It’s a fascinating phenomenon. It is also an inscrutable one.
Back in early 2019, it was already apparent that Texas might be more of a problem for Trump than it was in 2016. He didn’t romp in the state that year, but he won by enough of a margin that there wasn’t much mystery on the night of the election. So much attention was focused on his surprise victory nationally, though, that his having won Texas by a single-digit margin passed without notice. Texas was closer in 2016 than Iowa was, a significant shift in presidential politics.
By the beginning of last year, Texas stood out as the red state in which Trump’s approval rating was the lowest, according to Gallup. It still seemed unlikely that he would lose the state, but it seemed like something worth tracking.
And then, as the 2020 general election grew firmer, it became clear that Texas was, in fact, a potential problem for the incumbent president.
In FiveThirtyEight’s polling average, Texas has consistently been one of the closest states in recent weeks. As recently as last Friday, the state saw the smallest margin between Trump’s polling average and former vice president Joe Biden’s. It’s still within a point, thanks in part to a new New York Times poll showing Trump with a four point lead.
What makes Texas’s early vote potentially unexpected is that the pattern we’ve seen nationally is that Democrats are more likely to express the intent to vote early and then to do so. As a percentage of 2016 votes, blue states are often seeing higher early vote turnout than red states, according to Associated Press data analyzed by The Post. But the states with the highest turnout to date relative to four years ago are mostly ones that went for Trump, usually ones in which the presidential contest is close (or with a contested Senate race). North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Texas are all among the states that have seen the highest percentages of early votes relative to 2016 turnout.
They are also all states in which Biden is running better now, according to an average of polls, than Clinton performed four years ago.
How Trump fares in, say, Georgia is irrelevant if Biden wins Texas. Flip Texas in 2016 and Trump’s wins in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan don’t matter. Biden wins Texas, Biden is president. It’s not complicated.
But we don’t know who’s voting in Texas. Biden has a narrow lead among those who’ve already voted, according to the Times poll, but it’s not clear how many of those are new voters and how many are people who would have turned out on Election Day in a non-pandemic year. Numbers from L2, a political data firm, indicate that 1.4 million people who’ve already voted in Texas have never voted in the state before. Some of them may be new voters; others are part of the massive influx of new residents to the state. By contrast, about 2.1 million voters cast their first ballots in Texas in 2016.
Trump’s campaign seems to have been largely following the candidate’s rhetoric about how to vote: going in person on Election Day. Many states have more robust systems for counting Election Day votes than absentee ones, a fact that Trump seems to hope to exploit to declare an early victory before votes are counted in every state. But an analysis of Facebook ads compiled by journalist Jeremy Merrill and provided to The Post for the period ended last Monday suggests that only a small fraction of the president’s spending on ads that ran disproportionately in swing states were ads focused on encouraging turnout.
Merrill’s data suggest that less than a penny of every dollar spent in swing states by Trump’s campaign was focused on encouraging voters to vote early. Less than a nickel was spent encouraging voting or registration. Those numbers varied by state, but “opinion surveys,” requests for contributions and attacks on Biden generally made up much of the ad inventory.
It doesn’t appear to have made much of a push for early voting in Texas at all.
This is just a small slice of the campaign’s massive Facebook effort, so it shouldn’t be considered comprehensive. But it does reinforce what we’ve come to understand: Trump is largely ceding the early vote to his opponent.
At its heart, the question of what Texas’s massive early vote numbers mean comes down to an unanswerable ancillary question: How will it compare to the vote on Election Day? If the country sees a 13 percent increase in voting this year and that’s reflected in Texas’s total vote, the state will see 10.2 million voters in 2020. If those who’ve already voted preferred Biden by seven points, Trump would need to win the day-of vote by 17 points to win the state.
According to the Times polling data, that’s precisely the lead he has with those who haven’t yet voted.
Jeremy Merrill contributed to this report.