NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he most recent general-election poll of Texas, conducted by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, shows Joe Biden and Donald Trump neck and neck: Both candidates come in at 48 percent. These figures aren’t outliers. They’re consistent with polls from the past two months reporting a narrowing race in the Lone Star State. Perhaps that’s a shock at first glance: After all, the state hasn’t voted blue in a presidential election since 1976. But pollsters and strategists have long predicted that Texas would start to turn purple, and such a scenario is on the minds of the Republican and Democratic establishments alike. Within the past two weeks, Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi both addressed the Texas Democratic Party’s virtual convention, while President Trump hosted an exclusive fundraiser in Dallas after speaking about law enforcement at a roundtable there.
The narrowing race in Texas raises some important questions for the future of the state and the country: Could Texas vote for Biden in November? How do demographic changes factor into the increasingly contested state? And to what extent do these trends generalize to the rest of the country?
The Republican Party certainly needs to pay more attention to Texas than it’s had to in recent decades. Comparing the Trump–Biden polls to the 2016 Trump–Clinton polls should certainly startle Republicans. A June 2016 YouGov poll had Trump at 39 percent and Clinton at 32 percent in Texas; an April 2020 YouGov poll had Trump at 49 percent and Biden at 44 percent, and subsequent polls have shown an even narrower gap. Meanwhile, the biggest statewide race in recent memory, the 2018 U.S. Senate contest, was closer still: Senator Ted Cruz eked out a win over then-rising liberal star Beto O’Rourke by a popular-vote margin of 50.9 percent to 48.3 percent. In 2012, when Cruz first sought the seat, he beat Democrat Paul Sadler 56.5 percent to 40.5 percent. A red Texas is a decreasingly safe bet.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump’s controversial handling of the George Floyd protests, and his overall erratic temperament, the current polls could reflect unease with Republican leadership. And Biden certainly appears to be a stronger — and more unifying —candidate than Hillary Clinton was. But Trump and the Republicans should be favored in Texas this presidential cycle. Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says that Trump’s Texan supporters constitute “one of the strongest bases I’ve ever seen.” While Trump’s national approval rating has taken a hit in recent weeks, his job-approval rating among Texans has actually increased since February, according to the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Politics Project. His approval among Texas Republicans is rather steady (and high). These are positive signs for Republicans.
Still, Republicans have reason to worry about their future in Texas. Bowman notes that major demographic change is already underway in the state. In 1980, Hispanics made up 21 percent of Texas’s population. By 2018, that number had nearly doubled to 39.6 percent. Meanwhile, whites — and especially working-class whites — have seen their numbers shrink, going from 66 percent of the state population in 1980 to 44 percent in 2015, and are projected to be just 25 percent of the state population by 2060. According to the Brookings Institution, at 28.9 years old, the average Hispanic Texan is also younger than the overall state and national averages, which further favors Democrats.
Immigration patterns may well be driving Texas’s political shift. According to a 2015 AEI study, the state has the fastest-growing population among larger U.S. states and “continues to be a consistent migration magnet.” Between July 2018 and 2019, Texas added the second-highest number of both international immigrants and domestic migrants. Politically, the importance of population growth in an emerging battleground state cannot be understated; Texas gained four congressional seats after the 2010 census and is projected to add more after 2020. And many of these immigrants are coming from liberal states such as California.
It bears noting that most of Texas’s growth is occurring in its biggest cities. The state’s main metropolitan areas — Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin — are already quite blue. But smaller cities are also growing, leaving Texas on a precipice as the combined population of the most urban counties is about to exceed that of the state’s rural counties. For years now, Republicans have struggled to appeal to city-dwellers nationwide, including in Texas. That problem will only become more pressing as Texas’s cities continue to add residents.
Such sweeping demographic changes may point to a liberal future for Texas. But for those seeking to game out the state’s future, there are still important questions. For one thing, Bowman points out that we do not know how second- and third-generation Hispanic children will vote: “Will Hispanics have less Hispanic identity as time goes on? Will they continue to have that strong Democratic orientation?” For another, she notes that eligible Hispanic voters vote less than eligible white voters, though the 2015 AEI report projects that this gap will shrink. And in regard to migration, especially from California, she says “we don’t exactly know who these people [coming into Texas] are,” and thus how they could affect the state’s politics.
Despite Trump’s flagging head-to-head poll numbers in the state, Texas seems a safe bet to remain red for at least another cycle. But going forward, demographic projections suggest Texas will certainly be a more contested state than it has been in the past few decades. And such projections hold true more broadly: By 2060, the AEI report predicts America will be 44 percent white. And that means Republicans and Democrats alike will have to adjust their strategies to match the transforming demographic landscape — both in Texas and across the country.