Is Texas a purple state now, and if not, how soon will it be?
Continuing this series investigating the Lone Star State’s evolving partisanship, in this post I consider whether Texas could be competitive in the 2020 presidential election, and what, specifically, we might expect in terms of the impact of the state’s Latino electorate. In earlier posts, I examined the House situation —a so-called “Texodus” which claimed a sixth Republican incumbent, Mac Thornberry, this week— and the re-election prospects of GOP Sen. John Cornyn.
But the presidency is the big prize. In my previous post, I showed how critical Texas has been to recent GOP victories. The biggest red state in the nation was vital to both of George W. Bush’s victories, and Donald Trump’s 2016 win. Taking Texas out of the red column radically alters the Electoral College calculus.
Here I ask and answer two related questions. First, in 2020 and elections in the decade to come, just how competitive will Texas be? Second, to what degree will Latino votes determine the state’s competitiveness in upcoming presidential elections?
Lone Star(ting) to Attract Attention
Every time I open my inbox, I find a new political report or analysis about whether Texas is turning blue. These analyses vary in focus. Some cite the state’s rising urbanization and suburbanization. Others point to the state’s Latino-led racial diversification. Most analyses ponder the Bush family’s long grip on the state, and if it has finally weakened. (Presidential son-slash-nephew-slash-grandson George P. Bush is, of course, expected to reboot the family dynasty in due time.)
Pop culture portrays Texas as a land of big farms, oil derricks and rural cowboys. As Washington Post political data analyst David Byler points out, however, Texas is actually a very urbanized state—and certainly the most urbanized red state. Trump’s rise, says Byler, has accelerated the partisan impact of the state’s urbanization and, especially, suburban growth. “Trump gave Texas Democrats a way to grow their support —by gaining [Mitt] Romney-and-Bush-loving suburbanites— without giving Texas Republicans a corresponding way to make up for those,” Byler writes.
Abby Livingston, the Texas Tribune’s national political reporter, echoed Byler’s conclusions during a recent segment with MSNBC’s David Gura. She pointed out that GOP presidential candidates for two decades carried Houston’s Harris County by an average of nine points, but Trump lost it in 2016 by 12 points and Democrat Beto O’Rourke beat incumbent Republican Senator Ted Cruz in Harris by 17 points. “The numbers are dramatic when you factor in the presidential campaign of 2016,” quipped Livingston.
Accurately gaging the state’s partisanship in recent presidential contests is complicated by Karl Rove’s transformation of the state in service to his former boss, George W. Bush. The 2016 race also included significant third-party candidates. The best barometers are probably Barack Obama’s wins in two-person contests with John McCain and Mitt Romney. McCain beat Obama by almost 12 points, and Romney widened that margin four years later to 16 points. Those remain sizeable gaps to close, no matter what trouble Trump may find himself in by November 2020.
Latent Latino Power
The Latino vote in Texas shares many of the features of the Latino electorate in other states and nationally. It is growing quickly, with significant jumps in statewide Latino shares each new presidential or midterm cycle. Indeed, Pew projects that in 2020 Latinos will for the first time eclipse African Americans as the nation’s largest ethnic minority. But because the Latino vote is so young, the high share of age-eligible Latinos means it may take a few more cycles before Latinos actually cast more votes than African American nationally.
Home to one-fifth of U.S. Latinos, Texas is somewhat anomalous. Most notably, Texas is the most Republican of the 11 states featuring Latino statewide populations of 15 percent or higher. Only Arizona, and maybe Florida, come even close to being as Republican-leaning for a high-Latino influence state as Texas.
In 2014, Latino Decisions published a detailed study of Latinos in Texas. Among the report’s key findings:
- Latino support for Republican candidates breached 43 percent and rose to 49 percent during Bush’s election and re-election, but since fell to 35 percent for McCain in 2008 and 29 percent for Romney in 2012.
- Latinos are projected to become the plurality ethnic group statewide by 2020, and a statewide majority by 2040.
- Despite their growth rates, Latinos in Texas are under-mobilized. Something I witnessed firsthand over the last week as I crisscrossed the state: Only 39 percent of eligible Latinos participated in the 2012 presidential contest, which is not only lower than white Texans that year (61 percent) but significantly lower than the national turnout rate of 48 percent for Latinos that year.
Might that change now? As Latino Decisions polling has shown, anger and frustration with Donald Trump, especially on immigration, could trigger a Latino surge. We know that 45 percent of Latinos now view the GOP as openly hostile toward their community, according to a recent poll of Latino Texans commissioned by Univision. That’s a 100 percent increase since Romney was the party’s nominee in 2012.
But keep an eye, too, on the gun issue. Gun safety is a powerful motivator for Texas Latinos, especially after the El Paso shooting. A recent Latino Vote Project study found that roughly 80 percent of Texas Latinos want stricter gun laws, worry about race-motivated gun violence, blame Trump specifically for being partly responsible for rising anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiments.
Texas and national Democrats alike seem poised to seize the moment. Last month, the state Democratic Party released its 2020 electoral strategy, which includes mobilizing 1,000 canvassers across the state to register what the party estimates to be 2.6 million potential Democratic voters between now and next November. According to the Texas Tribune, although the plan includes some focus on rural areas, the vast majority of targeted voters are expected to come from either “communities of color,” “reliably blue counties” and “politically changing suburbs”—or combinations therein.
Keep in mind these voters almost certainly do not appear in current polling data or voter files. Also, an additional 400,000 Latinos will turn 18 just in time to register and vote for in the 2020 presidential election. The point is that there’s a significant and untapped electorate in Texas, and much of it is comprised of young, urban or suburban Latinos.
Last month, I returned to my native Texas to catch the Democratic presidential debate in Houston. Let me tell you, the buzz in the Lone Star State is palpable. The party is cautiously optimistic about its electoral prospects. As I prepared to board my flight from Houston back to Washington, one thing was certain: Deep in the heart of Texas, Democrats are saddling up.
Optimism helps, but the Democrats’ partisan fortunes ultimately depend upon the party’s ability to register a large number of the unregistered Latino voters across Texas. The state deadline to register to vote is October 5, 2020—exactly a year and a day from today. Between now and then, Democrats have a chance to mobilize an untapped, Latino-dominated electorate that holds the power the transform the state’s partisan identity.
Albert Morales is the Senior Political Director at Latino Decisions. He tweets from @al_morales.