Why Texas Is Nearing Battleground Status (It’s Not Just About Beto)

by Nate Cohn

Hispanics represent the (elusive) upside for Democrats, but it’s a shift in white voters that is making the biggest difference.

Beto O’Rourke at a rally in Austin in October 2018. He won a lot of voters who had voted for Republicans and for minor-party candidates.

The dream of a “Blue Texas” has captured the imagination of Democrats for nearly a decade, and Beto O’Rourke has come closer than anyone to making a statewide victory a reality.

His strengths as a candidate in his narrow loss in a 2018 Senate race against Ted Cruz — by 2.6 percentage points — led his supporters to push him to run for president, and he obliged them Thursday morning.

But his performance may have demonstrated something else: Texas is on the doorstep of emerging as a battleground state, and any number of Democrats might stand a chance to compete there in 2020 for the presidency or the Senate.

His relatively close loss is promising for the party because he did not take full advantage of the longer-term trends that might put it over the top sooner than later. His strength came almost exclusively from white voters, not from the growing Hispanic population in the state.

None of this is to take away from his accomplishment. He did better than every Democrat running statewide in Texas in the 2018 midterms. It seems unlikely that many Democrats would have fared as well as he did, and you could argue it bodes well for his chances in a presidential race. But on balance his success was a reflection of deeper trends.

Mr. O’Rourke’s close result wasn’t because of an exceptional turnout that will be hard for other Democrats to repeat in 2020. Republican voters, defined as those who have participated in a recent Republican primary, turned out at a higher rate than Democratic ones. Neither the Hispanic nor youth voter share of the electorate was higher than it was in 2016, when President Trump won the state by nine points.

On the contrary, Democrats in 2020 can be expected to enjoy a more favorable turnout because presidential races tend to draw in more young and Hispanic voters. Mr. O’Rourke might have won Texas last November if turnout had been at the level of a contested presidential race, based on an Upshot analysis of Times/Siena poll responses, actual results and voter file data from L2, a nonpartisan voter file vendor.

The data yields an estimate of how every registered voter in Texas would have voted, based on a long list of geographic and demographic factors that predicted vote choice in the Times/Siena polling. Importantly, turnout in 2018 is among those factors, which allows us to fully untangle how much of Mr. O’Rourke’s strength was because of strong turnout among his supporters.

Source: Upshot analysis of L2 voter file data and Times/Siena polls The New York Times

The data indicates that two opposing turnout trends influenced the results. The electorate was older, whiter and more Republican than the state as a whole — or than the 2016 electorate. But an O’Rourke supporter was generally likelier to vote than a demographically and politically similar supporter of Mr. Cruz. This was the pattern nationwide, so it is not obvious that this can be attributed to Mr. O’Rourke specifically; it could have been the favorable Democratic environment more generally.

Either way, the extra turnout boost probably cut Mr. Cruz’s margin of victory by two points.

Mr. O’Rourke might have won with a turnout of around 10 million voters. (The actual turnout was around 8.4 million.) Without the extra edge of a Democratic wave year, it might have taken 11 million votes, a number that is not out of the question in 2020 if Texas is contested as a battleground state.

So how did Mr. O’Rourke fare so well? He did it through old-fashioned persuasion, by winning voters who had voted for Republicans and for minor-party candidates.

The results themselves make it clear that he won a lot of voters who supported Republicans in other races. He ran three points ahead of the overall Democratic state vote for the U.S. House in 2018 (adjusted for uncontested races), and ahead of every down-ballot Democrat running statewide.

Mr. O’Rourke’s personal appeal was probably a factor, and there’s no guarantee a different Democrat can replicate it. His strong favorability rating (plus-10 in the exit polls, 52 percent to 42 percent) is consistent with that possibility, though he might have also had the benefit of a relatively unpopular incumbent in Mr. Cruz. Only 50 percent of voters had a favorable impression of Mr. Cruz in the exit polls (48 percent had an unfavorable one).

But Mr. O’Rourke’s personal appeal is not the whole story. After all, many Democrats running for the U.S. House or other statewide offices posted noteworthy performances.

The tide lifting all Democratic boats in Texas was an anti-Trump rebellion.

 Over all, President Trump’s approval rating was at 49 percent in the exit poll and 50 percent in the large AP/Fox Votecast poll. This is consistent with a variety of other survey data, including a recent Quinnipiac poll that put the president’s approval rating at minus-3 among registered voters in the state, 47-50. Gallup, measuring the much more diverse pool of Texan adults, put the president’s approval rating at just 41 percent in 2018.

