Democrats have dreamed of Texas going blue. An election forecaster just called the race a "toss up"

Early votes in the conservative stronghold of Texas have surpassed 90% of the state's total turnout in 2016

Published October 29, 2020 11:54PM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Joe Biden | Texas (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Joe Biden | Texas (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

With less than one week until Election Day and an unprecedented number of early votes already cast, President Donald Trump's campaign appears to be faltering in more states. And the most consequential slip seems to be underway in the historically unassailable conservative stronghold of Texas — an electoral prize Democrats have eyed for years. On Wednesday, the influential Cook Political Report shifted the deep red state towards Democratic nominee Joe Biden, from "lean Republican" to "toss-up."

While unprecedented, the shift should not come as a surprise given current polling in the state, as well as its leftward voting trends over the last few years, according to Cook's analysis. Indeed, Texas Republicans themselves appear jittery about the prospect, going to lengths to try to skew the electorate in their favor. If Texas turns blue, it would seal a Biden victory and preclude a deluge of Republican litigation, which experts anticipate would follow a tight result.

"Recent polling in the state — both public and private — shows a 2-4 point race," Cook election analyst Amy Walter writes. "That's pretty much in line with the hotly contested 2018 Senate race in the state where [Republican] Sen. Ted Cruz narrowly defeated [Democrat] Rep. Beto O'Rourke 51% to 48%."

The shift comes amid data that shows the Lone Star State far and away leads the nation in early voting. As of Oct. 28, Texas had already seen more than 8 million votes cast. That's 90% of the state's total 2016 electorate, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida. Walter points out that this fact, combined with an influx of new voters, "adds a level of uncertainty" to their typical electoral equation for the state.

Texas Republicans have indicated they share that unsteadiness.

"Governor Greg Abbott has gone to extreme lengths to suppress voting, canceling the plans of its most populous counties to offer convenient drop boxes for voters to return their ballots," Corey Goldstone, spokesperson for the Campaign Legal Center, a group which advocates for fair elections, previously told Salon, referring to Abbott's controversial rule still working its way through the courts. "Rather than letting the counties go through with their plans, the governor has insisted on only one dropbox per county. This is voter suppression in its simplest form."

The Campaign Legal Center has sued the state over the rule.

Despite the dirty fight, Democratic leaders have pressed the Biden campaign and outside political groups to throw more resources at what once appeared a long-shot. O'Rourke argues that a Biden win in Texas obviates any debate about the national results, writing in a Washington Post op-ed earlier this month that the election would be decided "before Trump's lawyers can get through the courtroom doors."

"Thanks to Republican efforts to suppress voter turnout, Texas did not expand vote by mail in midst of a global pandemic. As a result, we will know the winner of the Texas presidential election on election night," O'Rourke wrote. "If Texas turns blue that night and its 38 electoral votes go to Biden, then Trump would have no viable path to victory, and the election would be over that night before Trump's lawyers can get through the courtroom doors to stop the vote counts in other states."

If Biden takes Texas — along with other Democratic-favored states like Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico and Virginia — he could still afford to lose Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin combined. Trump, meanwhile, has no viable path to victory without Texas.

Indeed, Trump's chances of winning Texas are now lower than other swing states, Cook says.

"At this point, Ohio and Maine's 2nd District are probably the most promising for Trump, followed by Texas and Iowa," Walter writes.

But even if Trump were to add those states to the ones he already has a lock on, he'd only have 188 electoral votes — still 82 shy of the magic 270. Of Cook's toss-ups, the site gives Biden a slight lead in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.

Trump now has 20 safe states worth a combined 125 electoral votes, Cook projects. Biden, on the other hand, has 24 states in his column, worth 290 electoral votes — 20 more than he needs.

With such a map, Trump would need to win all of Cook's "toss up" states: Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Maine's 2nd District, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas. He would then need to add at least two of the seven states which Cook ranks "lean Democrat": Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Arizona poses the best opportunity, where Biden holds a small but steady 3-point lead Walter says. Still, Trump would need to eat into the former vice president's appeal with key voters in suburban Phoenix, a narrow prospect in Walter's view.

The Trump campaign has staged several rallies in Pennsylvania, which it sees as one bright spot on the map. FiveThirtyEight's polling average of the state has tightened, but Biden still leads by 5 points. Walter's analysis suggests that Biden has built on Clinton's margins in the suburbs, while Trump has slipped in regions which delivered the state for him in 2016 by a razor-thin 44,292 votes.

Biden does not need to win Texas, though the possibility is no longer a stretch. In concluding, Walter notes that skepticism in the recent past appears to have led pollsters to underestimate that possibility: A Cook analysis of 2016 and 2018 polling errors found that polls in the American Southwest "undershot Democrats' final margin in 17 of 19 cases, including by an average of 1.4 points in 2016 and 4.2 points in 2018."

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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Aggregation Cook Political Report Donald Trump Elections Elections 2020 Joe Biden Politics Texas