Why Texas didn’t flip in 2020

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Three weeks after Election Day, Democrats in Texas are still scratching their heads.

Not only did Donald Trump win the state on Election Day, but the far-reaching down-ballot offensive Democrats launched following their success in 2018 fizzled out by that same Tuesday evening.

Sen. John Cornyn coasted to re-election, all targeted congressional seats remained in Republican hands, and most importantly, there was little to no movement in the statehouse, guaranteeing Republicans another opportunity to design congressional and state district lines that will undoubtedly be just as harsh as the current ones. 

And while Democrats once again improved their margins and turnout in many urban and suburban areas that were already drifting toward them (something that should worry Republicans as they return to their corner of the ring), it wasn’t nearly enough to offset the reliably red rural counties that have long provided an easy cushion for any narrowing Republican margins in the state’s most populated and fastest-growing counties. 

If that analysis of the election results sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a trend that has been around for at least two decades in Texas and everywhere else in the nation. Election after election, rural counties have shifted to the right and urban counties have shifted to the left. In many states with growing cities and urbanization, Republicans have simply run out of rural votes. The national trend held true and rewarded Democrats in 2020 by delivering Georgia, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. 

In Texas, polling leading up to the election and gains from two years earlier served as proof that, pending the resources and turnout, the urban-rural shift and Trump’s unpopularity would bless Democrats in Texas once again; maybe not flipping the entire state, but at least matching or exceeding the gains made down-ballot in 2018.

Instead, Election Day saw Democrats gain several points in urban areas they already held, flip some suburban counties while siphoning votes in others, receive a stiff warning from voters in the Rio Grande Valley, and ultimately find little more than a stalemate on the electoral map. 

Trumpism is alive and well in Texas

Statewide, Democrats saw a three-point improvement with their margins at the top of the ticket. Biden gained 1.3 million voters compared to Hillary Clinton in 2016, but Trump came close by gaining 1.1 million voters. 

Curiously, Cornyn received 71,506 more votes than Trump, the first time a U.S. Senate candidate has beaten the top of the ticket in Texas in two decades. That speaks to Trump’s weakness (or Cornyn’s strength?), but it’s not exactly clear where and why until full canvassing reports for how state and congressional districts voted at the top of the ticket are released by Texas election officials in December. 

Regardless, the fundamentals of Election Day remain the same: President Trump turned out more than 1 million new voters, an amount too big to celebrate a similar improvement in turnout by Democrats in key areas. 

In an interview with the Signal, Texas Democrats Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said those new voters coming out for Trump in gerrymandered battleground districts, coupled with the pandemic stifling their own organizing efforts, most likely cost Democrats victory in their offensive races. 

“We did well, just to survive with what we had before,” Hinojosa said, estimating that Democrats may have lost a dozen statehouse seats and at least three congressional districts without this year’s record-breaking efforts to flip the state and boost turnout.

Whatever the fanfare there is in discussing Republican swing voters and vote-splitting, margins in areas where those split votes mattered were still fairly close for Democrats, particularly in the Dallas-Fort Worth region. 

Statewide, however, the truth remains that Trump was and is immensely popular within his own electorate. Across the country and in Texas, his approval rating among Republicans only steadily increased throughout his presidency to around the high eighties and low nineties.

Even George W. Bush could not perform the same feat while facing an unpopular war and a recession more timid than the one we are currently facing. The younger Bush ended his presidency hated by Democrats, independents, and not particularly supported by Republicans. 

At a macro level, Trump’s general unpopularity cost him the White House, but he remains beloved by Republicans. And in Texas, there are a lot of Republicans.

That was true even in the state’s most populated counties. Turnout improved significantly in major counties around the state, but the improvement in turnout did not always perfectly translate to an equally strong improvement in Democrat’s vote share (although most of the time it did favor Democrats). 

Most notably in Harris County, the state’s most populated county, turnout increased seven percentage points but Democrat margins inched upward by only two points at the presidential level. That two-point increase represents about 103,000 new votes for Democrats and about 62,000 new votes for Republicans.

