The new political geography of the Lone Star State: surging metropolitan growth is changing the partisan balance in Texas

“Texas will be a closely contested state in the presidential election, something that has not happened since 1976.”

When I (Richard) arrived in Texas in 1966, there were several well-defined political/cultural regions in the Lone Star State.  East Texas, settled before the Civil War, was home of “Yellow Dog Democrats,” cultural conservatives, and a sizeable African American minority.  The Gulf Coast was heavily industrialized, with significant organized labor members, and well on its way to becoming the center of the national and international oil and gas industry.  Central Texas was mostly Anglo, thinly populated except for the City of Austin, and solidly Democratic in partisan politics.  San Antonio and South Texas were also Democratic, with Mexican American majorities in most counties.  North Texas was dominated by Dallas and Fort Worth, conservative and Republican in politics, and home to a large corporate sector featuring banking, insurance, and real estate interests.  West Texas, predominately Anglo except for El Paso, was the most Republican part of the state in national elections, but still had numerous county courthouses dominated by local Democrats. 

That Texas of 50 years ago no longer exists. Rural elected Democrats are extinct outside South Texas and the border.  More important, what has emerged in the early 21st century is a vastly different political map (excepting again South Texas), in which the political fault line now runs between the large metropolitan areas that anchor the “Texas Triangle” and the rest of the state.  The four big metro areas in Texas are the nine county Dallas/Fort Worth region, the eight county Houston region, the five counties around Austin, and another five in the San Antonio area.  Excluding the 28 heavily Latino counties in South Texas and along the Mexican border, we are left with 199 predominately Anglo counties that include a dozen smaller metropolitan areas, as well as most of the rural environs and small towns of the state.

If one looks at how Texans voted in the 14 high turnout General Elections from 1968 to 2018 (the 13 presidential elections from 1968 to 2016 and the 2018 midterm election), we see a very big shift has occurred.  For the first half of this period, there was very little difference in the two-party vote between the big metro areas and the 199 largely non-Hispanic counties.  But after 2000, we see these two county groupings start to diverge.  The big metro counties become less and less supportive of Republican presidential candidates, while the remaining counties, excluding the Hispanic areas, become more supportive of the GOP nominees.  By 2016, the gap was more than 25 percent as Donald Trump got almost 75 percent of the vote in non-metro counties, but less than 50 percent of the metro vote.  This pattern continued in the 2018 General Election, which featured near-presidential level voting.  Senator Ted Cruz won about 73 percent of the non-metro vote, but less than 46 percent of the total big metro vote.  Cruz lost all big four metropolitan regions – something no top-of-the-ticket Republican nominee had done since Barry Goldwater in 1964.  Senator Cruz won, but only by 2.6 percent, the smallest Republican margin in a statewide election since 1994.

What makes this trend worrisome to Republicans heading into the 2020 presidential election is not just the declining level of support for GOP nominees in the big metro areas, but the accompanying fact that these fast growing urban and suburban counties are casting a much larger share of the total state vote.  Conversely, the rest of the state accounts for a smaller and smaller vote share.  In 1968, the big metro areas produced 51.8 percent of the total vote.  By 2000 this had risen to 61.1 percent, and reached 68.1 percent in 2018.  The 199 counties that Republicans now depend on to provide their statewide margin had a 38.0 percent share of the total statewide vote in 1968, 30.6 percent in 2000, and just 23.8 percent in 2018.  If these two trend lines continue into the 2020 election, Texas will be a closely contested state in the presidential election, something that has not happened since 1976.

Will this happen?  The population shifts – and vote share change – almost certainly will continue, as the 27 counties in the four major metro areas accounted for 83.6 percent of the state’s growth since 2010 according to the U.S. Census population estimate for July 1, 2018.  The 199 non-metro group provided just 10.5 percent, and the border/Latino counties the remaining 5.8 percent.  So with the big metro counties likely increasing their vote share in the 2020 General Election, the remaining question is can Republican Party arrest or reverse its declining share of the metropolitan vote in Texas? 

No one can answer that question in 2019, for many reasons. Most importantly, while the GOP is very likely to have President Trump at the top of their ticket, any one of a dozen Democrats could end being nominated in Milwaukee next summer. And will that nominee opt for a strategy that includes contesting Texas? Republicans must win Texas. Democrats have other options.      

Dr. Richard Murray is the Lanier Chair in Public Policy, Political Science at the University of Houston. Renee Cross is Senior Director, Hobby School of Public Affairs Lecturer, Political Science at the University of Houston.

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