Trump stole the show, but the election did provide some hope for beleaguered Texas Democrats.
It’s been a week since Donald Trump’s stunning victory, and the shock hasn’t really worn off. Nor is there any more certainty about what kind of president Trump will be. Given Trump’s lack of a core ideology and his shifting positions, it’s impossible to confidently predict how he will attempt to govern. Some pundits are predicting that Trump will be fairly successful, and others fear a descent into fascism. At this point, either scenario seems plausible.
As for how Trump authored perhaps the greatest election upset in American history, I don’t have much to add to the explanations offered in seemingly every corner of the Internet. It was a relatively low-turnout election: About 57 percent of eligible voters came to the polls this year, a drop from 58.6 percent in 2012 and 61.6 in 2008. Though Hillary Clinton, as of this writing, won the popular vote by about 800,000, Trump won an Electoral College majority with a surge in support from white rural voters that—combined with key parts of the Obama coalition not showing up for Clinton (she received about five million fewer votes than Obama did in 2012)—secured narrow victories in a handful of critical swing states. As The Hill reported on Tuesday, Clinton over-performed Obama in urban areas in Florida and Pennsylvania, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Trump’s enormous vote totals in rural areas.
Closer to home, the election results were far less surprising. Texas went for Trump by nine points, a narrower margin than Republicans had enjoyed in previous presidential elections, which Erica Grieder predicted months ago. Texas remains a reliably Republican state, but there are some positive signs for Texas Democrats, particularly in the Houston area.
If Democrats are ever going to be competitive again statewide, they first need to dominate in Harris County. It’s the same model Democrats have used to make other states competitive: Pile up large enough margins in the biggest urban areas to match or outnumber GOP voters in rural and suburban areas.
Harris County is the largest county in Texas—bigger than a few dozen states—and its population is more than two-thirds minority, a demographic makeup that should favor Democrats. And yet Democrats have struggled to win Harris County in recent cycles. Greg Abbott carried it by four points in the 2014 governor’s race, and Mitt Romney essentially tied Obama there in 2012. The reason is that turnout among Latino voters, who you’d expect to lean Democratic, has been anemic.
But this year, Harris County shifted heavily toward the Democrats, with Clinton winning it by 161,000 votes. That’s the makings of the kind of winning margin Democrats will eventually need to be competitive in Texas. She also won Fort Bend County, a one-time Republican stronghold that’s quickly changing. Those victories in the Houston area, combined with other urban areas of the state, should give Texas Democrats some hope for the future.
Trump won Texas by about 800,000 votes. Let’s say Democrats could run up a margin in Harris County of 400,000. That spread, combined with slightly higher numbers from San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin, could result in a close statewide race, at least in a presidential year.
A 400,000-vote margin may sound like a lot, but there is still ample room for Democratic growth in Houston. Harris County has 3.3 million eligible voters, and only 39 percent of them turned out.
So the good news for Democrats is that the potential is there, especially with the Houston population continuing to increase. The good news for Republicans is that even with a figure as controversial as Trump on the ballot, eligible turnout in Harris County was only 39 percent. Registering new voters in Houston and getting them into voting booths won’t be easy for Democrats, especially since the party has failed miserably with its ground game in recent decades.
But the bottom line is this: We saw the stirrings on Election Day of a potential shift in Texas politics. Democrats have an opportunity to become competitive again. The question now is can they take advantage of it.