by Sean Trende
The past week brought a surge of strange news out of Texas. First, three Republican congressmen, representing suburban San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston, decided to retire. These retirements are from districts that all saw surprisingly strong showings from Democrats last year, and they collectively set up the possibility that Republicans could emerge from the 2020 election with just a four-seat advantage in the state delegation. Second, we saw polling suggesting that the presidential race in Texas is close (indeed, former Vice President Joe Biden leads Donald Trump in the RealClearPolitics average).
We should be cautious about overinterpreting these factors. The retirements are susceptible to multiple interpretations. Perhaps members dislike being in the minority and realize they would be unlikely to return to the majority until 2022 (assuming Donald Trump loses re-election) or 2026 (if he wins). Perhaps members dislike choosing between defending this president and losing their base – that almost certainly played a role in Will Hurd’s decision. Yes, the GOP’s map may collapse, but that is a long-term danger of gerrymandering: Creating a large number of districts that weakly favor your party leaves you susceptible to demographic changes over the course of a decade. Likewise, the track record of polls of registered voters more than a year before an election is not so great.
Finally, we have heard this before. At least since the publication of “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” Democrats have hungrily been eyeing the Lone Star State, as its growing Hispanic population seemingly offers them inroads. I’ve been skeptical of this, in part because the state’s Hispanic population is relatively conservative (compared, at least, to California’s), in part because the white population is heavily conservative, and in part because the state showed no significant sign of moving politically over this time period.
Yet, there are reasons now to believe these shifts are real, and that Texas’s 38 electoral votes are in jeopardy for the GOP. The reason goes to a misunderstanding about the nature of Texas, and the bottom line of the 2016 election. In early 2017, David Byler and I concluded our analysis of that election. In it, we wrote:
As you can see, Hillary Clinton had the best performance of any Democrat in recent memory in the so-called “Mega-Cities,” winning almost two of every three votes cast. In large cities (those with metro areas of between 1 million and 5 million people), Clinton performed a bit worse than Barack Obama in 2008 and Bill Clinton in 1996. In other words, looking only at large urban areas, she was headed for a big victory.
The problem is that the Democratic coalition fell apart below that. Her performance in small cities was closer to Al Gore’s 2000 performance than either Obama’s or Bill’s landslide wins. Beneath that, her performance was a disaster; she ran behind Michael Dukakis in large towns, about 10 points behind him in small towns, and about 15 points behind him in rural areas. She ran over 20 points behind Bill in small towns and rural areas.
Nationally, the 2016 election can be viewed as a contest that Democrats won in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, but lost in the rural areas. In the lead-up to that election, prognosticators focused on changes in Democrats’ favor in the urban areas, but forgot just how many people voted in rural areas and small towns in many states. In particular, in states like Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, the Democrats’ weakness in rural areas and small towns overwhelmed their strong performance in the larger cities. In the Midwest, a near-majority of the votes are still cast in rural areas, small towns and large towns. The notable exceptions are Minnesota, where over 60% of the votes are cast in metropolitan areas, and in Illinois, which is dominated by metro Chicago. Tellingly, these are the states that Trump failed to flip.
When people think of Texas, they think of rural areas. Cowboys on horseback, cattle roaming the plains, and giant ranches (complete — for people of a certain age — with J.R. Ewing in a Stetson hat). But while the Llano Estacado – what we might call “stereotypical Texas” – does cover a large swath of the state, it is relatively underpopulated.
The nature of rural America changes dramatically when one crosses the 100th meridian. Here, as famously described by John Wesley Powell, rainfall drops beneath levels required for reliable crop growth, so a flourishing rural population never took hold. Unlike eastern states, states west of this longitude are better thought of as city states: Think of how Denver dominates Colorado, Phoenix dominates Arizona, Salt Lake City dominates Utah, and Las Vegas dominates Nevada.
