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As a resident of the most competitive county in Texas in both 2016 and 2018- Jefferson County- we that live here are routinely exposed to arguments both red and blue. With both a large minority population and a tradition of strong industrial labor unions, the Democratic base here is long entrenched. Yet, the local Republican party here is also alive and well, having won local offices here only recently for the first time in over a century. Today, the county judge is a Republican. We’re used to competitive elections here in Southeast Texas… just not statewide.
Former presidential candidate Howard Dean said in a speech back in 2008, “Texas is ready to turn blue.” Today, if the assessments of our national media are correct, Dean’s words would seem to be prophetic, even if delayed. In 2020, a year immune to no small amount of wonders, Texas enters its first election cycle in over four decades as a battleground state.
The implications are clear. President Trump cannot win reelection without Texas. With 38 Electoral Votes, it’s the biggest state available to the GOP, and the virtual equivalent of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin combined. Had he somehow lost Texas in 2016, Trump would have lost the Electoral College with only 268 electors. Conversely, a blue Texas would virtually ensure a Democratic lock on the White House for the foreseeable future. This fact is why former V.P. Biden and the national Democrats have invested so heavily in Texas; if not this year, then for an election cycle in the near future.
Texas as a battleground also has great impact on the national popular vote outcome, as well. In 2004, then-President Bush counted on the margin he received out of Texas (1.7 million votes) to mostly offset the popular vote losses in New York (1.3M) and California (1.2M). Not coincidentally, this is also the last time a Republican carried the national popular vote. Today, the Democratic margins in California and New York have grown, while the GOP margin in Texas has been mostly neutralized. This phenomenon is responsible for the divided outcome possible in our election system; Republicans are capable of winning the White House while still losing the national popular vote (an irrelevant statistic, as it’s not the metric by which the candidates make their campaign decisions). Trump was elected in 2016 while losing the popular vote by 2.6%; it’s possible he could win this year while still losing the national popular vote by even four or five points.
Let’s take a closer look at the premise that Texas is actually ready to turn blue, and evaluate the possibility based on the raw data. Is it possible, or even likely, that Joe Biden can defeat Donald Trump in this once-secure Republican stronghold?
I’ll briefly present two counter-arguments to this premise:
- The high turnout experienced this year in Texas is equivocal, pointing to no clear beneficiary.
- The level of turnout required for the Democratic candidate to win is higher than experts suppose.
First, the record turnout to this point in the state does not clearly benefit either party.
Media outlets like NBC and Politico have attempted to lay out strategies by which Texas could actually turn blue. Virtually all of them include massive turnout surges in the counties with the largest Democratic margins: Dallas, Harris, Austin, Bexar, & El Paso. These “Big Five” counties combined for a Democratic margin of approximately 713,000 votes in 2016; this amount surged to roughly 890,000. Political experts point to the heavy increase in turnout in 2020 as a sign that the margins in these counties are set to explode once again, and potentially upset the balance of power in the state.
The biggest flaw in this assumption is that it’s inconclusive who necessarily- if anyone- is benefitting from this surge in turnout. Unlike some other states, Texas does not keep records of the vote by party; in other words, tracking the identity of voters by their party affiliation. In no state is the actual vote cast ever known by anyone other than the voter; but in several states, particularly those with closed primary systems, it’s possible to track base voters by their historical primary participation. You can only participate in one party’s primary election, and you may safely assume this information is watched like a hawk. These voters are considered part of a candidate’s “base”, though rapid changes in party affiliation (as seen recently in the seismic shift among blue-collar former Democrats that supported Trump in 2016) make such movement hard to detect.
Therefore, it’s really impossible to know who is voting. Are more Democrats turning out than ever to turn Donald Trump out of office? Alternatively, are more Republicans showing up at the polls, dissatisfied with the lockdown requirements of the last several months that have brought this state’s booming economic growth to a net standstill this year? Is it a balance of the two, so that the net impact on the vote becomes a wash- effectively yielding the same result as four years ago? Democrats point to some polls showing Trump only leading Biden within the margin of error, but most Americans (should) have already learned the reliability of public polling. Conversely, Republicans point to turnout in rural areas, which- though small individually- are virtually all painted a deep shade of red and add up fast in a state as big as Texas.
