Could out-of-state migration tip battleground Texas?

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Last week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk became the latest California resident to consider moving to Texas.

Hundreds of thousands of others have already arrived ahead of him, sparking snide comments from Texas Republicans who believe the so-called “California Exodus” is a result of the state’s politics. 

“Don’t blow it when you come here,” Gov. Greg Abbott warned incoming Texans earlier this year, urging them to vote Republican.

In 2018, the latest year of Census data, more than 86,000 residents from California relocated to Texas, a 36 percent increase compared to 2017. 

Unlike Musk, who threatened to move from California after Alameda County’s stay-at-home order prevented him from reopening his Tesla factory, most California residents don’t get the red carpet treatment (a phone call from Abbott, presumably wherein the governor offered the billionaire industrialist “financial incentives” to relocate, better known as taxpayer subsidies).

The latest Musk drama has reignited the notion among Texas Republicans that everyday Californians are leaving the state in search of free enterprise and weaker government. But it’s clear that narrative plays a much larger role in the Republican imagination than anywhere else.

In reality, Californians are leaving the state because of housing prices, which have ballooned this century as high-paid tech workers flock to the state faster than cities can build homes, pricing out lower and middle-class residents. As Austin continues to make its name as a tech-hub, the same housing problem is emerging too; in the past decade, housing prices have skyrocketed, going as far as doubling in some areas, and for the first time, the state’s capital has become a majority-renter market.

Of the more than 1 million residents who have left California in the past decade or so, Texas has been their most popular destination. Of those, a majority are working-class and earn less than $50,000 a year. A large share are also high-income, college-educated tech workers who have come to type away in Silicon Hills, the nickname for Austin’s metropolitan area where major tech companies like Facebook and Amazon have set up secondary headquarters. 

As both Democrats and Republicans race to register as many voters as possible, the growing number of new Texas transplants — not just from California where a plurality of out-of-state residents come from, but from other states like Louisiana, Florida, New York, and Illinois where large shares come from too — are an enticing pool of potential voters.

Most recently, Beto O’Rourke, who has focused his attention on flipping the Texas House since ending his presidential bid, is hosting a virtual voter registration phone bank to try and reach those new Texans. 

“My read of the data is that there have been more than one million known Democrats who have moved to Texas just in the last three years,” O’Rourke told the Signal. “These are very significant numbers that will have a material impact on the outcome in November.” 

By using both publically available data on address changes and comparing that with voter registration files from different states, Texas Democrats have also been successfully weeding out new Texans who are likely to vote Democrat.

“They’re an incredibly promising group of people to try and register,” Texas Democratic Party Voter Expansion Director Luke Warford told the Signal. 

In a mail campaign that targeted new Texans in 2018, he said around 90 percent of those they registered through the program ended up becoming voters.

“We have a pretty good sense of how they’re going to vote when they move to Texas,”  Warford said. “That’s always a challenge with voter registration, if someone has never been registered, you don’t know what party they’re going to vote for.” 

Warford said Texas Democrats have dug into the voter history of new Texans and found them to be mostly a Democratic-leaning group. He pushed back against the idea by Texas Republicans that these new potential voters are exiled conservatives.

“If California is a state that is 60 percent Democrat and 40 percent Republican, why would the subsection of people moving to Texas be disproportionately Republican? Especially if they’re moving to big cities,” Warford said.

Where voter history data doesn’t exist for new Texans, there are signs that the incoming population may generally favor Democrats. Rogelio Sáenz, a demography expert with the University of Texas San Antonio, penned an article in 2016 that compared trends in voting-age populations in California and Texas. He found that between 2000 and 2015, the white voting-age citizen population grew in Texas while it declined in California. At the time, those trends were partially influenced by the fact that net-migration in Texas saw more whites arrive in the state than Latinos.

Sáenz told the Signal that imbalance — the net-migration among whites, Blacks and Latinos — appears to have more or less equalized in Texas in recent years.

“For each of the groups… The balance is that they’re adding about between 21,000 and 24,000 new people,” Sáenz said, calculating the difference between the number of people leaving and entering Texas.

In a state that has already seen razor-thin margins in recent elections, those numbers add up — and if voter data already exists, it presents a lucrative and easy opportunity for Democrats to bolster trends in areas new Texans are moving to: Texas’ major metro areas and suburbs that are now full-on battlegrounds for determining who has power in the state.

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