The NYT recently took a deep dive into the 2018 election data from Texas, and came out seeing a real swing state, partly because of Beto and partly for other reasons.
Mr. O’Rourke’s close result wasn’t because of an exceptional turnout that will be hard for other Democrats to repeat in 2020. Republican voters, defined as those who have participated in a recent Republican primary, turned out at a higher rate than Democratic ones. Neither the Hispanic nor youth voter share of the electorate was higher than it was in 2016, when President Trump won the state by nine points.
On the contrary, Democrats in 2020 can be expected to enjoy a more favorable turnout because presidential races tend to draw in more young and Hispanic voters. Mr. O’Rourke might have won Texas last November if turnout had been at the level of a contested presidential race, based on an Upshot analysis of Times/Siena poll responses, actual results and voter file data from L2, a nonpartisan voter file vendor.
The data yields an estimate of how every registered voter in Texas would have voted, based on a long list of geographic and demographic factors that predicted vote choice in the Times/Siena polling. Importantly, turnout in 2018 is among those factors, which allows us to fully untangle how much of Mr. O’Rourke’s strength was because of strong turnout among his supporters.
The data indicates that two opposing turnout trends influenced the results. The electorate was older, whiter and more Republican than the state as a whole — or than the 2016 electorate. But an O’Rourke supporter was generally likelier to vote than a demographically and politically similar supporter of Mr. Cruz. This was the pattern nationwide, so it is not obvious that this can be attributed to Mr. O’Rourke specifically; it could have been the favorable Democratic environment more generally.
Either way, the extra turnout boost probably cut Mr. Cruz’s margin of victory by two points.
Mr. O’Rourke might have won with a turnout of around 10 million voters. (The actual turnout was around 8.4 million.) Without the extra edge of a Democratic wave year, it might have taken 11 million votes, a number that is not out of the question in 2020 if Texas is contested as a battleground state.
So how did Mr. O’Rourke fare so well? He did it through old-fashioned persuasion, by winning voters who had voted for Republicans and for minor-party candidates.
No matter how you explain it, the president’s disapproval rating in Texas would seem to imply that there’s at least some additional upside for Democrats there, beyond what Mr. O’Rourke pulled off. And the president’s far lower approval rating among all adults (as opposed to among registered voters) hints at another opportunity for Democrats: mobilizing unregistered voters. In both cases, Hispanic voters could represent the upside for Democrats.
Mr. O’Rourke’s strong showing had essentially nothing to do with the initial vision of a Blue Texas powered by mobilizing the state’s growing Hispanic population. The Texas electorate was only two points more Hispanic in 2018 than it was in 2012, but President Obama lost the state by 16 points in 2012, compared with Mr. O’Rourke’s 2.6-point loss.
At the same time, Mr. O’Rourke fared worse than Mr. Obama or Hillary Clinton in many of the state’s heavily Hispanic areas, particularly in more conservative South Texas. This could reflect Mr. Cruz’s relative strength among Hispanic voters compared with a typical Republican.
Instead, Mr. O’Rourke’s improvement came almost exclusively from white voters, and particularly college-educated white voters. Whites probably gave him around 33 percent of their votes, up from a mere 22 percent for Mr. Obama in 2012.
I’ve been sitting on this for a little while, in part because of there being lots of other things to write about, and in part because I’ve been thinking about it. I want to present a few broad conclusions that I hope will help shape how we think about 2020.
1. I haven’t tried to study this in great detail, but my general sense since the 2018 election has been that Democratic base turnout could have been higher than it was, and that to carry the state of Texas in 2020, the Democratic Presidential nominee will need to aim for five million votes. Both of these are validated by this story.
2. The other point, about persuasion and flipping people who had previously voted Republican, is another theme I’ve visited a few times since November. Some of the districts that Dems won in 2018 – CDs 07 and 32 in particular – just weren’t going to be won by better base turnout. Better base turnout was always going to be needed, it just wasn’t going to be enough. Remember, in a Presidential year, John Culberson won CD07 by eleven points, and Republican judicial candidates won it by similar margins. There weren’t enough non-voting Democrats to make up for that.
3. The key to the above was Trump, and that statement in the story about “winning voters who had voted for Republicans and for minor-party candidates” (emphasis mine) was the mechanism. CDs 07 and 32 were on the map, as were other districts like SD16 and the Dallas County State Rep districts, because they had been carried by Hillary Clinton. You may recall that I was skeptical of these numbers because it was clear that Clinton won those districts because a number of nominal Republicans just didn’t vote for Trump. It was an open question to me what they’d do in the next election. Clearly, now we know.
4. To be more specific, the not-Trump voters, who include those who voted for Gary Johnson and Evan McMullen and Jill Stein as well as those who actually crossed over to Clinton and those who skipped the race entirely, really did vote for Democratic candidates in 2018, at least in some races. Those candidates included Beto, most of the Congressional Dems, Mike Collier, Justin Nelson, Kim Olson, most of the legislative Dems, and some other downballot Dems. Some Republicans held onto the not-Trumpers – Greg Abbott, Glenn Hegar, George P. Bush, and Christie Craddick – but by and large these people were quite willing to stray. The proof is in the districts where the Trump percentage from 2016 was the ceiling for these Republicans in 2018.
5. Given this, the basis for Texas as a swing state, as well as a Congressional battleground, in 2020, is precisely the idea that these voters will again not vote for Trump, and base Democratic turnout will be higher. Implicit in this is the idea that the not-Trump voters who were also not-Hillary voters will be more inclined to vote for the 2020 Dem, which I think is a reasonable assumption. Dems will have their work cut out for them – we’re talking a million more votes than Beto got, which was 200K more votes than Hillary got and 500K more votes than Obama ’08 got – but the path is clear.
6. For example, Beto carried Harris County by 200K votes, with 1.2 million votes cast. If turnout in Harris is 1.5 million – hardly crazy, assuming 2.4 million registered voters (registration was 2.3 million in 2018), which in turn would be turnout of 62.5%, basically a point higher than it was in 2016 – you can imagine a Dem carrying the county 900K to 600K, which is about where the Republican vote total has plateaued. That’s 20 percent of the way to the goal right there, and it doesn’t even assume a heroic turnout effort.
7. Do I think Democratic turnout in Texas will be better if Beto, or for that matter Julian Castro, is the nominee than if someone else is? Maybe, but honestly I don’t think it would be by much, if at all. I think it really is about Trump more than it is about who the Dem is. Beto was very much the right candidate at the right time in 2018, but I don’t believe 2020 depends on him. I do think Beto as a Senate candidate may well have outperformed any Dem Presidential candidate (with the possible exception of Castro) in 2020, but that’s not the situation we will have. As a Presidential candidate, I don’t think he’d be that much different.
8. Bottom line, keep registering voters, and keep talking to people who haven’t been habitual voters. We’re going to need everyone working together to make this happen.