The Formula for a Blue Texas

The Formula for a Blue Texas

The spate of House Republican retirements in Texas—the so-called Texodus—has gotten people thinking again about Texas’s political trajectory. Is a blue Texas really on the horizon?

Certainly recent trends have been very favorable. In 2018, Beto O’Rourke missed unseating Senator Ted Cruz by just 2.3 points. And, although O’Rourke fell short, Democrats picked up 12 seats in the Texas House, two seats in the Texas Senate, and two seats in the U.S. House, and came close in several other statewide races. Underlying these developments, there are well-documented, strong trends toward the Democrats among younger Texans, including whites, and in Texas’s large metropolitan areas (Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio—two-thirds of the Texas vote).

So a blue Texas is not so far-fetched anymore. Indeed, one can start to discern a sort of formula for making that happen.

A formula, you say? There’s a formula for a blue Texas? Well, sort of. I mean this in the sense that a sober quantitative accounting of the challenge Democrats face in Texas provides a useful guide to how the blue Texas goal can actually be attained. More useful I think than enthusiastic accounts of grassroots Democratic organizing in Texas, which, noble as they are, make little effort to explain which groups have to move and by how much to be successful.

So here’s the “formula.” In 2016, Clinton improved over Obama in Texas, reducing his 16-point deficit in the state in 2012 to 9 points. How did she do this? The dataset developed for the “States of Change” project indicates that Clinton improved over Obama among both white non-college-educated and college-educated voters. The Democrats’ deficit among Texas’s white non-college-educated voters fell from 60 points in 2012 to 55 points in 2016. The shift toward Clinton among white college graduates in the state was even larger—from a 30-68 percent deficit in 2012 to 37-57 percent in 2016, a margin improvement of 18 points. The white college-educated improvement cut Clinton’s deficit in the state by about 4.5 points and the white non-college improvement moved things in her direction by about 1.5 points, for a total shift of 6 points toward Clinton from better performance among whites. The rest of Clinton’s gains relative to Obama were accounted for by improvements in Latino turnout and support.

This suggests that the correct formula for a blue Texas is not to rely on demographic change and better mobilization of existing pro-Democratic constituencies, which often appears to be the default strategy. That is not likely to be enough to cut the additional 9 points off of Democrats’ statewide deficit anytime soon. Instead, while demographic change will continue to provide a boost to Democratic prospects (I estimate 1.4 points in the 2020 election) and mobilization efforts should continue, the key question is how to keep the trends evident in 2016 going. Rough calculations indicate that if Democrats can cut their white non-college deficit to 45 points and their white college deficit to 10 points, while continuing positive, if unspectacular, Latino trends (getting Latino turnout of eligibles to around 40 percent, while improving Latino vote margin to around +30D), that should be enough to flip the state or come very close.

Note: I’m not saying this would be easy to do! But I do believe the formula would work and builds plausibly on current trends. Note also that, according to the exit polls, O’Rourke’s deficit in 2018 among white college Texas voters was 11 points and his deficit among white non-college voters was 48 points. These results suggest that the blue Texas formula could come to successful fruition much faster than most observers thought.