This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “The Magenta Mammoth”
It is a sweltering day in Austin, but that has not deterred Emily Clark from spending hours registering students at the University of Texas to vote, dressed in a banana costume. Ms Clark is a volunteer for MOVE Texas, a group that registers and campaigns for young people and minorities in state politics. Democrats have high hopes that groups such as MOVE can help them win statewide elections in what they see as a battleground state. The Economist’s number-crunching suggests such thoughts are, as Texans say, too big for their britches.
For years Democrats have predicted that Texas was just a few election cycles away from becoming a toss-up state. At an event in Austin on September 28th Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, said that Texas is Democrats’ “hope for the future” of the party. Texas is more racially diverse and younger than the country at large. Non-whites lean heavily Democratic and young Americans are the most Democratic generation of all.
Both groups are less likely to find their way to the polls, though, which is why Texas has so far been a lesson in why demography is not necessarily destiny. Still, the trend is promising for Democrats. In 2016 Hillary Clinton won nearly 600,000 more votes than Barack Obama did in 2012. In 2018 Democratic congressional candidates picked up two House seats, and Beto O’Rourke lost in a closer-than-expected Senate race to Ted Cruz. Since then six of the state’s Republican representatives in the House have decided to retire before the next congressional elections. Will Democrats catch their white whale in 2020?
Those who foresee a “blue Texas” point to demography as the primary reason for the state’s supposed competitiveness. While increasing turnout among minority and young voters has helped Democrats rack up big margins in cities, moderates in the suburbs—especially women—have been moving leftwards too. These patterns combined to make the state competitive in last year’s mid-term elections. According to our analysis of precinct-level election results, voters in the state’s four largest metropolitan areas, Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio (also referred to as the “Texas Triangle” because of their position in the state), cast 96% as many votes in 2018 as they did in 2016. That is unusual, because the drop-off from presidential elections to mid-terms is normally much higher. The Texas Triangle has also become more Democratic; Mr O’Rourke’s share of the vote was six percentage points higher within it than Mrs Clinton’s was in 2016.
Republicans draw much of their strength from the state’s vast rural and exurban areas, as well as from affluent suburbs. Voters living outside the triangle are predominantly loyal to conservative politicians; Mr Cruz beat Mr O’Rourke by 24 percentage points in these areas last year. And although these voters were less likely than urban and suburban ones to show up at polls in 2018—they cast just 89% of their 2016 votes last year—they will be back in force next year. So-called “drop-off” voters typically come back in presidential years.
Most election handicappers calculate the partisan lean of a state by comparing overall vote share in the state with what happened nationwide. This method can skew things, because not all members of Congress have an opponent. This distorts the numbers, because would-be Republican voters who live in a district where there is no Republican candidate do not count (the same is true of Democratic voters where a Republican runs unopposed).
Scaling Guadalupe Peak
Fill in the blanks by predicting what a Republican or Democrat running in such a place would probably have won if they had contested these seats, and the state’s partisan lean is a little stronger. Texas was 13 points more Republican than the nation as a whole in the 2018 House mid-terms. That is a lot to overcome, especially with Republican voters returning to the polls in 2020.
We reckon a Democratic presidential candidate would have to perform nine percentage points better in Texas than Mrs Clinton did in 2016 in order to win. According to data from Civiqs, a pollster, the president’s net approval rating is still positive in the state. It will take a lot of votes to close the gap. Drew Galloway, MOVE Texas’s executive director, predicts that Democrats would need to register 500,000 new voters to make the state a true toss-up. Abhi Rahman, a spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party, says that only 160,000 new Democrats voted in 2018 compared with 2016.
Texans will not just be voting for the president next year, though. Thirty-six congressional representatives, one senator and 150 members of the state House will also be up for re-election. According to Julie Oliver, a Democratic candidate in Texas’s 25th congressional district who also ran for the seat in 2018, progressives have tangible hope in a handful of these down-ballot races. “People care about health care, education and the economy, and they want the incumbents out,” Ms Oliver says of voters in the 25th district, a massive area that stretches 200 miles from the majority-minority precincts of East Austin to suburban towns just south of Fort Worth. Her success hinges on the same registration-based strategies on which groups like MOVE have led the charge. Though optimistic, Ms Oliver is “not taking anything for granted”—she lost by nine percentage points last time round. It is rare for districts to shift so suddenly in such a short amount of time.
Six of the state’s Republican House members have so far decided to call it quits before the 2020 election even gets started. Three represent competitive districts. One of those retiring is Will Hurd, who represents the 23rd district, a broad sweep of sagebrush between El Paso and San Antonio. Voters in Mr Hurd’s district voted for Mrs Clinton by 3.4 percentage points in 2016 and chose to re-elect him by less than one point last year.
In a speech in June to a gathering organised by gay Republicans, reported by the Washington Blade, Mr Hurd appeared pessimistic about his party’s future. “This is a party that is shrinking. The party is not growing in some of the largest parts of our country,” he said. “Why is that? I’ll tell you. It’s real simple: Don’t be an asshole. Don’t be a racist. Don’t be a misogynist, right? Don’t be a homophobe. These are real basic things that we all should learn when we were in kindergarten.” This view is not widely shared, however. In both the 22nd and 24th districts, where incumbents are retiring, Mr Trump won by 8 percentage points in 2016, which this far out from polling day looks like a comfortable cushion.
Yet these downballot efforts may run into the sand in a presidential year. Democratic efforts have not gone unanswered by Republicans, resulting in an arms race in campaign-finance spending. Engage Texas, a political action committee (PAC), has raised $10m to register Republican voters throughout the state. According to Mr Rahman, Democrats plan to spend similarly.
But resources allocated to Texas deprive candidates in other, more competitive states of crucial fundraising dollars. Handicappers at the University of Virginia predict that Senate races in nine other states will be more competitive than those in Texas. And since ads there are more expensive than they are elsewhere—Texas has separate media markets for each of its metro areas—the price of competing is high. As long as the state remains a reddish shade of purple, magenta perhaps, there is a risk for Democrats that, in dreaming of Texas, they may overlook states where their prospects are better.