The outcome of the 2020 Presidential election is more uncertain than any in modern history—and nowhere is that uncertainty on better display than in Texas, a state that could very well go Democratic for the first time since 1976.
Emphasize on could. Two of the most respected prognosticators—the Cook Political Report and Inside Elections—both shifted Texas from leaning or tilting Republican to a genuine toss up, while the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato places it in “Leans Republican,” just one category to the right. These ratings in themselves are extraordinary, given that the state has been reliably red for decades. The Biden campaign clearly recognizes the opportunity, announcing that vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris will travel to Texas on Friday.
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While Texas—and the election more broadly—could still go either way, we can tally what we know, what we can predict, and what remains unknowable (to quote Frank Drake, the founder of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, that’s “a wonderful way to organize our ignorance). What follows is a rundown of the three largest sources of uncertainty in Texas, home to 38 electoral votes—the second-most in the nation, which, were they to go to former Vice President Joe Biden, would virtually ensure his victory over the incumbent, President Donald Trump.
What We Know
Not much. The polls in Texas are all over the place, ranging from a 7-point margin for U.S. President Donald Trump, who won the state by 9 percentage points in 2016, to a four-point Biden victory. FiveThirtyEight’s weighted combination of these polls currently has Trump with a 1.7 percentage-point lead.
What We Don’t Know
How these polls define a “likely voter.” The source of the 11-point discrepancy is probably a difference in who the pollsters chose to sample, which is rarely disclosed. The uncertainty in Texas is probably not due to guesswork on who eligible voters support, but on who will actually vote.
What We Know
Turnout in Texas this year will greatly surpass any previous cycle. In 2016, just shy of 9 million Texans cast a vote for president, amounting to 51.4% of the voting-eligible population, according to the United States Election Project. That’s among the lowest turnout in the nation, by this metric (turnout is often reported as the percentage of registered voters who actually voted, but is better cast as the portion of everyone who could have registered to vote).
As of Monday, 7.8 million Texas voters had already voted (even though Texas has not made it any easier to get an absentee ballot because of the COVID-19 pandemic). Many more voters are expected to turn out on Nov. 3. A recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found that 75% of respondents consider it safe to vote in person on Election Day, though there’s a rift along party lines: 57% of Democrats said they felt safe compared to 91% of Republicans, suggesting Trump voters are more likely than Biden voters to vote in person.
Estimates for the final number of ballots cast in Texas fall around around 11 or 12 million—an unheard-of turnout of over 60%.
What We Don’t Know
Which party will benefit most from those additional 2-3 million voters.
The increased turnout represents a “significantly different electorate than in 2016,” says Joshua Blank, research director at the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Nationwide, the conventional wisdom that higher turnout benefits Democrats does not hold up when one considers President Trump’s core base, whose unexpected turnout in 2016 was a major factor in both Trump’s victory and the failure of most major polls to foresee it.
We can glean some insight thanks to Republican data consultant Derek Ryan, who has examined the percentage of 2020 early voters who have also voted in past Democratic or Republican primaries. As of Wednesday, early voters with a history of voting in a Republican primary outpaced those who voted in Democratic primaries by 6 points, though the largest percentage voted in neither. Ryan acknowledges that, since Texas has open primaries, primary participation is not a surefire indication of one’s preference in the 2020 presidential election. “If I were to guess, I would say 10-15% who vote in a Republican primary aren’t true Republicans,” Ryan says, adding that the percentage might be a notch higher for Democratic primaries, particularly in more partisan areas where the primary is functionally the general election.
On the ground, both parties are, at least publicly, optimistic about the implications of a high turnout.
“Republican consultants aren’t afraid of high turnout,” Blank says. “They’re only afraid of extremely high turnout.” Meanwhile, he says that Democrats have long held that Texas “is not a Republican state. It is a non-voting state.” While turnout figures definitively support the latter half of that characterization, it’s not a forgone conclusion that non-voting Texans would be heavily supportive of Democrats. This is a particularly common misconception regarding eligible Hispanic voters, plenty of whom, polling by Blank’s organization and others suggests, are generally supportive of the Republican Party.
Abhi Rahman, the Communications Director for the Texas Democratic Party, compared the surge in new voters to “dropping New Mexico in Texas”—a neighboring state that went to Hillary Clinton by 8 points in 2016. Ryan, meanwhile, noted that “we’ve still got 5 million people who haven’t voted yet,” and predicted that Trump will carry Texas by one or two points on the power of rural voters who heavily supported the President in 2016.
Presidential election years inevitably draw interest away from Congressional contests and state races. But the turnout question in Texas this year hinges as much on local races as the fervent opinions that so many voters have about the next occupant of the White House. So the key to victory in Texas may turn out to be…
The Ground Game
What We Know
There is a strong possibility that Democrats will retake the Texas House of Representatives this year, which Republicans have controlled—along with the Texas Senate and governorship—since 2003. The Democratic Party’s optimism is bolstered by the fact that Beto O’Rourke lost his 2018 Senate bid to incumbent Ted Cruz by only 2.5 percentage points, which by Texas statewide standards is a razor-thin margin.
Moreover, the Texas Democratic Party has widened the front in terms of slating better candidates. For more than a decade, Blank says, the Party was “catch as catch can” in terms of finding viable candidates for district races, a process that restarted every cycle, with many seats going uncontested (in 2018, it was noteworthy that Democrats were even fielding a candidate in all 36 U.S. Congressional races across the state). Now, many Democrats who lost in 2018 are running again, albeit with better name recognition and voter data; a candidate making a second attempt is a far more able opponent. “If you’re a candidate who loses narrowly but runs again, it gives you a lot more parity with the Republican incumbent,” Blank says.
We do not know, of course, whether Texas Democrats will be successful in retaking the state house, picking up as many as seven seats in Congress, or granting the 38 Electoral College votes to Biden. But we do know that they’re making a much stronger effort than in years past, and that their odds of victory are at least plausible for the first time in years.
What We Don’t Know
Those focused on district-level Texas races have logically pondered whether Republicans who choose to vote for Biden will lend any support to down-ballot Democrats. Arguably the more relevant question is: how many Texans who otherwise would not have voted are excited about local candidates, and are thus more likely to vote and perhaps boost Biden?
This is not to say that these voters necessarily care more about their state or Congressional representative than who sits in the Oval Office. More to the point, those on the ballot for state races, Blank says, form an organic field operation across the state, armed with their own volunteers and knowledge of their districts that a statewide or national campaign could never generate from scratch. While voter outreach itself is usually coordinated across campaigns, a slate of better candidates can knock on a lot more doors.
“Beto O’Rourke could only be in one place at a time,” Blank says. And Texas, you may be aware, is a very large state.
Whether that’s enough to make a difference is, of course, ultimately unknowable before the election. When I asked Sabato why he was keeping Texas in the “Leans Republican” category, he said that “I’ve been hearing every four years that Texas is going Democratic, and it never happens.” The playing field may have evolved, and while his predictions are based on a lot more than gut instinct, Sabato rejected the notion that the Texas of 2020 is an entirely blank slate compared to 2016.
“I don’t buy that at all. I’ve never seen that,” he said of political upheavals. “Nothing changes that much. Most things stay the same.”
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