Beto O’Rourke, then running for the U.S. Senate, campaigns at Bert Ogden Arena in Edinburg, Tex., in October. (Joel Martinez/The Monitor/AP)

This fall, Democrats across the nation succumbed to Beto fever, watching enthusiastically as Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Texas, came much closer to unseating incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz than seemed possible a year ago. Although O’Rourke fell short, Democrats picked up 12 seats in the Texas House, two seats in the Texas Senate and two seats in the U.S. House, and came close in several statewide races.

Nor were these anomalies. In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton lost the state by only nine points, much less than Barack Obama’s 16-point loss in 2012.

Democrats haven’t won a statewide contest in Texas since 1994. Are the state’s demographics finally turning it blue, as Democrats have long hoped? Or were this year’s results a blue blip for what will remain a reliably red state?

Our research suggests that the former is true: The state’s diversifying electorate and young people’s leftward shift appear to be weakening the GOP’s grip on the Lone Star State.

Texas’s minority population is growing — and in 2018, Democrats did very well among people of color.

Polling data from the midterm elections shows the importance of the state’s demographics. For instance, in a Latino Decisions 2018 election eve poll in Texas, 74 percent of Latinos, 84 percent of blacks and 66 percent of Asian American/Pacific Islanders said they supported O’Rourke. On Election Day, 73 percent of people of color voted for O’Rourke, while just 31 percent of whites did, according to AP VoteCast’s Texas 2018 exit poll.

Texas Democrats have long hoped that as the state’s Hispanic/Latinx population grows, the result would be more votes for Democrats. Hispanics make up the largest share of Texas’s minorities, followed by African Americans and Asian Americans. In 2016, Mary Beth Rogers wrote that even with a growing population of people of color, Democrats would still need at least 35 percent of the white vote to win.

According to the Texas Demographic Center, in 2000, people of color were 47 percent of the Texas population and whites were 53 percent. That has since changed dramatically. By 2017, demographers estimate that Texas’s population was 58 percent people of color and 42 percent whites. As demographics have continued to change, the Texas legislature has passed laws such as strict voter-photo-identification requirements that are likely to make it harder to mobilize people of color in the state.

Texans of color remain Democratic, and young whites are starting to join them.

But the blue shift isn’t coming just from the growing minority population. Younger white voters are significantly more likely to identify as Democrats than their older counterparts.

Consider the chart below, which is based on our recent research. It presents the percentage of Texans of color (on the left) and whites (on the right) who said they identified with the Democratic Party in 2009, 2013 and 2017. We include independent-leaning Democrats in this analysis. These figures come from analysis of Texas Politics Project Polls, with large samples that allow us to differentiate between age groups within the two categories.


Figure: Juan Carlos Huerta

As you can see, among people of color, both older and younger Texans have been solidly Democratic. For instance, in 2017, 68 percent of voters born before 1979 (i.e., 40 or older) and those born since 1979 identified with or leaned toward the Democrats. Although that represents a slight uptick among older voters since 2009, their numbers have generally been consistent over this period.

On the right side of the graph, the story is different.

Most obviously, Democratic support among white Texans is considerably lower. But that’s been changing over the past decade, especially among younger whites. Whereas in 2009 just 36 percent of younger white Texans called themselves Democrats, by last year that number had grown to 45 percent.

There has also been a small increase in Democratic identification among older whites, though they remain much more likely to identify as Republicans. That’s consistent with the results from the 2018 exit polls, which showed that Cruz won 62 percent of the vote among people 65 and older.

What does this mean for the future of Texas politics?

There are two takeaways. First, the strong Democratic support among people of color is likely to move Texas leftward, since minorities are becoming a larger share of the state’s population. According to data obtained from the States of Change: Demographics and Democracy project, people of color were 44 percent of the voting eligible population in 2008 in Texas, and the project estimates that that population is 50 percent in 2018. From 2012 to 2016, Hispanic turnout increased by 30 percent while the percent of Hispanic population grew 15 percent, meaning the increase in turnout outpaced the increase in population.

Fueled by a growing Hispanic population, the most Democratic-leaning group in the electorate is also its fastest growing — and is growing even faster as a proportion of those who turn out to vote.

Second, the most reliably Republican group of voters — older whites — are being replaced by a more Democratic-leaning cohort of younger white voters. Older whites were socialized into party politics during eras when the GOP was ascendant. But younger Texans are coming of political age at a time when the party is struggling to appeal to young people across the country. Since the party you vote for when young tends to become the party you identify with for a lifetime, that may give Texas an increasing proportion of white Democratic voters as time goes on.

Of course, this does not mean the Democratic Party’s success in Texas is inevitable. Whether demographic change translates into political change depends on political developments in the coming years and each party’s ability to register and mobilize its supporters. But O’Rourke’s near miss in the Senate race may be a sign that change is here to stay.

Juan Carlos Huerta is a professor of political science at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and co-author of “Practicing Texas Politics, 2017-2018 Edition” (Cengage).

Beatriz Cuartas is co-author of “We the People, Instructor Manual” (W.W. Norton & Co.).