Latinos attract less attention than they otherwise merit in American politics because almost half of Latinos live in the two biggest states, neither of which is a presidential swing state: comfortably blue California and reliably red Texas.
In the first half of this third, two-part post in my series about Texas politics and the Latino vote, I examine the power of Texas in presidential politics by raising a simple question: What if Latinos help turn Texas from a reliably red state to a purple state? To what degree would this alter the calculus of presidential elections, and heighten the attention paid to and electoral clout wielded by Latino voters?
Given that a statewide poll taken five weeks ago showed Joe Biden leading Donald Trump in Texas by two points, a purple Texas in 2020 is far more likely than it was when the Bush family lorded over the state. Simply put, a competitive Texas radically alters the two-party fight to assemble winning presidential coalitions.
Pivotal if Purple
In order to see how a purple —no less blue— Texas will change where and among which voters presidential candidates will compete, in this first post I examine how pivotal Texas has been to the GOP coalition.
Republicans George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016 won narrow Electoral College victories despite losing the popular vote. For both GOP nominees, capturing the largest red-state electoral prize (Texas) was necessary to breach the 270-elector, winning threshold.
Bush was never in real jeopardy in his home state, of course. The point is that neither he nor any other alternative GOP nominee who in 2000 duplicated Bush’s razor-thin total of 271 electors would have been able to lose any state, no less Texas and it’s then-32 electoral votes, and still win the White House. Although Bush won the popular vote four years later, the 286 electors he assembled for his 2004 re-elect again necessitated holding Texas.
Now fast-forward 16 years. Because Trump’s electoral margin was bigger, often overlooked is how much more pivotal Texas was to his 2016 victory.
Technically, Trump received only 304 electors (not the oft-cited 306) because two Republican electors refused to cast their votes for him. (Oddly, both electors were Texans.) For the sake of argument, however, let’s use the full complement of 538 electoral votes, of which Hillary Clinton won 232. Shift Texas’ 38 electors from Trump to Clinton and she reaches 270—exactly enough to win. Unlike in 2000 where every red state victory mattered to Bush, the only state among the 30 Trump carried that he could not afford to lose was Texas.
How crucial are Texas’ 38 electors for Trump again in 2020?
Most prognosticators point to Rust Belt states Pennsylvania (20 electors), Ohio (18), Michigan (16) and Wisconsin (10) as crucial 2020 battlegrounds. Of these, if the 2016 map otherwise holds constant Trump can lose any of these states and still win. In fact, with the exception of the combined 38 electors from PA and OH, he can even afford to lose any other pair of these four swing states… so long as he holds Texas. A red Texas provides Trump a buffer to lose a couple Rust Belt battlegrounds and still win.
Failure to hold Texas, however, is alone enough to sink Trump’s re-election in an otherwise identical 2016 map. That’s how pivotal Texas is to the GOP coalition. “Winning those 38 Texas electoral votes allows us not only to defeat Donald Trump in November of 2020, it forever changes the electoral landscape in the United States,” former Texas congressman and 2020 presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke said recently. “This is incredibly important and we uniquely have the ability to follow through.”
Texas Already More Competitive Than California
By contrast, the Democrats depend less on their biggest, blue-state prize of California. In their four combined Democratic wins, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama could have lost CA and still amassed 270+ electors. This is true despite the fact that California’s bounty —54 electors in the 1990s, 55 this decade— is half-again as large as Texas. Bottom line: The biggest red state means more to Republican presidential candidates than the biggest blue state does to Democrats.
The kicker, for Democrats, is that Texas is already much closer to turning purple than California is. A variety of factors contribute to the increasing two-party competitiveness of Texas, including the rising urbanization and suburbanization of this formerly rural state, and its growing Latino population share. While it took California Democrats over a decade to turn the state blue following the passage of Prop. 187, Latinos were not being gunned down at the local Wal-Mart simply because of their ethnicity.
Something big is happening in Texas. In the second part of this post, I examine how Latinos are contributing to the purpling of the Lone Star State.
Albert Morales is the Senior Political Director at Latino Decisions. He tweets from @al_morales.