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Yes, Texas Could Turn Blue

But demographics alone are not the answer

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“Do you really think Wendy Davis is going to win?” I asked Jenn Brown, the executive director of Battleground Texas. “I sure do,” she replied. Brown and her top staff may be the only people in Texas who think that Democrat Davis, who is running for governor, can defeat Republican Greg Abbott next week. But the larger question is whether Battleground Texas’s strategy of turning Texas Blue, which is currently married to Davis’s candidacy, can over the next two, four, or six years make Texas, which hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994, or voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976, competitive again.

Battleground’s strategy, as it was presented to me during a recent visit to Texas, relies primarily on demographic trends within the state. Texas has already become a majority-minority state like California. According to 2013 census figures, only 44 percent of Texans are “Anglos,” or whites; 38.4 percent are Hispanic; 12.4 percent African-American; and the remainder Asian-American and native American. By 2020, Hispanics are projected by the Texas State Data Center to account for 40.5 percent of Texans and African-Americans for 11.3 percent compared to 41.1 percent of Anglos. Texas’s minorities generally favor Democrats over Republicans, but they don’t vote in as great a proportion as Anglos who have favored Republicans by similar percentages. Battleground’s strategy assumes that if it and other organizations like the Texas Organizing Project can get many more minorities, and particularly Hispanics, to the polls, then, as minorities increasingly come to outnumber Anglos, Democrats can take back the state.

Battleground’s strategy has met with skepticism in some quarters. My former colleague Nate Cohn has argued that the numbers don’t add up. Former Republican Party executive director Wayne Thorburn argues in Red State that the “Texas Democratic Party may have a more serious deficit with Anglo voters than Republicans do with Hispanics.” Indeed, there are grounds for skepticism. If you take the numbers, but keep the turnout and the degree of party support consistent with the most recent election in 2012, then it is unlikely the Democrats could achieve a majority by 2020, and perhaps not in the following decade. But if you take politics into account—if you assume that developments in both parties could alter baseline projections—then the Battleground strategy looks far more plausible.

Let’s first look at how the population figures translate into votes. While the overall number of minorities already surpass that of Anglos, the numbers of voters have not. Who votes depends on how many in each group are eligible to vote. In 2014, about 46 percent of Hispanics are eligible to vote. The rest are not citizens or are under 18. By contrast, voter eligibility among whites is in the high seventy percent and among African Americans is in the low seventy percent range. The other factor is turnout. In 2012, only about 39 percent of eligible Hispanics voted compared to a little over sixty percent of Anglos and African-Americans. So in the 2012 election, and most likely in the 2014 election, in spite of Battleground’s considerable efforts, Anglo voters, who are likely to favor Republican candidates, will outnumber minority voters.

In 2020, a presidential election year, the numbers should look different. Minorities’ population edge should have increased, and eligibility among Hispanic voters, which has been growing, should be around 50 percent. I have tallied four scenarios for 2020. They show the conditions that would finally lead to a Democratic victory in 2020. (In each of these, I am keeping black turnout and support constant, and assuming that Asian and Native American eligibility and turnout increase slightly, and support for Democrats remains at about 60 percent. To be safe, I am also using the conservative Texas State Data Center figures, which some political scientists believe understate Hispanic growth.)

Scenario one: Hispanic turnout increases to 45 percent (which is still less than the national average for Hispanic voters) and support for the Democratic presidential candidate remains at 65 percent, and only 25 percent of whites back the Democratic candidate. In that case, the Republican candidate would get almost 54 percent of the vote.

Scenario two: Hispanic turnout increases to 50 percent(which is still less than neighboring New Mexico), and support for the Democratic candidate climbs to 72 percent (which is still less than Hispanic support for Democrats in Colorado), but white support for the Democrat remains at 25 percent. In this case, the Republican squeaks by with a little over 51 percent of the vote.

Scenario three: Hispanic turnout only increases to 45 percent and support remains at 65 percent, but the Democrat gets 30 percent of the white vote. The Republican squeaks by with a little over 50 percent of the vote.

Scenario four: Hispanic turnout remains at 50 percent and support at 72 percent, but white support for the Democrat climbs to 30 percent. Then the Democrat gets 51.5 of the vote.

In other words, a Democratic presidential candidate could carry Texas in 2020 if Hispanic turnout grows, support for the Democratic candidate nears or exceeds 70 percent, and Democrats gather 30 percent of the Anglo vote. If the Democrats can’t attract more than 25 percent of the Anglo vote, then even the most energetic efforts at Hispanic mobilization won’t get their candidate across the finish line.