Turnout in 2016Turnout in 2020Share of presidential votes for Democrats 2016Share of presidential votes for Democrats 2020
Harris County58.72%65.86%54.2%56%
Dallas County58.97%65.59%61.1%65.1%
Tarrant County62.04%67.64%43.5%49.3%
Bexar County56.41%63.57%54.5%58.3%
Travis County64.65%70.55%66.3%71.7%
Collin County67.26%74.82%39.2%47%
Denton County64.25%73.72%37.5%45.2%
Hidalgo County51.23%56.08%68.6%58%
El Paso County49.96%52.01%69.1%66.4%
Fort Bend County64.86%73.99%51.6%54.7%
Montgomery County65.61%73.28%22.5%27.4%
Williamson County67.7%76.22%42%49.7%
Cameron County46.57%51.91%64.6%56.1%
Brazoria County61.67%68.69%35.8%40.1%
Bell County50.93%58.14%40%44.6%

Democrats will need to find a minimum of 600,000 votes (the difference in votes at the top of the ticket in 2020) in the areas they’re performing well in and by rescuing margins in South Texas to keep their momentum going for a statewide win. And as 2020 demonstrated, there’s no guarantee that increasing turnout will narrow that deficit enough or that Republicans are running out of voters — according to the Texas Tribune, Trump’s margin of victory in rural counties grew by 200,000 votes to 1.7 million between 2016 and 2020. 

Simply put, the results show that Texas is changing in favor of Democrats, but its history as a state with voter suppression and lower voter turnout also means it has room for incredible growth, growth that may only result in the status quo or a more accurate count of just how Republican the state remains. 

There’s still good news for Democrats in the results

Perhaps this is something that got lost when Texas was lumped into this year’s crop of swing states: Texas is a swing state, but not in the same way that Pennsylvania, Florida, and others are or become to be. 

Since turnout in the state has been historically poor, the strategy for Democrats was and still requires them to split their focus between registering voters, expanding their electorate, and convincing voters to back them at the ballot box. Even in 2020, which saw Texas break a 40-year record for turnout, the state was still among the bottom in the U.S. for turnout among its voting-eligible population. 

The bad news for Republicans while looking at these results is that the fundamental path to victory for Democrats in the state seems unbothered: as turnout increases, Democrats are winning more growing urban and suburban counties and Republican margins at the top of the ticket are shrinking as a result

Would there have been more movement in down-ballot races if the pandemic had not forced Democrats to halt in-person campaigning? The jury is still out. Some past studies show door-knocking pads the margins by a few points and that it is by far the most convincing and effective method of turning out existing voters. So it’s probably an easy guess that the Biden campaign and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s post-pandemic ban on door-knocking probably did more to leave Democrats defenseless than it did nudge voters into believing they were the responsible party to vote for. But again, who knows. 

Probably more decisive is the fact that winning Texas simply wasn’t part of Biden’s electoral strategy. Democratic groups and the Biden campaign spent 20 times more on TV ads in Florida than what they spent in Texas. Ohio and Iowa, two states that ended up with worse margins than Texas in 2020, also received more attention and funding leading up to Election Day. 

What about messaging?

The pandemic and comparative lack of national resources in the state make it difficult to parse just how effective Republican messaging surrounding police funding, and Democratic messaging over healthcare and Trump’s bungled pandemic response were.

Ed Espinoza, the executive director of Progress Texas, told the Signal that progressive and Democratic issues are popular in Texas, but the branding surrounding them veers towards malpractice. 

“We spent a lot of time this year showing that defund the police is not a persuasive message,” Espinoza said referring to a poll they conducted in June. “It’s an important policy. But our polling shows that when you say ‘reform the police,’ you get 72 percent of support, but when you say ‘defund the police’, support drops to 19 percent.”

He said at the end of the day, the issue of the election was not policies or issues but Trump.

The Signal spent the final weeks of the election interviewing Democratic congressional candidates in competitive districts whose platforms varied from progressive to moderate, but no candidates on either side of the Democratic political spectrum did particularly better than the other on Election Day, and none of the candidates supported defunding the police, including the well-funded campaign of Democrat Wendy Davis who ran attack ads against Rep. Chip Roy for defunding police. 

Congressional candidates in Texas weren’t the only ones who came up short. Republicans across the U.S. flipped eight congressional seats in areas that were surprisingly competitive.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one Democratic adviser who worked on a competitive congressional campaign in Texas told the Signal the nationwide Democratic losses in the U.S. House are less about messaging and more about where national Democrats invest their resources.

“That can’t be attributed to any one candidate, any one message, it has to be pointed at the top, it wasn’t just Texas, there were other bedrock states that were competitive that should not have been competitive,” they said. “And I think this strategy of appealing to three white-working class states that we lost in 2016, may have come at the expense of a coalition of voters that are largely Black and Brown and that will power our victories in the years ahead.” 

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

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