topics that are actually important for the whole city.
A utopian thought, I know.
“In American politics, I always tell my policy students, you always worry about two things: the election and then re-election,” says Adams.
Because of this, Jones notes, “The people who vote, on average, are going to have an outsized impact on policy.”
But there’s a whole four — perhaps eight — years in there during which the mayor must work for us all. So how do we work toward a system in which the pool of likely voters feels truly representative of our city?
We need more likely voters. Which means we need more voters — period.
We need younger voters. Latino voters. Voters who rent their homes. Voters who haven’t completed college. Voters who live lives that candidates don’t know like the back of their hand (or like a map of District C, where voters always turnout en masse). We need the lines at the voting booths this November to look like the lines at our grocery stores or school pickup.
By shifting the collective voice of our city’s voters, we will shift who is listened to, and what concerns are valued.