Sunday, February 9, 2020

Texas Democrats Mirror Nation

Republicans have dominated Texas politics for more than two decades, but as the state’s population trends younger and becomes more diverse, Democrats are having greater success. In 2018, former congressman Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat, came close to beating Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and brought national attention to the state’s changing politics. That same year, Democrats flipped two suburban congressional districts and picked up a dozen seats in the Texas House, putting Democrats just nine seats away from taking control of the chamber — and just ahead of the next redistricting process.

The challenge and opportunity for Texas Democrats in 2020 is to extend their 2018 successes at getting more Texans registered and to the polls. As Texas Democrats increase the turnout rate of their voters, the state looks increasingly less like the red Texas of old and more like the rest of the nation.

According to the latest poll from Texas Lyceum, the state of the race in Texas much more closely mirrors the state of the race nationally—with Joe Biden holding an extremely narrow lead over Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren trailing the two white male septuagenarians (and with a third, Mike Bloomberg, on her heels). The organization finds Biden at 28 percent, Sanders at 26 percent, Warren at 13 percent, and Bloomberg at 9 percent. (Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Tom Steyer, and Tulsi Gabbard all poll between 2 and 6 percent.)

The Texas poll is fairly similar to the national polling averages. Texas, after all, is fairly representative of the nation at large - it’s just the voter turnout rate in Texas has rank below every other state in the nation.

The Lyceum poll reveals the makeup of Texas Democrats, despite Texas’s conservative reputation, don’t appear to be any more prone to a moderate like Biden or averse to a self-described democratic socialist like Sanders. The two-point difference between Biden and Sanders falls fully within the margin of error in the Lyceum poll, and suggests that any Texas firewall the Biden campaign may be banking on for Super Tuesday is an uncertain proposition.

The Lyceum poll suggests that in a matchup against Trump, Sanders polls the highest in Texas, with 47 percent of the vote compared to Trump’s 50 percent. Biden trails Trump, 51-46, followed by Warren (50-43), and Buttigieg (51-43).

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the Lyceum poll is that any nationally competitive Democrat on Super Tuesday is probably going to be competitive in Texas, too. That hasn’t always been the case. In the heated 2016 primary race, Sanders won four Super Tuesday states—but in Texas, got thumped by Hillary Clinton by more than thirty points.

As Texas early voting is poised to start on February 18th, with Nevada and South Carolina primaries turning in their caucus and primary results while early voting is underway, there’s still opportunity for the specifics of the 2020 campaign to change. Maybe Bloomberg, who’s been advertising steadily and hiring field organizers who are working out of 17 offices around Texas, pulls ahead of the current leaders. Bloomberg has moved into fourth place in national polling averages. Or, maybe, Biden’s campaign collapses before Super Tuesday Election Day on March 3rd, or, maybe, Sanders comes out of the early states with runaway momentum.

But whatever happens, the latest polling of the state of Texas suggests that Texas Democrats are more likely to reflect the trends happening nationally than they are to buck them, if Democratic voter turnout is strong for the November election.

When you boil it down, modern American elections are rarely shaped by voters changing their minds on which party’s candidate(s) get their vote, but rather by shifts in who decides to go vote — that turnout explains everything.

To the political scientist Rachel Bitecofer, all of that is almost certainly true. Bitecofer, a 42-year-old professor at Christopher Newport University in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, forecast almost to the number (42 — only one more than the actual number of seats Democrats ended up winning) which U.S. House districts Democrats’ would flip in November 2018.

Bitecofer‘s 2020 model tells her the Democrats are a near lock for the presidency in 2020, and are likely to gain House seats - 6 seats in Texas alone - and even have a decent shot at retaking the Senate. Texan John Cornyn’s Senate seat is up for grabs, and even Texas’ 38 electoral college votes for the next president are no longer a sure lock for Republicans.

The classic view is that the pool of American voters is basically fixed: About 55 percent of eligible voters are likely to go to the polls, and the winner is determined by the 15 percent or so of “swing voters” who flit between the parties. So a general election campaign amounts to a long effort to pull those voters in to your side. Bitecofer has nicknamed this classic view, the Chuck Todd theory of American politics:
The idea that there is this informed, engaged American population that is watching these political events and watching their elected leaders and assessing their behavior and making a judgment. And it is just not true.

