NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE J oe Biden has opened up a western front in the 2020 campaign, buying advertising in Texas, where some polls have him leading Trump and others have him within a few points of the president. The current range is from Trump +2 to Biden +5.
Texas has been a tease for Democrats in presidential elections since it went Republican in the 1990s. (The last Democratic presidential candidate to win Texas was Jimmy Carter in 1976, but the state remained heavily Democratic throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.) Democratic strategists warn donors and activists against the siren call of the Lone Star State’s 38 electoral votes, a prize exceeded only by California’s 55 currently safely Democratic electoral votes — Texas, they insist, will always sucker-punch Democrats.
And it may again in November.
But Republicans — and not only the Trump campaign — have reasons to worry about it. And it is worth keeping in mind that Trump won Texas with only 52 percent of the vote in 2016. Compare that with the 65 percent of the vote he won in Oklahoma — or with the 62 percent of the vote Hillary Rodham Clinton won in California in that election. That’s what a lock looks like. A 52-percent win represents a margin that can be squandered.
The immediate problem for Republicans in Texas is the coronavirus epidemic and Texans’ — and Americans’ — dissatisfaction with the government’s response to it at both the federal level, where the buck is supposed to stop with President Trump, and at the state level, which in Texas means governor Greg Abbott. Notably, Biden’s first ad in Texas does not even mention Donald Trump — Biden mentions himself in only one sentence. Instead, Biden offers a little bit of hectoring about social distancing and a great deal of boilerplate encouragement. It is difficult to credit Biden’s sincerity in even this, because it is difficult to credit Biden’s sincerity in anything, but he is running the kind of ad he would be running if he were already president.
The ad does not end in: “Donald Trump: Wrong for America!” but in: “Stay Safe. Wear a Mask.”
Biden is presenting himself as the Warren G. Harding of 2020 — the return-to-normalcy candidate. The country is convulsed not only by the epidemic but by the recent mass protests and civil unrest, which probably were intensified by the shutdowns and economic disruption. There’s a heavy dose of cynicism in that: Donald Trump may be a special case, but when was the last time there was a Republican president who did not face civil unrest and massive protests organized by the Left? Dwight Eisenhower? The Democrats have long employed the stratagem of simultaneously providing public disorder and then offering themselves as the cure for it.
Democrats may shamelessly exploit the righteous reaction against unjust police violence — a feature of life seen most dramatically in Democrat-run cities — but that does not obviate the underlying complaint. Similarly, Democrats may cynically seek to capitalize on the suffering and anxiety of the epidemic, but the underlying unhappiness with government efforts is not something Democrats manufactured.
A majority of Texans tell pollsters that they believe the national coronavirus response is going poorly. There is a sharp partisan split, but Republicans do not have a partisan advantage in Texas large enough to make up the deficit. And the numbers are moving in the wrong way: In April, only 29 percent of Texans thought the response was going badly. Today, the number is 51 percent. Governor Abbott’s approval rating on the coronavirus response is below 50 percent, too — even with 88 percent of Republicans registering their approval.
It may be the case that the epidemic is like a recession: Whoever is in power is going to get blamed, irrespective of actual culpability. In 2020, every problem from sea to shining sea is Donald Trump’s problem. And when it comes to the most dramatic problem of the day, Trump is not faring well, even in Texas. And if Republicans have to invest money and manpower in Texas, they are not investing that money and manpower in flipping states that are close or in defending the swing states that went Trump’s way in 2016.
The longer-term problem for Republicans in Texas is that people who live in cities vote for Democrats, and Texas is an increasingly urban state. The big cities in Texas — Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin — already are Democratic and have been for a long time. Ted Cruz could not win the votes of Fort Worth the last time around. And in Texas’s suburbs, we are likely to see (and already are seeing) something like what has happened elsewhere in the country, where the innermost suburbs begin to take on the social and economic character of the cities themselves, and begin to vote like them. Republicans used to lose Philadelphia and then win the other four counties of southeastern Pennsylvania. In 2016, Mrs. Clinton got nearly six times as many votes as Trump in Philadelphia — and then won every suburban county, too. You won’t hit a Trump borough in Pennsylvania until you are seeing Amish buggies on the road. In the same way, every year you have to drive a little further out of Houston before you enter reliably Republican turf.
And there is bad news for Trump in Trump country, too. The epidemic has set off a neutron bomb in shale country, and many of the gains in employment and wages that Trump might have pointed to as evidence of the success of his policies have vanished, at least for now. In Midland, Texas, the unemployment rate was 2.3 percent in February. In May, it was 12.4 percent. One way of looking at that is that there are more people in Midland looking for food stamps and fewer looking for tax cuts.
Trump ran as the tribune of the struggling communities of the dilapidated interior in 2016, but the epidemic is savaging places such as Omaha, Neb., Wheeling, W.Va., and Sandusky, Ohio. To make things worse, the Centers for Disease Control reports that the drug-overdose deaths emblematic of the despair of those communities are on the rise. Drug-overdose deaths generally are not on the rise among people who believe very strongly that they are better off today than they were four years ago.
Drug-related deaths are up 18 percent in Texas.
“I alone can fix it!” may have sounded good to Donald Trump four years ago. Today, it sounds delusional. And that is why the incumbent is hearing footsteps in Texas and elsewhere. The problem for Trump is that he is the president of the United States of America, and that means that this mess is all his problem even if it isn’t all his fault.