The unthinkable is a reality: Texas is in play.
The second largest state in terms of population and area, the Lone Star State commands a hefty 38 electoral college vote. Compare that to swing states like Ohio (18), Nevada (6) or Iowa (6), and the significance of the Texan haul is obvious. And Texas hasn’t voted for a Democratic nominee for president in forty years.
Democratic insiders have discussed the possibility of competing in Texas for some time, their optimism buoyed by the changing demographics of the state that tend to work in their favour. Increasingly diverse, and with Democratic support in major Texan urban centres, there were some signs of hope for liberals.
But no one would have expected it to be in 2016.
While Trump’s hardboiled support shows no sign of diminishing across the nation, voters less enthralled by the man himself are falling away from the billionaire. In particular, Trump is witnessing severe attenuation of favourability among college educated white Americans and suburban women: both of these groups were areas of strength for Mitt Romney in 2012, and John McCain in 2008.
His vulnerability has inspired the Clinton campaign to focus new attention on conservative parts of the country where they believe they can win stretch, or ‘expansion’, states. In the west they are focusing on Arizona, where polls now show a toss up between Trump and Clinton, as well as Utah, where independent conservative Evan McMullin threatens to upset Republican hopes. In the south, Democrats are eyeing up Georgia’s 16 electoral college votes, gouging a gaping hole in Trump’s southern bloc. In the Midwest, polls showing a 4-5% race for Indiana have resulted in increased Democratic attention.
Now Clinton is looking to Texas, her optimism fuelled by polls showing a race within 5% and armed with an endorsement from the Dallas Morning News, which hasn’t backed a Democrat since 1940.
There are several factors that explain the viability of a Clinton run at Texas.
Part of the equation is demographics. The state’s burgeoning Hispanic population is a boon for Democrats, as Hispanic Americans strongly trend Democratic. Meanwhile younger and urban voters in the major cities of Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin defy the conservative character of rural and suburban Texas.
Then there is the gender imbalance. Clinton trails Trump by 11% among men nationally, but leads with women by a massive 33%; this gender factor is part of the reason even conservative states could be won by Clinton.
Yet it is perhaps more helpful to understand Texas in the frame of the Trump vs Clinton debate.
Trump’s brash, authoritarian populism finds its most receptive audience among less educated white Americans. Added to which, his language regarding trade and governmental incompetence is tailored to voters who feel they are left behind in modern America; this is why he has enjoyed success across Appalachia, in post-industrial towns that have seen local economies suffer. This message does not resonate to the same degree in Texas.
Earlier in the year I explored the correlation between a state’s educational and economic success and partisanship. In the graph below the states leaning or likely Democratic are blue, those favouring Republicans are red. Swing states are purple, and green areas denote traditionally conservative states where Clinton is within 5% of winning.
Texas sits roughly in the middle of the scale. The significance of this is that while there undoubtedly will be a significant number of voters who feel disillusioned with mainstream politics, and ‘the direction’ of the country, there is not the kind of widespread economic struggle on which Trump’s populism thrives: the socio-economic landscape of Texas is not especially favourable ground for Trump.
Most pundits still believe that when all is said and done, on November 9th Texas will have voted for Donald Trump, arguing that traditional loyalty to the Republican Party is too strong, and that conservative Texans will turn out in high enough numbers if they sense their state is under threat.
So perhaps the best way to think about Texas is not what it means for Clinton, but for her opponent. Writing for The Guardian, Tom Dart probably offered the best description for the current situation: Texas is akin to a vital organ for Republican strategy, often taken for granted, but absolutely necessary for survival. The fact that the GOP’s Texan heart is so under threat reflects the deep discord within the Republican Party, and their potential vulnerabilities in 2016 and beyond.