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Jones County

The “blue spine” and the rural counties

Point:

For the third consecutive election cycle, Democrats saw their advantage over Republicans grow in the 21 counties along Interstate 35, allowing them to further chip into the Republican dominance that has lasted for nearly three decades. The result was Joe Biden won over 46 percent of the vote in Texas, joining Texas native Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter as the only Democrats to get over 45 percent of the vote in Texas in a presidential race in 56 years.

A key reason for Biden’s performance in Texas is what is happening along I-35 from Laredo, through San Antonio and Austin and up to the Dallas Metroplex.

It’s not a mystery. U.S. Census data shows a shift toward a more diverse, better educated and wealthier electorate since 2010, changes that favor Democrats.

Along I-35, Biden flipped traditionally red counties like Tarrant, Williamson and Hays, and did vastly better in Travis, Dallas and Bexar counties than Hillary Clinton did just four years earlier.

This is a major departure from the way Texans in those counties voted over the previous two decades. Back in 2014, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican at the top of the ticket, won the same counties by a combined 346,000 votes.

Two years later. Clinton would win that stretch by just over 116,000 votes over President Donald Trump. Then 2018 Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke won it by 440,000 votes over U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

Biden pushed his lead in the blue spine this year to nearly 500,000 votes.

That is a swing of more than 800,000 votes from Republicans to Democrats and explains why, along with Harris County’s march to solid blue, the state has seen increasingly competitive races at the top of the ballot since George W. Bush won Texas by 22 percentage points in 2004.

I’ve covered some of this before, and there was a similar Trib story published at around the same time, because it’s fertile ground and a reminder that even in defeat, Dems have gained a lot of ground over the past decade. Disappointing as the results were this year, we shouldn’t forget that.

One more thing:

At the same time the I-35 corridor is getting more Democratic, Republicans are facing challenges with their base of support in West Texas and East Texas. Those regions simply are not growing as fast as I-35. In the Panhandle, the 27 counties with a combined 250,000 voters saw just a 4 percent increase in voter registrations over the last four years. But Hays and Williamson County, with a combined 500,000 voters, registrations have grown a combined 25 percent over the same period.

Also covered this, because the Republican strength in the rural areas is still quite formidable. Even if the longer-term trends are in the Dems’ favor – and as things stand now, they are – we could still be talking about a couple of Presidential cycles before the two lines intersect. The clearest way to speed that up is for the Dems to figure out how to narrow the gap in rural Texas rather than wait it out.

And so on that note, we have the counterpoint, about the Republican red wall in the many rural counties. This story was from the day before the election, so there wasn’t time to blog about it, but it contained this nugget that made me set the article aside and come back to it as part of my usual postmortem analysis.

Among Democrats, there’s optimism that Biden-backing allies in rural Texas could not only prevent Trump from recreating his overwhelming 2016 margins in white, working class areas, the kind of support that offset his losses in the suburbs and among voters of color four years ago, but also make Trump’s path to victory in Texas all the more difficult.

“I’m also seeing a pretty substantial uptick in folks volunteering with Democratic-adjacent organizations,” said Amy Hull, 42, who lives in Tarrant County. “It’s been interesting to see people who were pretty tuned out four years ago become unapologetic about their politics and determined to do everything possible to make our community, state and country government work better for everyone.”

Republicans could especially take heart in rural areas that have only grown more red in recent election cycles. Take for example Jones County, which includes part of Abilene and went for John McCain by 47 points in 2008, Mitt Romney by 55 points in 2012 and Trump by 65 points in 2016.

The county GOP chair, Isaac Castro, said there is “a lot more enthusiasm” for Trump in Jones County compared to four years ago, when some local Republicans had reservations about his conservative credentials.

“I really think that this year he’s probably going to do better,” Castro said, adding that he was not worried about Trump losing statewide. “You know, West Texas is going to be strong for him again.”

Here’s how the vote has gone in Jones County since 2008, updated to include this year:


Candidates    Votes     Pct
===========================
McCain        4,203  72.37%
Obama         1,528  26.31%
Margin        2,675  46.06%
Total         

Romney        4,262  76.56%
Obama         1,226  22.02%
Margin        3,036  54.54%
Total

Trump         4,819  80.86%
Clinton         936  15.70%
Margin        3,883  65.16%
Total        10,101

Trump         5,621  84.00%
Biden           989  14.78%
Margin        4,632  69.22%
Total         9,635

The SOS election returns pages did not list the total number of registered voters in Jones County in 2008 and 2012, so that figure is only there for the two most recent elections. The trend is clear, and it has netted the Republican Presidential candidate an extra two thousand votes since 2008, though as you can see Joe Biden at least added on to Hillary Clinton’s meager vote total from 2016. May not seem like much, but there are a lot of counties like Jones out there (keep that chart Michael Li posted in mind), and it all adds up.

I’m going to be taking a deeper dive into this over the next couple of weeks, so hopefully we will all become more familiar with this theme. I think there is room to improve for the Dems, which doesn’t mean winning these areas but being more competitive in them so as not to continue falling behind, but more importantly I think we have to improve in them. It’s easy to say that counties like Jones are running out of room to increase their Republican yield, but there’s no reason to think they’ve reached that point yet, and much of the low-hanging fruit in the big urban areas for Dems have been harvested, too. The first step is to make the commitment, and I’m going to do what I can to convince you that it needs to happen. Stay tuned.