ELECTIONATE NOVEMBER 19, 2012
Not only did the huge Hispanic turnout on Election Day help return President Obama to the White House; it has also lifted Democratic hopes about what just a few years ago was inconceivable: a blue Texas. Even Eva Longoria decided to pen a piece about Texas' emerging swing state status and some Texas Republicans are getting nervous too— Jeb Bush asserted that Texas would be a blue state in 2016—but the talk is premature. Despite having the second largest Latino population in the country, Texas won't be purple, let alone blue, for a long time.
Certainly, increased Hispanic turnout and support for Democratic candidates aided the president in Texas, just as it did nationally. In overwhelmingly Hispanic areas of south Texas, Obama finished more than 10 points better than he did in 2008, and Mitt Romney finished worse than John McCain in thirty counties with a large Hispanic population. Strong minority support and turnout allowed Obama to carry the core counties of metropolitan Dallas and Houston (Dallas and Harris County), even though they voted Republican in every presidential election from 1968 through 2004.
But in case anyone missed it, demographic changes haven't actually produced gains for Democrats in Texas. Despite favorable Latino turnout and support, Obama did worse in Texas than he did four years ago and lost by a decisive 16-point margin. Looking back further, Texas hasn’t moved to the left: the state was 19 points to the right of the national popular vote in 2012; hardly an improvement compared to 19 points in 2008, 20 points in 2004, and 15 points in 1996.
How have Republicans bucked demographics in Texas? White Texans keep getting more Republican. Unfortunately, Texas was scrapped from the state exit polls in 2012, making it hard to say just how much worse Obama performed than he did four years ago. But the county results make it quite clear that Obama fared much worse among white voters than he did in 2008. In Texas' 224 other counties, Romney did better than McCain, including 54 predominantly white counties where Obama lost more than 10 points over the last four years.
In Comanche County, a central Texas county where the population splits 73-26 between whites and Hispanics, Obama lost by an 80-18 margin. Michael Dukakis carried the white but traditionally Democratic county by 10 points in 1988, and Democrats have lost ground there in every presidential election since 1992.
Given that Obama lost Texas whites by a 73-26 margin in 2008, it seems that Obama probably fell to something just slightly above 20 percent of the white vote in 2012. Depending on the exact increase in Latino turnout, there's an outside chance that Obama fell into the teens. Whatever the exact figure, it’s clear that GOP gains among white Texans have overwhelmed advances in Latino turnout and support for Democrats.
Republicans have probably maximized their support among white Texans, and it’s easy to envision how the next Democratic nominee improves slightly among southern whites. And now that Republicans have exhausted their means to counter the growing Hispanic population, Texas will probably begin to drift closer to the national center. But with 75-plus percent of the white vote, Republicans will be able to endure incremental increases in the Hispanic share of the electorate for a long, long time. If Democrats can’t push beyond 25 percent of the white vote in Texas, they will struggle to compete at any time over the next decade or even longer. In 2008, Latinos represented 20 percent of the Texas electorate, but Democrats will probably need Hispanics to edge into the mid-thirties before they could win statewide.
With Hispanics already representing 39 percent of the Texas population and poised to reach half by 2030, it’s not hard to see why Democrats are salivating at the opportunities in Lone Star state. Based on that number, Democrats often lament that they could carry the state if the national party would only invest in the state party infrastructure and embark on an expansive effort to register the state’s supposed (but latent) Democratic majority. But Hispanics are younger and less likely to be citizens than the rest of the Texas population, so Hispanics represent just 26 percent of the voting eligible population—a tally leaving Democrats far short of a statewide majority.
As the Hispanic population grows over the next decade, the Hispanic share of eligible voters certainly should grow, but perhaps not by enough to permit a Democratic victory in a competitive election. One analysis by David Broockman of Yale University projects that the Hispanic share of Texas’ voting age population will increase to the magic 37 percent in 2024, but the Hispanic share of the voting eligible population will probably be even lower, since millions of voting-age Texas Hispanics won’t be citizens. The most recent American Community Survey shows that while 31 percent of voting-age Texans are Hispanic, just 26 percent of voting eligible Texans are Hispanic. If the same proportion holds in 2024, as few as 30 percent of Texas Hispanics might be eligible to vote--although the eventual figure will prove higher since a greater share of Texas Hispanics will probably be U.S. Citizens. Even so, it will be difficult for Democrats to win Texas if Hispanics represent about one-third of the electorate unless Democrats do even better among Texas Latinos than Obama did in 2008, or make gains among white voters. Both are possible. More likely, the Hispanic share of the voting eligible population won't reach the magic number until 2028. Even when the Hispanic share of eligible voters reaches the tipping point, it will be difficult for Democrats to turn opportunity into reality. Most of the growth in the Hispanic share of eligible voters comes from Hispanic children reaching voting age, but young voters are less likely to turn out than older voters, who happen to be white.
If the two parties continue forward along the lines carved by the Bush and Obama years, then Texas would become quite competitive by the end of the next decade and Democrats will routinely approach 400 electoral votes in national elections. But between now and the mid-2020s, the Republican party will make adjustments to compensate for changing demographics and new issues will rejigger the electorate along unforseen lines. After Bill Clinton won West Virginia by 15 points and lost its eastern neighbor by 2, I suspect that few analysts in 1996 forseaw West Virginia becoming the fifth-most Republican state or Virginia voting more Democratic than the country. The ascent of Democrats in Texas is hardly inevitable and even if it is, it won't be in 2016 or 2020, at least not in a close election.