Why Travis County Could Turn Texas Blue

Highlights:

  • Texas’ 2018 midterms finished in a close Republican win, but recent voter registration trends indicate additional momentum for Democrats in 2020
  • The Lone Star State historically has had notoriously low voter turnout, but early voting results have been exceptionally strong thus far, and the state added an extra week to vote vs. previous years, setting Texas up for historic voter participation
  • Despite being much smaller than Harris and Dallas Counties, Travis County, home to Austin, will likely be Democrats largest source of net votes added, due to its extremely blue voting record, historic voter registration this year(97% of the eligible population), and excellent early voting results (43% of registered voters in, as of 10–22)
  • Historically red Collin and Denton Counties drifted significantly to the left in 2018, and have added more than 20% to their registered voter totals since 2016, likely sapping Republicans of much of their 2018 cushion
  • In a state that Republicans won relatively narrowly, favorable voter registration and early voting trends in blue counties paint a very plausible path to a Democratic victory. Expect the presidential race to go down to the wire. Texas is a toss up!

Texas has long been a Republican stronghold: the last time the state went for a Democrat for president was 1976. Polling has recently shown a relatively tight race for the past several months, and the most recent round of polling from Quinnipiac and Morning Consult show the race in a statistical tie.

Historically, Texas has been a state of exceptionally low voter turnout. 46% of eligible voters voted in the 2018 mid-term, an anomalously high year for a mid-term in the state. 2016, 2014, and 2012 were 51%, 28%, and 50%, respectively. In each of the last three presidential elections, Texas has been in the bottom 10 states or worse for voter turnout. But with a week and a half until the election, Texas is poised to smash its recent turnout woes. And this elevated turnout sets the stage for a potential Democratic upset.

By itself, an increase in turnout in a historically red state would not necessarily offer improved results for Democrats. But as a state that regularly tops the charts for net migration, this elevated turnout is a potential problem for Republicans. Since 2000, Texas’ population has risen from approximately 21 million to 29 million. California has consistently been the #1 source of immigrants to Texas, sending more than 60,000 people to Texas in one year according to the 2017 American Community Survey. This is perhaps not surprising (California is the largest state) and it is not a new trend. But its effects (along with exports from other blue states) may finally reach a tipping point, accelerated by COVID-19.

According to state officials, Texas has actually seen an increase in demand for corporate relocations and expansions since the pandemic began. This may in fact be a trailing indicator of relocation from America’s most expensive (and bluest) cities like San Francisco and New York City. Austin has been near the very top of the list for San Francisco move-outs during the pandemic. The shift to widespread acceptance of remote work, especially from many Bay area-based companies, has proved to be a boon for Austin and Travis County. A May Redfin survey found that 51% of respondents would “fly away” if remote work policies became permanent. And a September Redfin article highlighted that Austin has moved into second place in terms of net inflow, with top inflows coming from California, New York, Seattle, and Chicago. Finally, in the first several months of the pandemic, there was a 29% jump in Austin searches by people located in the San Francisco Bay area.

Texas is a big state, with more than 250 counties, and Travis County, where Austin resides, does not crack the top 3 in registered voters (Harris, Dallas, and Tarrant Counties). And all of these counties have also seen extensive growth in recent years, even if not at quite the same percentage increase as Austin. But what makes Travis County unique within the state’s growing population is what it has done with its voter rolls. A record 97% of eligible Travis County voters were registered in time to vote in the presidential election, boosting the registered voting population from 725K in 2016 to 850K people (the state-wide average for voter registration is 72%). This extraordinarily high registration rate means nearly all voters of all ages in this already very blue county are eligible to vote. And thanks to daily reports from the Texas State Secretary, we already have a glimpse into how voter turnout is shaping up. For Democrats, it is as strong as hoped.

Through October 22, with eight days of early voting and election day voting still remaining, nearly 6.4M Texans have voted out of nearly 17M registered voters. In a state that has not broken 60% participation rate by eligible voters since the 1988 election, nearly 38% of the registered voters have already voted. And early voting is only halfway through!

Texas has not been open to expanding mail-in voting during the pandemic, but the state has expanded the early voting period from its usual two weeks to three. Even if there were no extra week, Texas looks in good shape to beat early voting and vote-by-mail percentages from 2016 (46% for the top 15 counties in 2016, 39% for those same counties through 10–22 this year). Early voting historically has been heavily skewed toward Democrats, and this year is no different thus far. The extra week of early voting may be crucial toward a competitive cycle for Democrats.

