The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The election-defining Biden-can-win narrative just got a big boost

Former vice president Joe Biden, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, smiles while speaking during a campaign rally in Philadelphia on May 18. (Michelle Gustafson/Bloomberg News)

The rockiest shoreline of political punditry is the prediction that Texas is about to vote Democratic. So many ships have crashed and sunk when venturing too close to that territory, tempted by the state’s changing demographics and statewide races that aren’t quite the deep-red romps that were expected.

Take Donald Trump’s unpopularity in 2016, particularly among Hispanics, and overlay some strong polls for Hillary Clinton, and, whammo, Clinton-can-win-Texas is born. Two years later, take a photogenic young Democrat and pit him against one of the least popular senators in Washington and, boom, Beto O’Rourke is headed to Capitol Hill. Then, just like that: You’re explaining to Davy Jones where the numbers went wrong.

With that said, full steam ahead.

Is 2020 the year that Democrats win Texas?

In February, we looked at Gallup’s approval rating polling for 2018, picking out an interesting detail. Of all of the states that Trump won in 2016, nowhere was he viewed less favorably than in Texas. His approval in the state was 39 percent over the course of the year, the sort of number that doesn’t slot easily into sentences like “Trump coasted to victory given his ___ percent approval rating in the state.” Perhaps something more like: “Trump’s ___ percent approval rating in the state was just too much to overcome.”

I mean, it’s not as though 2016 and 2018 were blowouts in the state, either. Clinton lost by nine points, though that was closer than the margin in Iowa, which in 2012 voted for Barack Obama. It was the closest the state had been since 1976, excluding 1992 and 1996 when Texan Ross Perot played spoiler. Last year, O’Rourke lost by less than three points.

Then there’s this new poll of Texans by Quinnipiac University. It has Trump struggling against a number of the Democrats running for the party’s 2020 nomination. He’s up only four points on Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) — and that’s the race in which he’s doing the best. Despite his relative success last year, O’Rourke loses to Trump by three points. Against Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Trump’s only up one.

Against former vice president Joe Biden? Trump is losing by four points.

These differences are statistically insignificant, but the power of being the only candidate to place ahead of Trump is huge. Remember: If a Democrat wins Texas, there’s almost no way Trump can win the presidency. If Clinton had won Texas, she would be president now, despite having lost Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

This is really good news for Biden. Biden’s campaign, as we’ve noted before, seems to be benefiting enormously from perceptions that he’s the Democratic candidate best positioned to oust Trump. (In polling, Democrats have prioritized beating Trump over policy preferences.) That perception has proved to be wrong in the past, in spectacular fashion, but for now it appears to be central to Biden’s appeal. And having Biden be the only Democrat who is beating Trump in a race that could by itself tip the weight of the election? Useful to his campaign.

Here is how Biden stacks up in various demographic groups, compared with Warren.

She does better against Trump among Democrats and essentially ties him among black Texans. Biden, though, does far better with independents (plus-22 vs. plus-10 for Warren), white voters without degrees and voters younger than 35.

O’Rourke’s sales pitch on the trail has included his ability to lure young voters to the polls. We’ve noted that this isn’t really backed up by the data, and the Quinnipiac poll reinforces that this is an iffy argument. Biden beats O’Rourke’s numbers against Trump with every age group — in O’Rourke’s home state.

Don’t ignore the positions of those red dots, by the way. Biden loses whites to Trump badly but crushes Trump with black voters and Hispanics in Texas. Trump wins voters 50 and older; Biden wins everyone younger than that. (So does Warren, for what it’s worth.) This suggests that O’Rourke’s argument about turning out key voters holds: If Hispanics stay home next year, any Democrat leading with them isn’t going to do as well.

Update: HuffPost’s Ariel Edwards-Levy points to another new poll suggesting that Biden is the candidate who Democrats most think can beat Trump, though not the only one.

We’re light-years away from the general election, of course. Trump’s running against candidates who still might stumble or who might see their favorable numbers plunge following repeated attacks. Or Trump could make strategic mistakes such as, say, imposing tariffs on trade with Mexico, a move that would disproportionately affect Texas.

In the last few months of the 2016 campaign, though, precisely zero polls had Clinton beating Trump. The closest she got from October on was trailing Trump by three points. Despite that, there was that rumbling: What if?

If Biden’s still leading Trump in Texas by this time next year, that rumbling will grow much louder. That would depend on Biden being the nominee, of course — and polling showing Biden leading Trump in Texas now is the sort of thing that’s likely to help make that nomination a reality.