That state of the race comes from a new poll released Thursday by the Texas Lyceum that shows Trump leading Democrat Hillary Clinton 39-32 in the Lone Star State. The tally of likely voters considers a four-way race, including third-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.
It’s no shock that Trump would lead in deep-red Texas, despite his unpopularity among some Republicans and broader concerns about some of his policy proposals.
But a flurry of recent polls – some of dubious methodology – had fueled the idea that Texas might be in play. And Trump’s unusual decision to hold events in Texas later in the election cycle have further stoked that notion, even though neither campaign is particularly active in the state.
While the latest survey should calm some of that chatter, a seven-point win for Trump in Texas would still be historically meager.
Any drag at the top of the ticket could influence select races in Dallas and beyond, even though redistricting and straight-ticket voting tend to mute down-ballot effects. And some politicos said Democrats could have an opening if Trump underperforms in Texas.
“You can’t pretend like that’s not some sort of opportunity when you have more people identifying themselves, even reluctantly, as concluding that the Democrat is the better choice,” said Harold Cook, a longtime Democratic consultant.
Even a whisper of Texas turning blue whips up a frenzy.
That’s because the state is a must for any GOP path to the White House. A Democrat has not won a statewide office since 1994. The state has backed a Republican for president every time since 1980. GOP nominee Mitt Romney won Texas by 16 points in 2012.
Trump’s unconventional campaign, his rift with some top Texas Republicans and his bombastic rhetoric have no doubt created a wild card. But the idea of a seismic shift in Texas is dampened by the fact that Clinton’s campaign can’t even agree on whether the state is competitive.
Clinton – who’s been dogged of late by health concerns and an email scandal – first said she could win Texas. Then her top surrogate in Texas said the state is “not a battleground.” Then her running mate Tim Kaine said the campaign is “very serious about Texas.”
The relative lack of campaign infrastructure in Texas offers a more tangible hint.
It’s true that Clinton recently opened a campaign office in Houston. And Trump continues to raise eyebrows by holding public events in Texas, including one on Saturday. But there’s nothing in the state like the resources being poured into Ohio, Florida and other swing states.
“Both campaigns are treating Texas the way they always treat Texas, as an ATM,” said Deidre Delisi, a longtime Republican consultant. “They come in and raise money. They make a show of it. And then they are off.”
Still, some recent polling has proved irresistible. One recent survey – criticized by some experts – showed Texas as a toss-up. That caused the Texas GOP, which has dismissed the idea of a Clinton win, to raise alarm bells in a fundraising pitch about protecting a “Republican stronghold.”
The poll from the Texas Lyceum, a nonpartisan group, shows a somewhat more conventional standing in the presidential race.
A seven-point margin for Trump in Texas is lower than GOP presidential candidates have enjoyed in recent years, but is still likely big enough to keep both campaigns at bay. The poll shows a familiar racial divide, with Trump winning whites and Clinton winning blacks and Hispanics.
The poll, conducted Sept. 1-11, surveyed 1,000 Texans through live interviews on landlines and cell phones. Though the overall poll has a margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points, the survey of about 500 likely voters has a margin of error of plus-minus 4.4 percentage points.
Looking at certain issues, likely voters in Texas more often rated Trump better. The respondents said the billionaire would be better at handling crime, the economy, immigration, terrorism and health care. They favored Clinton for education, foreign policy and the environment.
But the race overall would tighten under different circumstances, the survey found. If the White House campaign was just two candidates – and the pollsters looked at the more diverse pool of registered voters – Clinton would actually lead Trump 39-34.
“The combination of the slow march of demographic change and Trump’s rhetoric appears to have made Texas’ registered voter pool more Democratic than we have seen in previous presidential races,” said Joshua Blank, the Texas Lyceum’s research director.
The ballot doesn’t feature all that many premiere general election matchups. That’s in large part due to Republican-led redistricting efforts, which have mostly reduced the state’s electoral map to safe districts where the primary election is the one that matters.
In Congress, the only marquee race is Republican Rep. Will Hurd’s effort in West Texas to fend off former Democratic Rep. Pete Gallego. And up for grabs in the GOP-dominated state House are just a handful of seats, including a few in the Dallas area.
Though Democrats typically get a boost in presidential years, even Cook, the consultant, said he wasn’t that optimistic about his party making big gains.
“I hate to sound like a ‘Debbie Downer’ of a Democrat,” he said. “But I’m just being honest.”
One race where the Trump effect is being watched is the East Dallas state House seat of Republican Kenneth Sheets. In the last presidential year, he won his competitive district with just 51 percent of the vote. This year he’s facing Democrat Victoria Neave.
Sheets downplayed the top of the ticket, saying “it’s not a factor for us.” He said the presidential race does come up on the campaign trail. But he said the conversation is less about Trump and more about people “people upset about Hillary Clinton.”
Asked if he’s endorsing Trump, however, Sheets responded, “I’m focused on my race.” Pressed further, he would allow only that he’s a Republican who’s “going to do everything I can to get Republicans elected.”
Neave, an attorney, said she’s also hearing about the presidential election from voters in the district – and that “folks are not happy about Trump.” She predicted that the top of the ticket could help tip the scales, dinging Sheets for having “refused to stand up to Trump.”
“His complacency is really empowering Trump,” she said.
In that contest and others, a key factor could be Texans’ reliance on straight-ticket voting.
A 2014 study by Austin Community College political scientists looked at the trend in the last several gubernatorial elections. And the researchers found that in 2014 in Texas’ 46 largest counties, more than 60 percent of all the ballots cast for governor were through straight tickets.
That rigid party loyalty reduces the chances of big electoral swings.
The Texas Lyceum pollsters acknowledged that the low favorability ratings both Trump and Clinton would seem to spur more split tickets. But they found little evidence of that coming to fruition, with neither candidate’s supporters being very willing to switch parties down the ballot.