Bitecofer says the actual percentage of swing voters in any given national election is closer to 6 or 7 percent, rather than the 15 or 20 most analysts think are out there under the Chuck Todd theory. The 6 percent or so of true swing voters, she says, tend to vote for whoever promises a break with the status quo.
Bitecofer’s view of the electorate is driven, in part, by a new way to think about why Americans vote the way they do. She counts as an intellectual mentor Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University who popularized the concept of “negative partisanship,” the idea that voters are more motivated to defeat the other side than by any particular policy goals.

In a piece explaining his work in Politico Magazine, Abramowitz wrote:
“Over the past few decades, American politics has become like a bitter sports rivalry, in which the parties hang together mainly out of sheer hatred of the other team, rather than a shared sense of purpose. Republicans might not love the president, but they absolutely loathe his Democratic adversaries. And it’s also true of Democrats, who might be consumed by their internal feuds over foreign policy and the proper role of government were it not for Trump.”
Bitecofer took this insight and mapped it across the country. As she sees it, it isn’t quite right to refer to a Democratic or Republican “base.” Rather, there are Democratic and Republican coalitions, the first made of people of color, college-educated whites and people in metropolitan areas; the second, mostly noncollege whites, with a smattering of religious-minded voters, financiers and people in business, largely in rural and exurban counties.
In the polarized era, the outcome isn’t really about the candidates. What matters is what percentage of the electorate is Republican and Republican leaners, and what percentage is Democratic and Democratic leaners, and how they get motivated to go vote.
The electorate that elected Donald Trump in 2016 and the electorate that gave Democrats control of the House in 2018 might as well have been from two different countries, Bitecofer says. The first was whiter, had less college education and lived in more rural parts of the country than the second, which was more diverse, better educated and more urban than its counterpart from two years prior. That change had nothing to do with Democrats luring swing voters with savvy messaging, and everything to do with a bunch of people, who were appalled by the president, showing up at the polls, wanting to make their feelings known.

Once you know the shape of the electorate, she argues, you can pretty much tell how that electorate is going to vote. And the shape of the electorate in 2018, and 2020, for that matter, was determined on the night of November 8, 2016. The new electorate, as she forecasts it, is made up mostly of people who want a president named anything but Donald Trump, competing with another group that fears ruin should anyone but Donald Trump be president.

The first group, the Democratic universe of voters, now includes some very strange bedfellows, everyone from former Bush speechwriter David Frum to Susan Sarandon. It includes Al Sharpton and also the chief strategists for both Mitt Romney and John McCain’s failed presidential bids. It is Americans who are college-educated, who are not white or who live in or near a major urban center. This group turned out in force in the 2018 midterms, much the same way Tea Party voters showed up in 2010 to express their unhappiness at Obama. The more candidates talked about Trump and what a threat he was to their way of life, the more partisans were activated.

Although the ranks of independents are growing, over 40 percent by some surveys, Bitecofer thinks campaigns have spent entirely too much time courting them, and the media has spent entirely too much caring about their preferences. The real “swing” doesn’t come from voters who choose between two parties, but from people who choose to vote, or not.

Bitecofer has already released her 2020 model, and is alone among election forecasters in giving the Democrats—who, of course, do not yet have a nominee—the 270 electoral votes required to claim the presidency without a single toss-up state flipping their way. She sees anyone in the top tier, or even the second tier of candidates, as strong enough to win back most of the Trump states in the industrial Midwest, stealing a march in the South in places like North Carolina and Florida, and even competing in traditional red states like Georgia, Texas and Arizona. The Democrats are likely to pick up seats again in the House, she says, pegging the total at nine pickups in Texas alone, and have a decent chance of taking back the Senate.

And in a view that goes against years of accepted political wisdom that says the choice of a running mate doesn’t much matter, the key she says, to a 2020 Democratic victory will lie less in who is at the top of the ticket than in who gets chosen as veep. A good ticket-mate would be a person of color like JuliĆ”n Castro, she suggests, someone who can further ignite Democratic partisans - in states like Texas - who might otherwise stay home.

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