Texas straddles the 100th meridian. Eastern Texas is actually an extension of the Deep South: It is wooded, humid, has a large number of small towns and cities, and has some rural African American population. The rest of the state, however, is more like New Mexico or western Oklahoma. Much of the land is given over to ranching, and few votes are cast there.
Instead, votes are cast in the major metropolitan areas. In 2016, the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan areas combined for a majority of the vote in Texas. Donald Trump very nearly lost these areas for the GOP for first time in recent memory, receiving just 48% of the vote there. Despite winning the popular vote nationally by larger margins than Clinton, Barack Obama took just 43% of the vote here in 2012, and 45% during his landslide win in 2008.
Another 17% of the vote was cast in the metro areas of large cities like San Antonio and Austin. Obama narrowly lost these areas to Mitt Romney in 2012, but Hillary Clinton won them with 55% of the vote. Small cities like McAllen and El Paso contributed another 4%. All told, the large metropolitan areas cast almost three-quarters of the vote in Texas, and Hillary Clinton won them with 51% support, a five-point improvement from Obama. Trump more than held his own in the rural areas of the state and in the towns, winning almost 70% of the vote (roughly the same vote share as Romney had four years earlier). But it was the Trump collapse in the urban areas that dominate the state that made it a single-digit race.
At the time, Byler and I were unsure what these changes meant. We wrote:
In the West South Central, it is largely the same story. Hillary Clinton’s vote shares in the cities were somewhat larger than Obama’s. This is mostly a function of Texas. We don’t know entirely what to make of her showing there – a large number of voters probably knew their votes didn’t matter, and we note that Trump ran further behind Mitt Romney than Clinton ran ahead of Obama in the urban counties. Regardless, just as urban Republicanism was the first indicator of realignment in Texas in the 1940s and 1950s, so too could this represent the seeds of a Democratic revival in the Lone Star State. We will have to wait and see.
Two years later, Beto O’Rourke shocked the political world by holding Sen. Ted Cruz to a three-point margin of victory, while Democrats swept local offices and judgeships in Dallas and Harris counties and picked up long-held Republican seats in these areas. O’Rourke performed well by improving Democrats’ showings in the urban areas. He won the big metro areas outright with 52% of the vote and blew Cruz out in San Antonio and Austin by 20 points. Once again, the rural areas and the towns saved the Republicans’ candidacy. They cast just a quarter of the vote, but Cruz won them by a 2-to-1 margin.
Could a Democrat really win in 2020? It seems a stretch, but remember that Mitt Romney won Texas by 16 points, Donald Trump won by nine, and Cruz won by just three. These are not good trendlines for the GOP. States do shift their partisanship quickly at times. George H.W. Bush won New Hampshire by 26 points in 1988 and New Jersey by 14; in 1996 New Jersey went for Clinton by 18 points, while New Hampshire was a 10-point Clinton win. That same year, West Virginia was a 15-point Clinton win; eight years later George W. Bush won it by 13.
We might write off 2018 to the bad GOP year and Cruz’s unpopularity. But that requires ignoring some substantial evidence to the contrary. One has to ignore that John McCain won the state by double digits in a 2008 environment that was probably even worse for the GOP than 2018, while John Cornyn won re-election against a hyped Democratic opponent handily.
Most importantly, one has to ignore the nature of political coalitions in the Age of Trump. Trump has generally improved GOP fortunes in rural American and in the towns, and in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, all of which has generally helped the Republican Party. But there is little doubt that the GOP has suffered substantial losses in the suburban areas that once formed the backbone of the party while doing little to advance its cause in the major cities.
Once one realizes that these urban/suburban areas cast a supermajority of the vote in Texas, one realizes quickly that the rural and small-town areas can’t keep the Republican Party afloat in Texas forever. I wouldn’t bet the farm, or the cattle ranch if one prefers, on Texas turning blue this cycle. But the state is not safe for Republicans in 2020 either, and it will likely be very competitve.
Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.