It is notable that Mr. O’Rourke, with 48.3 percent of the vote, fell a bit short of the disapproval number of the president. That could reflect that he was facing a well-known incumbent, which offers on average a meaningful benefit to the officeholder (despite Mr. Cruz’s relative unpopularity). It could also reflect the state’s G.O.P. tradition; some number of Republicans may disapprove of Trump but not be ready to vote for a Democrat.

Source: Precinct results from Texas Legislative Council; Precinct-level maps from data compiled by Nathaniel Kelso and Michal Migurski. Election maps represent the two-party vote. The New York Times.

No matter how you explain it, the president’s disapproval rating in Texas would seem to imply that there’s at least some additional upside for Democrats there, beyond what Mr. O’Rourke pulled off. And the president’s far lower approval rating among all adults (as opposed to among registered voters) hints at another opportunity for Democrats: mobilizing unregistered voters. In both cases, Hispanic voters could represent the upside for Democrats.

Mr. O’Rourke’s strong showing had essentially nothing to do with the initial vision of a Blue Texas powered by mobilizing the state’s growing Hispanic population. The Texas electorate was only two points more Hispanic in 2018 than it was in 2012, but President Obama lost the state by 16 points in 2012, compared with Mr. O’Rourke’s 2.6-point loss.

At the same time, Mr. O’Rourke fared worse than Mr. Obama or Hillary Clinton in many of the state’s heavily Hispanic areas, particularly in more conservative South Texas. This could reflect Mr. Cruz’s relative strength among Hispanic voters compared with a typical Republican.

Instead, Mr. O’Rourke’s improvement came almost exclusively from white voters, and particularly college-educated white voters. Whites probably gave him around 33 percent of their votes, up from a mere 22 percent for Mr. Obama in 2012.

There’s clearly additional upside for Democrats if they could pair their recent gains among white voters with improvement among Hispanic voters (through some combination of persuasion, higher turnout among registrants and newly registered voters).

Can Democrats really turn out Hispanic voters in huge numbers in Texas? There are real barriers, and you wouldn’t expect Hispanic Democrats to turn out in particularly high numbers given their low turnout elsewhere in the country. It is far-fetched to suggest Hispanic mobilization will fundamentally transform the electorate and turn Texas into a blueish state anytime soon.

But a more modest increase in turnout or support among Hispanic voters is fairly likely if Texas sees the campaign dollars and attention that come with a contested state in a presidential year. When Mr. Obama contested Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado in 2008, the turnout there increased by an average of 13 percent to 23 percent over 2004 levels, which included a mix of higher turnout among registrants and thousands of newly registered voters. Given the extraordinary turnout in the 2018 midterm election nationwide, it is plausible that turnout will be up substantially in Texas regardless of whether the state is a battleground.

Is Texas a true battleground state? Mr. O’Rourke and House Democrats fared much worse in Texas than in clear battleground states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. They also fared worse than in the next tier of Sun Belt battlegrounds, like Florida, Georgia, Arizona and North Carolina. And Texas is substantially more expensive to compete in than any of those states, save Florida.

But if you squint at the midterm results, it is not obvious that Texas will be so far to the right of those Sun Belt battlegrounds. The president’s approval rating in the two election surveys was basically the same in Texas as in Florida, Georgia and Arizona (there were no surveys in North Carolina, where there was no statewide contest). Democrats in Texas, including Mr. O’Rourke, fared worse in the major statewide contests, but it was also the only state where the Democrats all faced incumbents in such contests.

It is also the state where the Democrats have the most obvious upside in terms of the mobilization of additional voters; the pace of demographic shifts; and the trend toward Democrats in the Trump era.

Put it together, and Texas is on the cusp of being a true (if Republican-tilting) battleground state. It might not be immediately and vigorously contested, as Arizona or North Carolina will most likely be, given the greater expense of campaigning in Texas and the fact that it starts out to the right of those states. But if Democrats chose to contest it seriously in 2020, there wouldn’t be anything crazy about that.

Nate Cohn is a domestic correspondent for New York Times’  The Upshot. He covers elections, polling and demographics. Before joining The Times in 2013, he worked as a staff writer for The New Republic. @Nate_Cohn


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