by David Byler
For three years now, Texas Republicans have been taking on water. In 2016, Donald Trump won the state by nine points — a seven-point decline from Mitt Romney’s 16-point margin four years earlier. In 2018, Beto O’Rourke came within three points of winning a Senate seat, and other down-ballot Democrats got unusually close to winning statewide offices. And over the past couple of weeks, Texas Republicans have lost some of their most valuable politicians. Reps. Will Hurd, Kenny Marchant, K. Michael Conaway and Pete Olson all announced their retirement from the House. Hurd is the GOP’s only African American House member, and three of those four congressmen (Hurd, Marchant, Olson) leave flippable suburban seats open.
Now Democrats are crossing their fingers about finally turning Texas blue, or at least purple, in 2020. Turning Texas blue in the medium-term isn’t a pipe dream — the Trump-era GOP doesn’t play as well as the George W. Bush-era one did in an urbanized, diverse state such as Texas. But turning Texas truly purple by 2020 is still a big lift. Democrats should probably think of it more as possible icing on the cake rather than a core part of their strategy in the next election.
When Republicans nominated Trump in 2016, they assented to an electoral trade-off that benefited Texas Democrats. Trump earned the votes of blue-collar whites by temporarily chucking GOP orthodoxy on economic issues and moving hard to the right on racial and cultural issues. But by doing so, he alienated many of the white-collar suburbanites who once formed the backbone of the party.
And many of those college-educated suburbanites are Texans.
This map, based on an updated version of these calculations, shows the percentage of major-party voters who live in large cities in each state. In Texas, about two-thirds of votes were cast in the Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin metropolitan areas. These urban areas (plus El Paso) dominate the state’s politics. So while Texas is a Southern state, it’s just not as rural as Mississippi, South Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee and other states where Republicans haven’t suffered nearly as much damage in the Trump years.
Texas also has a growing Hispanic population, which creates additional problems for the GOP. Trump’s candidacy didn’t cause a surge in Hispanic turnout or a significant increase in Latino support for Democrats. O’Rourke also did not generate a dramatic surge in Hispanic turnout in 2018. But Trump’s election seems to have ended — or at least put on hold — GOP attempts to expand beyond the roughly 25 percent to 35 percent of the Latino vote that it seems to have locked down.
Put simply, Trump gave Texas Democrats a way to grow their support — by gaining Romney-and-Bush-loving suburbanites — without giving Texas Republicans a corresponding way to make up for those. The Bush-era Republican Party was better at winning Southern suburbs and at least seemed to want to reach out to Latinos. The Trump-era version can’t or won’t do the same, and that’s turned Texas from an untouchably red state to the sort of light-red worry that probably gnaws at Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel.
But turning Texas purple by 2020 would be difficult. Texas’s baseline partisanship is 11 percentage points more Republican than the nation — Trump won it by nine points while he lost the popular vote by two. So it would take an 11-point jump to make it a truly purple state that perfectly reflected the nation’s partisan divide.
That sort of a jump isn’t unprecedented: In 1988, New Hampshire voted for George H.W. Bush by 26 points in 1988, only to give Bill Clinton a one-point victory margin in 1992 and a 10-point margin in 1996. Iowa went from favoring Barack Obama by six points to favoring Trump by nine between 2012 and 2016. But most states don’t move that far in one cycle. Between 2000 and 2004, only two states — Alaska and Vermont — moved left as much as Texas would have to in order to become a truly purple state. Between 2004 and 2008, the baseline partisanship of Arkansas and Louisiana shifted wildly right and Indiana, while Hawaii (Barack Obama’s home state) shifted hugely leftward. But none of the other 46 states covered the distance facing Texas Democrats. In 2012, only one state shifted that far, and only five did in 2016.
The exact counts here will vary depending on methodology (feel free to email me with questions about my calculations), and reasonable people can set up different criteria for when a state is and isn’t purple. But the main point stands: An 11-point shift isn’t impossible, but it wouldn’t be normal.
This adds up to an unsatisfying conclusion for Democrats: Texas is worth investing in, but it probably won’t be purple by fall of next year. If Democrats win the national popular vote by a solid margin, they could put Texas in play, just as Obama put red states such as Indiana, Missouri and North Carolina in play while winning the popular vote by seven points in 2008. But in 2020, a genuinely blue Texas — one where Democrats have an advantage and win more often than they lose — will remain a Democratic dream.
David Byler is a data analyst and political columnist focusing on elections, polling, demographics and statistics. He joined The Washington Post in 2019. Follow David