As I mentioned yesterday, I consider it a matter of moral and practical urgency that Donald Trump, now the presumptive Republican nominee for president, be deprived of the chance to get his tiny hands on the nuclear codes—and further, I think Texas has a role to play in that effort.
The latter part of that, at least, surely seems dubious. As Ross Ramsey wrote in a painfully accurate analysis Tuesday, “Texas is getting clobbered this year.” This is the biggest red state in the country, and yet we came up empty in this year’s Republican presidential primary. Two of the 17 candidates, Ted Cruz and Rick Perry, were from Texas; two others, Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, have deep roots and extensive networks in the state; a fifth, Carly Fiorina, was born here; a sixth, Rick Santorum, lives in Dallas part of the time. All of those candidates were ultimately defeated by a rival from New York who thinks Laredo, a city of several hundred thousand people founded eleven years before the American Revolution, is a remote and scary destination. Further, as Ramsey notes, nothing in Trump’s record or rhetoric indicates any real commitment to the principles and causes that Texas Republican leaders have prioritized during twenty years of hegemonic political power in the state. He cites federalism and social issues such as the right to life as examples; I’d add trade, property rights, Second Amendment rights, and First Amendment rights, at minimum.
And Texas, under normal circumstances, would have more influence in the Republican presidential primary than the general election. In 2012, Mitt Romney defeated Obama by a 57-41 margin. In 2008, John McCain did the same, 55-44. And though Democrats began the 2014 election cycle in unusually high spirits—buoyed by an infusion of national money and support, backed by demographics that seemed to support their insistence that Texas will inexorably turn blue, and equipped with a full roster of candidates for the statewide offices in play—the bloodbath that ensued in November seemed to settle the question for the time being: Texas is not a swing state. Even now, with Trump as the nominee, there is a near consensus, in both parties, that our electoral votes will go in his column.
That outcome would be a blot on Texas’s record that we could never erase, and therefore would do well to avoid. We’ve rejected vicious demagogues in the past, at least on occasion. In 1968, five former Confederate states, including our neighbors Louisiana and Arkansas, went for the segregationist George Wallace; Texas was not among them. That tells you something about who we were at the time—it’s not a coincidence that Texas was the only former Confederate state to reject Trump in the Republican primary—and means something to me as a Texan today. I think we have a chance, at least, of rejecting him in the general, too. And I think it’s certainly worth a try, for at least two reasons.
First, no candidate is entitled to Texas’s electoral votes. Trump has done nothing to earn them. If anything, he’s done the opposite. If you think about the disrespect and vulgarities he’s slung freely at women, Hispanics, immigrants, and Muslims during the course of the primary, not to mention the individual Texans who aggrieved him along the way—like Cruz, whose crime was competing against him, or Heidi Cruz, whose crime was being married to Cruz. And Trump, needless to say, apparently considers himself the victim of mistreatment by Texans; a few days after Cruz beat him in the state’s primary, he announced that after further consideration, he had concluded that it would only be necessary to build a wall along roughly half of the nation’s southern border, because the other half already has a “natural barrier” in place, by which he could only have meant the Rio Grande. Should Texas reward Trump’s behavior? Should we be cowed by his threats? No. We should expect all presidential candidates to treat Texans with basic civility and respect, even if their own parochial biases prevent them from recognizing the full extent of our state’s greatness.
Second, it’s a truth of contemporary American politics that no Republican can win the White House without Texas. Even if Trump ends up reworking the electoral map a bit, perhaps by winning a few states in the Rust Belt, he almost certainly needs Texas’s votes to win the election. And if he does manage to win a few states that went Democratic in 2012, like Ohio or Pennsylvania, Texas’s votes could be crucial. I’d like to think that Trump is sufficiently loathsome that he’ll lose in a landslide; after everything I’ve seen this year I can’t rule out the possibility that our nation might need a state to step up and clobber him.
If Trump loses the general election, of course, that would almost certainly mean that Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, will win it. That being the case, I’ve had a number of conversations with Republicans, since the Indiana primary, who are experiencing various degrees of distress over the choice now facing the nation, and grappling with whether they would rather be poisoned or shot. They’re still coming to terms with the fact, I think, that keeping Texas red isn’t an option at the moment; our state can turn blue this year, or it can turn orange. But I’ll address their concerns about Clinton more fully tomorrow. For today I’d like to explain why I think it’s possible that Texas could turn blue in 2016.
