A more progressive Texas: From Travis County to Smith County

by Mark P. Jones

During the latter half of the current decade, the ideological positions of Texans in counties across the state have moved to the left. A combination of generational replacement, migration and attitudinal change has resulted in all but five of the state’s 22 most populous counties experiencing a shift to the left among registered voters. Thus, while the average Texas registered voter remains right of center, and in only three of these 22 counties does the average registered voter hold a position that is left of center, Texans in the state’s most populous counties are, on average, less conservative today than they were at the start of the decade. 


Data from University of Texas/Texas Tribune Polls conducted between 2011 and 2019 were aggregated to allow for an analysis of the ideological orientation of Texans in the 22 Texas counties with more than 130,000 registered voters as of 2019. Combined, these 22 counties contain almost three-fourths (73%) of the state’s 15.6 million registered voters.

The survey item used here asks respondents: “On a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is extremely liberal, 7 is extremely conservative, and 4 is exactly in the middle, where would you place yourself?” During the entire 2011-19 period under analysis, the mean ideological location of Texas registered voters was 4.4, that is moderately right of center. The mean ideological position for the 2016-19 period (4.3) is 0.2 lower than for the 2011-15 period (4.5), suggesting the ideological orientation of the state’s registered voters has become moderately more liberal as the current decade has progressed.

In the figure, the 22 counties are arrayed from left to right based on the ideological location of their average registered voter for the 2016-19 period (in green). The mean ideological location for the 2011-15 period is in red. 

The ideological location of the 22 counties: 2016-19

For the current period of 2016-19, three counties have mean ideological scores to the left of the middle point of 4.0. They are Travis (3.4), Hays (3.7) and Dallas (3.8). The remaining most liberal bloc of counties includes Bexar (4.0), Harris (4.1), Collin (4.1) and Cameron (4.1).

The county with the most conservative mean ideological score is Smith (5.1), followed by Lubbock (4.9) and McLennan (4.8), each the home of a mid-sized city (Tyler, Lubbock and Waco, respectively) that serves as a regional hub for the surrounding rural and semi-rural areas. The remaining most conservative bloc of counties includes Galveston (4.6), Brazoria (4.6) and Montgomery (4.5), with all three sharing the feature of being suburban counties in the Houston metro area.

The remaining counties vary little in terms of their mean ideological score, ranging from 4.2 in Tarrant and Williamson to 4.4 in Fort Bend, Bell, Hidalgo and Denton — with Nueces, El Paso and Jefferson in between, at 4.3.

Shifts in ideology: 2016-19 vs. 2011-15

Statewide, the mean ideological position of registered voters dropped from 4.5 to 4.3 between the 2011-15 and 2016-19 time frames. Among the 22 counties, all but five saw their ideological means shift to the left, with three (Lubbock, McLennan and Nueces) experiencing no shift and two (El Paso and Hidalgo) shifting slightly to the right.

Six counties experienced noteworthy shifts to the left. Dallas (0.5) saw the largest such shift, followed by Collin (0.4), Brazoria (0.4), Bexar (0.4), Hays (0.3) and Cameron (0.3). Three of these — Collin, Brazoria and Hays — are suburban counties, respectively, in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and Austin metro areas. These counties appear to be moving to the left as their socio-demographic profiles become more similar to those of their respective neighboring urban cores.

Mark P. Jones is Fellow in political science at Rice University’s Baker Institute. @MarkPJonesTX


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