While we should be careful making comparisons in aggregate versus the 2016 and 2018 results, the past results do provide us with a good starting point, especially when looking at the county level. The Republican shares of votes in Texas in 2016 and 2018 actually were relatively similar, with votes breaking 52.2% for Republicans in 2016 and 50.9% in 2018. The major change came on the Democratic side, where the Democratic candidate jumped from 43.2% in 2016 to 48.3% in 2020. Some of this can be chalked up to the difference between a widely-liked candidate (Beto O’Rourke for Senate) and a historically unpopular Democratic presidential candidate (Hillary Clinton). But this theory only holds so much water: Hillary Clinton’s Texas result was in line with Obama’s 2008 high-water mark (43.7%), who still lost by a wider margin ( -9% vs. -11.8%). And she did beat his 2012 results.

So, while she was in fact a historically unpopular candidate, she nevertheless was a relatively competitive candidate in Texas despite that unpopularity. For her to win by a closer margin than Obama as the ‘historically unpopular candidate’ means Texas was already bluer in 2016 than it seemed. Notably, much of the 2018 Democrats’ gains appeared to come from people that voted for third-party candidates in 2016 rather than Republican voters. And reviewing county-level results, we see candidate popularity is not the only major factor to consider.

If we look at all but the top 15 counties in Texas for 2016 and 2018, Democratic turnout was quite similar: there were approximately 863K Democratic votes in these counties in 2016 and 870K Democratic votes in these counties in 2018. A slight uptick in voting during a mid-term cycle is still something; Republicans saw a 219K voter drop during the same time frame in the same counties. Republicans also saw a relatively similar drop-off in the top 15 counties as well (-206K, falling from 2.55M in 2016 to 2.34M in 2018). But the real story is in the significant upswing for Democratic votes in the top 15 counties, where 161K more people voted Democratic in 2018 than in 2016 (3.176M vs. 3.015M, respectively). But even this does not give the full story: 60% of that upswing came from three counties representing roughly only 20% of voters in the top 15 counties: Travis, Collin, and Denton.

While larger Dallas and Tarrant (home to Ft. Worth) Counties did see reasonable Democratic upticks despite the mid-term cycle (+45K across both counties’ 1.3–1.4M total votes; these counties are currently worth 2.6M eligible voters), Travis, Collin, and Denton accounted for +100K Democratic votes on only 1.13M total votes (2.07M eligible voters in 2020 across these three counties). Collin County possesses two of the nation’s larger and wealthier suburbs in Plano and Frisco, home to many corporate headquarters such as Frito Lay, Toyota, FedEx, and others. These are the types of suburbs that may have been reliably red under a Romney-style Republican party, but nationally have drifted away from Republicans under Trump. The influx of California and New York transplants to the area due to companies like Toyota relocating their headquarters in recent years may also have moderated the demographics. Collin County added 20K new registered voters in 2016, contributing to the 25K net swing in votes for Democrats. 80,000 new registered voters were added in 2020, so an even larger swing this year is possible.

Adjacent Denton County is not quite as high income and is more rural (factors that bend it toward Trump’s base) than Collin County, but is home to a relatively large student population with the University of North Texas (38K students), Texas Women’s University (15K), and other smaller colleges. It added some 47K registered voters from 2016 to 2018, likely contributing to the 24K net Democratic swing in 2018. Another 53K registered voters this year also provides more new opportunity for Democrats. All told, Collin and Denton Counties added more than 20% to their registered voter totals since 2016.

Still, the shift in voting in these counties is just a moderation of previously deep-red voting habits. Collin and Denton Counties voted 56% and 57% for Republicans in 2016 vs 53% and 54% in 2018. There was a net drop off of 20K Republican votes from 2016 to the 2018 mid-term for these two counties, about 1% of the total vote. A surge in voting participation in these counties may portend good new for Democrats: younger voters are less likely to vote and break heavily liberal, and 73% of those polled in the 18–29 demographic in Texas preferred Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren on the Democratic ticket, in line with younger voter preferences nationally. Thus, it’s a safe bet that the younger population in Texas is on average more Democratic than the older population. US Census data from 2016 showed only a 27% turnout rate in Texas for the 18–24 demographic and a 38% rate for the 25–34 demographic (vs. 65% from the 65+ population).

So, a massive jump in voter turnout will almost inevitably require a significant uptick from younger, more liberal voters. It is unclear the extent to which the uptick we’re currently seeing can be attributable to particular age groups, though early results in Texas show the state leading the nation in the under-30 vote. But in two counties that were won by Republicans by more than 6 or 8% in the 2018 mid-terms, a high turnout still may not yield any net votes for Democrats, even factoring in more younger, bluer voters. These two counties could become more or less a draw, splitting the vote between the two parties. This is still a loss for Republicans, who historically relied on suburban voters to counter more liberal urban voters. In 2018, these two counties combined for a roughly 46K net voter advantage for Republicans, which is a meaningful total in an election won by less than 220K votes. Collin and Denton Counties’ early voting numbers have both topped the major counties, at 48% and 47%, respectively, (set to smash the 2016 totals of 56% and 52%) but the high turnout may be occurring on both sides.

The same cannot be said for Travis County, which has been the bluest major county in the state and may have grown bluer over the past two years. Travis County so far is third among Texas’ top 10 counties with 43% of the early vote in through October 22, and fourth among the top 15 (trailing neighboring Williamson County, which contains several of Austin’s suburbs; Williamson swung slightly Democratic in 2018 off a 20K net increase in Democratic voters, and added 50K registered voters in 2020). Travis County voted 74% Democratic in 2018, driving 51K additional Democratic voters compared to 2016 (-8K Republican), primarily at the expense of third-party candidates. With the Democratic-leaning migration trends and 97% voter registration mentioned earlier (enabling nearly all voters in the 18–29 bloc to vote, a rarity), Democrats could win Travis County by an even wider margin. Voter participation in Travis County could reach upwards of 80% through election day given the exceptionally strong early voter turnout and extended early voting window. This would mean 680K votes cast from the county, or a 341K net win for Democrats if they won the Travis County vote 75%/25%.

This would be a significant piece to the Democratic upset in Texas. Harris County (Houston) is 3x larger than Travis County in terms of registered voters, while Dallas county is approximately 50% larger. The two largest counties have seen good early voting turnout so far (39% for Harris and 38% for Dallas through 10–22), but they are not keeping pace with Travis County. And while they are blue (58% for Harris and 66% for Dallas in 2018), they are not as blue as Austin. For Houston to contribute roughly the same net Democratic voters using the 2018 splits, they would need to achieve nearly 85% voter turnout (highly unlikely given current early voting results). Dallas would need to reach 75%, which would require it to significantly outpace Travis County the rest of the way. It’s worth noting that the assumption that party voting splits will hold steady at different levels of turnout may not be valid, but the fact remains: despite being only the 4th largest county in Texas, Travis will likely be the largest source of net vote gains for Democrats.

More broadly, high turnout in the major counties of Texas would appear to be a good thing for Democrats. In both 2016 and 2018, Democrats won the top 15 counties by 52% and 57%, respectively (the 6% swing is a function of both increased Democratic turnout and reduced Republican turnout as mentioned earlier). These top 15 counties, representing 66% of the eligible voter population in 2020 (11.1M), are far from the typical ruby-red political stereotype of Texas. It is in the other nearly 240 counties, totaling 5.8M eligible voters, that Republicans build their lead, winning by 41% and 37% in the last two cycles. And while early and mail-in voting in these counties is healthy, it significantly lags the top 15 counties, at 34.8% (vs. 39.1%).

Republicans tend to vote closer to election day, and this delta may mostly reflect the differential political preferences on when to vote; we can expect a higher share of votes in red counties to come on election day. But unlike previous elections, a moderate shortfall in voter participation in these counties may have meaningful consequences. Texas’ major counties make it purple enough that, even without any changes to demographics, voter registration, or party affiliations, a democratic victory is possible just through increased turnout in major counties:

Net voting margin for Democrats at different degrees of voter turnout, based on 2018 county voting patterns

With 39% of the vote in already for the top 15 counties, total turnout could finish above 70% for them. In such a case, a turnout of 60% in the smaller Texas counties would result in a narrow victory for Republicans, but that is only if the major counties do not drift further to the left than they did in 2018. Of the 1.85M additional registered voters in 2020 in Texas (vs. 2016), 74% of them came from the top 15 counties. Harris, Dallas, Bexar (pronounced “bear”, home to San Antonio), Travis, and El Paso Counties, all of which voted heavily blue in 2018, added roughly 690K new eligible voters since 2016. This tops the bottom 240 Texas counties combined by more than 200K voters. If we saw the major counties drift slightly leftward, increasing Democratic vote share by 1.5% and decreasing Republican voter share by 1.5% while leaving the other counties voting patterns the same, we see numerous scenarios in which a 10% turnout advantage from the major counties leads to a Democratic victory:

2020 potential results if Texas’ largest counties become slightly more Democratic than 2018

A 1.5% swing for each party in the top 15 counties is not a lot. It’s the equivalent of 3.26M Democratic voters in 2018 (vs the actual result of 3.18M) and 2.26M Republican voters (vs. actual results of 2.34M). Texas’ demographics have continued to shift over the past four years, and voter participation could reach an all-time high, two factors that put Republicans’ streak in Texas at significant risk. Expect Texas to come down to the wire on election night, and if Democrats pull off the surprise, look to their margin of victory in Travis County as a key reason why.

1976 election results: the last time Texas turned blue