First, Clinton, assuming she is the Democratic nominee, is more popular than national observers realize among Texas Democrats. Her ties to the state date back to the 1970s, when she and her husband, Bill, worked in the state for the McGovern campaign; a lot of Democrats, especially in South Texas, have a genuine affection for the Clintons that has endured since then. Further, the relative centrism associated with the Clintons means that Hillary, like Bill, is more well aligned with the state’s relatively centrist Democrats than most of the party’s national figures. Both factors help explain why Bill Clinton came within three points of winning Texas in 1992—even though the two other candidates on the ballot, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot, were Texans—and within five points of winning in 1996. They also help explain why Hillary Clinton won Texas’s Democratic primary in 2008. (Texas Democrats have a two-step system, and Barack Obama won the caucus part, but that was a measure of his superior campaign organization; the vote itself, obviously, was a better heuristic for their proportional support.) Clinton also won this year’s primary, against Bernie Sanders, in a 65-33 landslide. It stands to reason, then, that Clinton’s baseline support in Texas could well be higher than the 41 percent Obama earned in 2012. And should she decide to compete in Texas in the general, she can count on the enthusiastic support of most of the state’s own Democrats, the most visible of whom, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, could add one or two ticks to the Democratic ticket’s tally if he’s Clinton’s running mate.
Second, the Republican nominee is going to be Donald Trump, and, well, we all know what he’s like. As noted yesterday, Governor Greg Abbott has called on Republicans to support the nominee, as has Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. Others may insist on joining this grim parade, but I can’t imagine that Abbott, Patrick, or any other Republican official in Texas is going to exert themselves as ardently on Trump’s behalf as they would have done for Cruz—or any of the other candidates who ran this year, literally every one of whom was ultimately less loathsome than the victor. Trump’s baseline of support, then, is presumably a bit lower than Romney’s. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if Trump wins Texas this year, only disheartened, but I’d be shocked if he wins with 57 percent of the vote.
Third, there will be other options besides Trump and Clinton. There’s still time for an independent candidate to make it on the ballot, as I proposed in December; he or she would have to submit a petition, signed by approximately 80,000 Texans who didn’t vote in either primary this year, to the Secretary of State by May 9th. More auspicious news, for Texans in the market for a principled spoiler, is that both the Libertarian Party and the Green Party, assuming they can escape the mysterious impulse to self-sabotage that has infected America’s two major parties this year, will have candidates on the ballot. The Libertarian nominee, who will be decided at the party’s national convention later this month, might prove to be an attractive alternative for Texas conservatives who are committed to any of the principles that Trump no longer has cause to feign concern for. I can’t claim to be familiar with either of their two leading candidates, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson or Missouri businessman Austin Petersen. Even so, it’s likely that neither is worse than Trump. In 2012, it should be said, Johnson got 1.11 percent of the vote. But in 2012, he was competing against a Republican Party that had managed to nominate a generally reasonable candidate for the most powerful political office in the world. This year’s Libertarian nominee will find that the system is no longer rigged so heavily against him. And based on some back-of-the-envelope math based on former Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson’s results in the 2014 Republican primary, I’d reckon about 5-8 percent of Texans who usually vote in the Republican primary could be induced to defect to the Libertarian candidate.
In view of all of that, I’d say there’s a outside chance that Texas could turn blue in 2016, if only at the top of the ticket. I can also see a case for a more pessimistic assessment, by clicking on this link to Jim Henson and Joshua Blank’s analysis of the situation, from March. Let’s keep in mind, though, that pessimistic assessments, even if they’re backed by solid reasoning and evidence, can be self-fulfilling prophecies. The historical evidence, in fact, is partly due to previous self-fulfilling prophecies: Texas Democrats have been known to declare defeat pre-emptively, and then retroactively describe the losses that inevitably ensue as proof that they were right not to bother trying because they didn’t stand a chance. Let’s set that aside, though. This year’s uphill climb is, at least, less steep than anyone would have expected a year ago. The 2016 primaries have yielded a pair of presidential candidates with Texas-specific idiosyncrasies. Whatever happens over the next six months, we know that Trump will be weaker in Texas than most Republicans, and Clinton will be stronger than most Democrats. There will be a Libertarian candidate making the case for open political borders. And that’s without even mentioning Ken Paxton or Sid Miller.
Lord knows I fully appreciate how strange this sounds. But I think we can all agree that I’m not some Beltway-based progressive daydreaming about demographic trends that would have turned Texas blue ten years ago if humans voted based on their biology, without regard to their beliefs, principles and individual preferences. Shoot, over the years, I’ve wondered if Texas Democrats even want to win, or if it’s just been so long since they last did that half the party leaders have forgotten how elections work. Let me be clear: It’s hard to underestimate their capacity for self-sabotage. But the same can now be said of the GOP, now that it’s decided to go to battle under the banner of Trump. Surely it’s time for our state’s beleaguered Democrats to saddle up.