But its very existence prompts a now-perennial question for Democrats: Is this the year that Texas turns blue?
The rationale is obvious. Texas has a big chunk of electoral votes, and it’s easy to see how and why it might flip. Had Hillary Clinton won Texas in 2016, for example, she’d be president right now. She didn’t, obviously, but she did fare better in Texas than in Iowa, a state that Barack Obama won in 2008. It’s also an increasingly heavily nonwhite state, and given the Democrats’ strength with nonwhite voters, it would seem almost inevitable that it would swing from red to blue.
But, stubbornly enough, it hasn’t. Not in 2016 and not in statewide contests in 2018. Democrats keep getting close, though, making each iteration of “is this the year?” more likely to yield a chorus of “yes!”
In October 2016, with Clinton leading Trump by about seven points, the idea that Texas would be in play again fluttered to life. Her lead narrowed, though, and by Election Day Texas was firmly in the red column.
Albeit less so than four years before. Tracking the evolution of presidential results by state over time is muddied a bit by the fact that different candidates hold different national appeal. How much of the shift in Texas from 2000 to 2008 — a swing of 10 points to the Democrats — was simply a function of a close 2000 race and a not-close 2008 one?
We can control for this somewhat by looking at the vote in each state relative to the national popular vote. Which gives us the graph below, showing six of the states most likely to influence the outcome of the 2020 race. Three have consistently voted Democratic, though they supported Trump in 2016: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Three have been consistently red, but also the subject of speculation about whether they might flip: Arizona, Georgia and, of course, Texas.
There are two things to notice about that graph. The first is how stable the states have been in the past 30 years or so, with the blue states staying slightly more Democratic than the country (generally) and the red states staying a bit more heavily Republican. It wasn’t just those blue states that deviated from the trend four years ago, moving to the right by an average of about six points. The red ones also moved to the left by about the same margin, on average, creating the pincer-like shape to the graph.
Again, what makes this so tantalizing is the scale of the states at play. Texas alone is worth more electoral votes than Pennsylvania and Wisconsin combined. Trade the three red states for the three blue ones, and the Democrats gain a net 19 electoral votes.
In 2016, of course, they gave up the three blue ones without getting anything in return.
What’s intriguing about these six states in particular is how the demographic shifts contrast with the politics. Texas, Arizona and Georgia have grown far less densely white over the past 60 years, while that’s been less the case with Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
But this itself tells one part of the 2016 story. That the blue states remain relatively densely white made Trump’s appeal to white voters a critical factor in his success in flipping them. It wasn’t that Trump was uniquely able to appeal to them; white working-class voters have grown consistently more Republican over time. In close races in those states, though, that increased support meant the continuation of the political shift seen from 2008 to 2012.
The chart above also again explains why Texas remains so tantalizing to Democrats. It’s a state where only 43 percent of residents are non-Hispanic white; how can it remain so solidly Republican?
One answer is that the density of the population doesn’t match the density of the electorate. Using voter registration data from L2, a voter data firm, and estimates of the composition of the vote in each state, there’s a noticeable pattern in how population and electorate compare.
These are generally estimates from L2, it’s important to note. Texas and Arizona stand out for the relationship between the two figures in part because each state is heavily Hispanic, which includes residents who aren’t citizens and therefore aren’t eligible to vote. That the other four states have more densely white electorates than populations represents another consistency in American politics: higher registration and, generally, turnout among white Americans.
So: Is this the year? Is this the year that those demographic numbers and Texas’s vote finally move into alignment (as, one might argue, Wisconsin’s did in 2016)? Is this the year that Texas topples, throwing the race for the Democrats?
Well, no. Yes, polls in the state this month have shown either a close race or Biden with a small lead — but that’s in the context of a Biden having about a nine-point lead nationally, according to the RealClearPolitics average of national polling. If the national vote shifted seven points from 2016 to 2020, a swing from Trump winning by nine points four years ago to being roughly tied in Texas now makes sense.
There hasn’t been much polling in Texas and Georgia, making the polling averages a bit iffy, but in Arizona and the blue states we see how state-level polling roughly moves with the national picture.
What that graph shows isn’t only that Texas is more strongly pro-Trump than Arizona and the blue states. It also shows that if Texas is in play, a bunch of states are already probably out of Trump’s win column. If getting Texas to a tie requires a national environment in which he obviously loses Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, well, then Texas doesn’t really matter in determining who wins the election.
For Democrats, Texas being the tipping-point state is less important than it becoming blue over the long term, which is fair enough. In order for that to happen, though, it does seem as though Biden would need a broad national victory. That means spending a lot of money on ads in Texas isn’t really useful, simply because at that point he’s riding a wave and not directing one.
At least, spending money and campaigning in Texas doesn’t make much sense for the presidential race. Boosting turnout in the state has other obvious benefits down-ticket, though, which was the point of that Times article in the first place.
Anyway, answering the question, at long last. Maybe Texas will be blue, if Biden wins by a wide margin nationally. Otherwise, it seems unlikely. And if he does win the state because of a favorable national environment, that’s still not what Democrats want to see.
After all, the national environment often tugs and pulls at state-level results.
Democrats want to win Texas — but not only when it’s a near-landslide win otherwise.