As an example, just to the north of Jefferson County (mostly urban/suburban) lies rural Hardin County. Hardin County had roughly 20,000 voters participate in the last two election cycles, but yielded 86% of its vote to the Republican at the top of the ticket. Per Hardin County Republican Chairman Kent Batman, as of this point (the last day of early voting) voter turnout in Hardin County had met or exceeded the total 2016 vote, prior of course to any Election Day vote being cast. This result is being similarly reflected in rural counties across the Lone Star State. If this trend is in any way proportional to its historical results, then a Republican surge could be in progress, featuring margins that would be difficult for even the liberal urban centers of the state to absorb.
Which leads us to point #2: Democrats will need greater margins out of its urban centers than they anticipate.
Political observers speculate that the 2018 Senate race, in which Republican Ted Cruz narrowly avoided defeat by a scant (for Texas) 2.6% margin, indicates a strong blue trend for the state. In reality, however, off-year wave elections are rarely good data points for predicting the next cycle. Democratic pundits would have you believe that the six-point drop in percentage margin from 2016 (Trump won by 9.0%) is attributable to demographic and ideological gains from two years prior. However, such logic fails to compensate for the adjustment in the electorate (a.k.a. turn-out). Donald Trump won in a year where the electorate was D+2; i.e. nationally, Democrats held a two-point identification edge over Republicans. In 2018, in a “blue wave” election with dramatically reduced Republican turn-out, the electorate was D+8. In short, the six-point spread between the two elections was totally attributable to the particular electorate unique to each race, not to any fundamental changes in the Texas electorate. In both years, Texas remained an R+11 state (eleven points more Republican than the national average).
That does not mean that Texas will continue to be an R+11 state. The point, however, is that Texas Republicans had that much margin to spare prior to the 2020 race. Trump vote in 2016 was over 4.68 million, which was 800 thousand more than Clinton. Cruz dropped to 4.26M in an off-year wave election, but was still 215K better than O’Rourke; who ran a strong race for a Texas Democrat- but still barely broke 4 million votes.
While roughly 9 million voters cast a ballot in 2016, estimated vote in Texas is projected to be close to 12 million. So the new vote is there for a potential Democratic win- but it depends greatly on how the new vote is distributed between the parties. The problem for Texas Democrats is this: to erase the margin Trump ran up in 2016, Democrats would have to have a 60-40 advantage in the new vote (2.15M of 3.5M new voters). Currently, about 3.89 million votes have been cast in the “Big Five” counties. With about 75% of the expected statewide vote already in, this means about another 1.3 million votes in these counties are still to be cast. Given the roughly 60-40 margins expected for the Democrat in these particular counties, that yields an additional Democratic margin of about 260,000 votes.
Not 800,000. Democrats have this strange habit of assuming that every outstanding ballot belongs to them.
That’s not even compensating for increased turnout in Republican areas, which should favor Trump at a 3:1 clip; and which we can already point to, in fact, occurring.
Yes, it would be enough- ignoring any increase in Republican turnout- to narrowly overcome the margin of the 2018 election; one featuring an energized Democratic electorate, low turnout among Republicans, and occurring in a midterm. That’s not what we have here in 2020.
Should a blue Democratic wave overtake the nation, it’s quite possible that it could leave a puddle in the Lone Star State. However, in the event of a close election where the contest is decided by a handful of swing states, it’s highly unlikely Texas would yield a decisive blow against President Trump. Pursuing this end would be a poor electoral strategy by the Biden campaign, but one he may feel necessary should Biden’s prospects continue to diminish in the Upper Midwest. In short, Biden can’t make up 800,000 votes in Texas while simultaneously losing Michigan and Pennsylvania. U.S. elections don’t work like that. Biden wins Texas only while first sweeping the industrial Midwest, plus Florida.
Trump, meanwhile, can rest assured his 38 electors from Texas will be there, as expected when Congress counts them. Quite possibly, with another 65 from Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida.