Texas Republicans appear poised to once again sweep the Democrats in statewide elections, but they have lost the future, because they have lost the youth of Texas. The Republican loss might not play out in 2020 or even 2022. When it comes, though, when young Texans replace elderly Texans at the ballot box, state Republicans likely will find themselves wandering in the same political wilderness that has consumed the Democrats for the past two decades. I know this to be true, because I saw it happen to the Democrats.
Young voters turned out in droves for the rallies of Democrat Beto O’Rourke in his challenge to incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. Although less than two years separates Cruz and O’Rourke by age, O’Rourke was viewed as youthful and vigorous, an agent of change against the incivility and bitterness of American politics. For having spent years positioning himself as the outsider, Cruz represented the status quo of limited government and conservative culture—a candidate well positioned for the God, guns, and country politics of older and rural Texans.
In one public opinion survey after another, young people shored O’Rourke up and made him look competitive with Cruz. A Marist University survey in early August, found O’Rourke trailing by just four percentage points statewide. More than half the registered voters under the age of 45 backed O’Rourke, while older voters supported Cruz. A Quinnipiac survey at about that same time found O’Rourke leading among voters under the age of 50, but Cruz took a commanding lead with older voters.
This age gap continued in more recent surveys of likely voters. A new Quinnipiac survey found O’Rourke had the support of 66 percent of the likely voters between the ages of 18 and 34, but he started dropping off after that. Overall, Cruz only led by 51 percent to 46 percent, but it was that youth vote that put O’Rourke in the chase. University of Texas pollster James Henson shared with me the age numbers from the University of Texas/Texas Tribune survey that also found a 51/45 race with Cruz slightly ahead of O’Rourke. The underdog had 71 percent support among the voters who were surveyed between the ages of 18 and 29, and 55 percent from those 30-44. Again, Cruz took over with older voters.
The support of young voters may not do O’Rourke much good, though. The young came. They rallied. They voiced support for O’Rourke to pollsters. But in the first week of early voting, they appear to have done what young voters have done for years: stay home and not vote. Almost three-quarters of the early vote during the first week was cast by people age 40 and over. O’Rourke’s best hope for a victory next week rests in the possibility that he stays close to Cruz in the over-40 vote so a landslide among young voters pushes him over the top.
What is clear is that even if Cruz wins, the Republican Party has set the stage to lose control in the future. Already, the major urban centers are leaning Democratic, and the final holdout—Tarrant County—may go Democratic this year. But the real loss for Republicans is that the young people supporting O’Rourke now but not voting will become voters as they mature, have children and buy homes. Political parties that lose the young lose their future. Just look at the Texas Democratic Party.
The Democrats dominated the state since before the Civil War with the exception of a short period during Reconstruction. That dominance started eroding in the 1980s and 1990s for a variety of reasons. In the 1996 presidential election, exit polls found Democratic incumbent Bill Clinton had lost every age group of Texans other than those ages 18-29. By the 2004 presidential election in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 59 percent of the Texans between the ages of 18 and 29 supported the re-election of Republican George W. Bush.
The evidence of what was happening to the Texas Democratic Party was obvious at the 2000 state convention at the Tarrant County Convention Center in Fort Worth. There were few young people there, either as delegates or staff. In what almost seemed like a symbolic irony, the convention immediately before the Democrats was that of a funeral directors’s association, and the exhibitor hall had been filled with caskets before the Democrats took it over. After two straight statewide defeats, journalists were eager to portray the party as on life support. “I wish they’d just called us dead, because people don’t expect an ambush from a cemetery,” the president of the Texas AFL-CIO told me. A state Senate candidate tried to revive the excitement of his days as a high school track star by passing batons out to the crowd of older delegates. In a painful display of self-consciousness, they held batons aloft and shouted, “Take a stick and pass it on.” There just wasn’t anyone there to pass it along to.
The Texas Democratic Party had lost the youth vote and would not even start regaining it until state Senator Wendy Davis’s filibuster to kill an anti-abortion bill spurred her to enter the 2014 governor’s race. A poor campaigner with an even worse campaign, Davis lost the election. Pay it forward, though, and in an unsettled political atmosphere, O’Rourke gathered strength in the youth vote.
When I went to the Republican Party of Texas convention in San Antonio this year, there certainly were a lot of delegates there, and it was a healthier party than the Democrats in 2000. But the visual image was the same. There were few young people in the crowd. White-haired people sat politely in row after row of delegate seating. And the speakers concentrated mostly on social conservative issues and their support for President Trump.
The scene was completely different at the Tarrant County Convention Center where the Democrats gathered for their convention. It not only was different from the Republicans, but different from the one I covered there in 2000. The hallways were filled with people of different ethnicities and young people were everywhere. There was a vibrancy, an electricity in the convention center of young people engaging in the system. Despite structural problems with the party management and the lack of a bench of statewide candidates in waiting, the Democrats after a long night near the crypt are coming back.
Barring an upset that is not readily apparent in the early voting, Cruz will defeat O’Rourke. Governor Greg Abbott will win in a landslide over Lupe Valdez. And other down-ballot Democrats will suffer similar defeats. But the seeds have been sewn. The youth of Texas have aligned with the Democratic Party.