The well-regarded survey research center at Quinnipiac University released a poll of Texas on Wednesday that attracted some attention around the political world. It showed Joe Biden leading Donald Trump in the state by 4 percentage points (48 percent to 44 percent) in a 2020 trial heat, with other major Democratic candidates slightly trailing Trump by margins of 1 to 4 points. Texas has not been actively contested in a presidential election since 1992, and Barack Obama lost the state by 16 points as recently as 2012. But the Republican margin narrowed to 9 points in the 2016 election, and Beto O'Rourke's 2018 Senate campaign attracted more than 48 percent of the vote—the best statewide showing by a Democratic candidate in decades. Has Texas's long-predicted shift from red to purple finally arrived?
There are reasons to believe that Texas will be less enthusiastic about Trump's re-election than other traditionally Republican states. It contains both a large non-white population and a substantial number of white-collar voters residing in large metropolitan areas—a segment of the electorate that has been trending Democratic for years but is especially anti-Trump. Texans are also young, relatively speaking; the state has the third-lowest median age in the nation at a time when the partisan generation gap is at a record high.
In theory, the ability to put Texas's 38 electoral votes in play would be a major advantage for the Democratic Party; adding it to the states carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016 would give Democrats an electoral college majority without the need to flip Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, or Florida back from the Republican column. But it's much more likely that Texas would be a "reach" state at best for the party: still more Republican-leaning than the average, and truly up for grabs only in a situation where the Democratic ticket is already heading for a comfortable national victory. The state's very size will also dissuade Democrats from building an active campaign unless they really think they have a good shot at winning: to actually compete in Texas requires a multimillion-dollar investment in advertising and field organization. O'Rourke raised an astounding $79 million for his Senate race last year, and yet amassing the nation's biggest campaign war chest still wasn't enough to deliver him a victory.
It's more likely that any further immediate change in Texas's partisan alignment will register most visibly in the House of Representatives. In 2018, Democrats captured two seats long held by the GOP and held ten other Texas Republicans to 55 percent or less of the popular vote. A continued pro-Democratic drift in the suburbs of Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio would itself put enough new districts into play to provide Democrats with a valuable boost in their quest to protect or expand their national House majority in 2020.
For this reason alone, a Republican presidential administration would normally be reluctant to push too hard on policies that disproportionately hurt the Texas economy in advance of a major election. But the Trump White House, which (among many other idiosyncracies) lacks a conventional political shop with influence over top presidential decisions, is poised to impose tariffs on goods from Mexico as soon as next week, even though Texas ranks second in the nation in its economic dependence on Mexican imports. Texas is still very unlikely to actually turn blue in 2020. But if it were to occur somehow, such actions will look in retrospect like textbook cases of political malpractice.