A new poll showing Donald Trump only six points ahead of Hillary Clinton, largely on the backs of older, white voters, coupled with a spike in voter registration this year could auger a shift in Texas’ political landscape beyond the November presidential election.
The Public Policy Polling survey shows Democratic presidential nominee Clinton leading Trump by significant margins among nonwhite voters and those under 65, a marked contrast to years of staunch Republican domination in Texas.
“Republicans could have a big Texas problem in the decades ahead,” said Dean Debnam, president of the North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling whose latest survey has touched off speculation among political insiders about how Trump’s unconventional campaign and an increase of more than 1 million new registered voters could affect Texas politics. “The groups Democrats are strongest with are rapidly growing in their share of the electorate, while the groups Republicans rely on the most may not be there in 20 years.”
Democrats long have pointed to the state’s changing demographics toward a younger, more diverse population as the key to their hoped-for resurgence.
Despite that, Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Dallas’ Southern Methodist University who has followed Texas politics for years, said Lone Star Republicans could have reason to worry because “competition is coming.” The latest poll highlights that older voters who are mostly staunch Republican are being slowly replaced by younger voters, including millennials who generally are more supportive of Democrats.
“Without Trump, I think the Republican numbers would be 6 to 8 points higher,” Jillson said. “If that affects local elections in the inner-ring suburbs this year, you could see some Republican losses … But even with that, I think it will be 10-15 years before Democrats will be competitive again statewide in Texas.”
Adding to the growing debate over the effect of Trump’s candidacy on Texas GOP politics is a growing spike in voter registrations statewide, common in presidential-election years, especially when an incumbent is not on the ballot.
If a majority of this year’s newly registered voters are Democratic-leaning Hispanics, African-Americans and transplants from other states, the trend could be magnified.
This month, Bexar County counted its 1 millionth registered voter, surpassing a registration benchmark that previously only Harris, Dallas and Tarrant counties had. As of early this week, the county had registered 1,013,759 citizens, the elections administrator said.
Harris has 2 million
Harris County has the most, with more than 2 million registered voters. Dallas County has 1.2 million, and Tarrant County has just about 1 million.
Statewide, an estimated 14 million Texans are registered to vote, an increase of about 1 million voters over the last four years, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees elections. Whether those are new Republicans or Democrats or independents is unknown, and party affiliation is determined by which primary a voter casts his or her ballot.
Officials in fast-growing Williamson County, in staunchly conservative GOP territory just north of Austin, said their registration numbers are up significantly.
During the 2008 presidential race, Williamson County accounted for just more than 220,000 of the state’s registered voters. The most current figures put Williamson County’s voter total at 294,329.
In Fort Bend County, a fast-growing GOP suburban stronghold southwest of Houston, elections administrator John Oldham said registrations have grown by 25 percent since 2008. That has added nearly 100,000 new voters to the rolls in just under eight years, he said.
Oldham estimated that about half of recently registered have not had Anglo or Hispanic surnames. Many have last names traditionally associated with Asian, Middle Eastern and African heritages, he said.
“That’s where we’re seeing a lot of growth,” he said.
For Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston, surburban areas like Fort Bend County are the places to watch in November.
“Republicans in Texas have dominated the suburban vote, and that’s been one reason for their success,” Rottinghaus said. “But in this election, Trump is doing poorly among these voters – the suburban women, college-educated voters who are younger. (Gov. Greg) Abbott and (U.S. Sen. Ted) Cruz still do well there, but crossover voting in the suburbs could cause a moment that might allow the Democrats to do better.
“That is how the Republicans got their foot in the door in congressional elections years ago,” he added.
The trend, said Jerry Polinard, a political scientist at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, will be determined by turnout.
“The Democrats can be encouraged, but they won’t carry the state anytime soon, probably not for at least a decade or more,” he said. “Republicans should be concerned about the changing demographics, yes, but not about losing the state anytime soon.”