I’ve often compared the red/blue divide in our politics to two tectonic plates that are locked together. Every so often, there is some slippage along the fault line that causes a minor political earthquake, but things usually settle back into a stable state. No one can quite predict when The Big One will come, but there’s always the potential for a huge shift that will permanently rearrange the divide and leave one party with an insurmountable advantage.
We’ve had two presidential elections, in 2000 and 2016, when the party with fewer voters nonetheless won the election due to an advantage in the Electoral College. In Congress, we’ve seen control switch back and forth during this same period. The one thing that would change everything is if Texas and its 38 Electoral College votes suddenly moved into the blue column. Without Texas, it’s inconceivable that a Republican could win the presidency. The Republicans currently enjoy a 27-11 advantage in their congressional delegation, and they hold both U.S. Senate seats. Both of those majorities are key to the Republicans’ current control of Congress.
Based solely on demographic analyses of Texas, it has looked like the Democrats might be competitive in the presidential election by 2024 and perhaps have an outright advantage by 2028. Those estimates don’t take into account the possibility that racial, ethnic or gender groups might change their voting preferences. If whites vote even more heavily Republican or Latinos become more like swing voters, then Texas may remain reliably red for a longer period of time. But if the reverse happens, or if, say, white women move sharply away from the GOP in reaction to school shootings and the #MeToo movement, then Texas could be competitive in 2020.
Early voting for the midterm election primaries started in Texas on Tuesday, and the Dallas Morning News reports that the Democrats are turning out at close to presidential year numbers.
Of the 51,249 Texans who cast ballots Tuesday on the first day of early voting, more than half voted in the Democratic primary.
The total number of voters from the 15 counties with the most people registered is high for a midterm year. In 2016, a presidential election year, 55,931 Texans voted on the first day of early voting for the primary. But in the last midterm election in 2014, only 38,441 Texans voted on the first day.
Even more surprising is the turnout among Democrats. Since the last midterm election, the party saw a 51 percent increase in first-day early voting turnout, while Republicans saw a 16 percent increase.
Some of the individual county numbers are striking. Democratic turnout surpassed 2016’s numbers in Harris, Dallas, Collin and Denton counties. It basically equaled 2016 in Bexar and Travis counties. The Republicans didn’t even come close to matching presidential year numbers.
It’s been widely noted that Hillary Clinton actually came closer to winning Texas than Iowa, which was surprising because Iowa went for Barack Obama twice. To close the remaining gap, the Democrats need to get out their base and make a lot of converts. Short of that, they need to wait for demographic change to do its work while maintaining their current levels of support. The early voting numbers don’t reliably predict the results in individual races. There are some factors, like a higher than usual number of open seats, that might help explain why turnout is up so much. Without question, though, the numbers indicate an unusual degree of interest in the upcoming elections, and it’s much more pronounced on the left.
Texas could become a case like Virginia, where once the Democrats seize the advantage, they really never give it up. Republicans can still win statewide in Virginia, but it’s not going to happen very often. When it comes to winning states in a presidential election, Virginia is already moving to the bottom of the Republicans’ list of “purple” states. The GOP can survive this by winning in blue states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, but they cannot survive losing Texas.
I think the true test of whether Texas might turn blue by 2020 is going to be Senator Ted Cruz’s reelection effort. If he wins comfortably, then it means that nothing much has changed in the Lone Star State. If he loses, however, then I think Texas will be a true battleground state in the next presidential election.
Seismologists will tell you that’s impossible to tell when The Big One is coming. But it could be this November.