Raising Hispanic turnout and support for Democratic candidates obviously requires the kind of voter mobilization that Battleground and other groups are undertaking.  This year, Battleground claims to have recruited 32,000 volunteers to register voters and get them to the polls. Registration in the state’s five largest counties is up two percent, even though registration often goes down between presidential and mid-term elections. But success among Hispanics also depends on building organizations that function between elections. Battleground, which is an out-of-state creation, may not be best suited for this task. “Organizations come in for the election, and then they are gone,” Jorge Montiel, the lead organizer for San Antonio’s Metro Alliance, laments.

Success in mobilizing the Hispanic vote also depends on nominating candidates in Texas (and also nationally) who can appeal to these voters. According to several Democrats I talked to, Davis hasn’t “connected” to these voters. In the primaries, she even lost several small counties to a token Hispanic opponent. She is principally known in the state for her stand on behalf of abortion rights—whereas many of Texas’s Hispanics oppose abortion. Democrats urged San Antonio’s former mayor Julian Castro, now the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, to run, but he declined, probably one San Antonio political leader speculated, because he feared certain defeat.

Finally, success in increasing Hispanic support for Democrats will depend on what Republicans in Texas and nationally do. In Texas, Republican governors have steered clear of the harsh rhetoric about “illegal aliens” that proliferates among many other Republicans. Abbott boasts a Latina wife. As a result, Texas Republican candidates for state office have gotten about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, which has virtually assured their victory. This year, the Hispanic Bush, George P. Bush, is currently running for Land Commissioner, and if he becomes a leader of party, could keep many Hispanics voting for Republicans in state races.

But there are Tea Party Republicans, including Senator Ted Cruz, who decry efforts at immigration reform. In Arlington this year, a suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth, a Tea Party favorite Tony Tinderholt, who ousted a moderate incumbent in the primary, has warned that “people are going to die” to protect the border from people “with plans to do horrible disgusting things to American citizens.” If Cruz and Tea Party types take over the Texas party, then it will become easier for Democrats to win votes in high state office, which are held between presidential elections.  

Texas Democrats are likely to have an easier time painting the national party and its candidates as being hostile to Hispanics. In 2012, Obama got 71 percent of the Hispanic vote nationally against Mitt Romney, who used his opposition to immigration reform to win the nomination. Last year, Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s support for immigration reform appeared to doom his presidential prospects. So even if Texas’s Republicans foil Democratic efforts to boost their Hispanic support in state elections, national Republicans might help Democrats increase Hispanic support for a Democratic presidential candidate.

In Texas, white voters have blended the anti-government ethos of the West and the deep South. Many Texas white voters began changing their party allegiance from Democrat to Republican after 1980 without changing their ideology. But Texans’ bedrock conservatism among whites has been mitigated by in-migration from less Republican states and by the development of what Ruy Teixeira and I called “ideopolises”—large metro areas dominated by professionals who produce ideas. By garnering support in the Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and El Paso metro areas, the Democrats might be able to get the 30 percent or more of the vote they need in presidential elections, and eventually the 35 percent they need in state elections.

In these metro areas, Texas Democrats can attract the same white voters who boosted Democrat hopes in states like Virginia and North Carolina: younger voters, who came of age after the Reagan-Bush era, professionals, and women. Davis’s candidacy has probably helped among these voters. In a late September poll that showed Davis behind Abbott by fourteen points, she still had an edge among women and voters 18 to 44, while getting trounced among male and older voters. (In the same poll, Davis only get 50 percent of Hispanic vote.) Mustafa Tameez, a Houston Democratic consultant, says that the Texas state legislature’s lurch to the right, which spawned Davis’s candidacy, will win over many of these voters. “The urban vote and women are the key to Democrats winning Texas,” Tameez says.

Texas Democrats’ ability to win over white voters will also depend on what happens to the national party. Obama remains deeply unpopular in Texas—identified with whatever failures white Texans ascribe to the federal government.  There were no exit polls in the 2012 election, but Nate Cohn has estimated that Obama only got 20 percent of the white vote. Whites need to feel comfortable voting for a candidate identified with the national party. Tameez and other Democrats believe that Hillary Clinton, who defeated Obama in the 2008 Texas primary, will fare far better among the state’s Anglos than Obama did.  But even if they nominate a candidate more palatable to urban whites, the Democrats may have to wait until 2020 to have a good shot at winning Texas in a presidential vote.

Of course, Texas Republican politicians understand the threat that the state’s demographic changes pose. Last year, Abbott warned that with the formation of Battleground, Texas was “coming under a new assault, an assault far more dangerous than when the leader of North Korea threatened when he said he was going to add Austin, Texas, as one of the recipients of his nuclear weapons.” Abbott and the Texas Republicans have responded to the threat with new restrictions of voting and on registering voters that are designed to make it more difficult for minorities to get to the polls. But these restrictions are double edged. They will make it more difficult to vote, but they can also provide a rallying cry for Battleground and other groups trying to get out the vote. They can give the lie to Republican claims that they are sympathetic to the state’s Hispanics and in so doing, speed the day of reckoning for Texas Republicanism.