Texas moves from ‘leans Republican’ to ‘toss up’ in 2020 presidential race: non-partisan election analysis

Texas moves from ‘leans Republican’ to ‘toss up’ in 2020 presidential race: non-partisan election analysis
Former Vice President of the United States Joe Biden speaking with supporters at a community event at Sun City MacDonald Ranch in Henderson, Nevada. // Gage Skidmore

One of the political shockers in 2020's presidential race has been former Vice President Joe Biden's performance in Texas, where some recent polls have found him slightly ahead of President Donald Trump and others have found him trailing the president by only 2%, 3% or 4%. And the Cook Political Report now considers Texas a "toss up" in the presidential race rather than a "leans Republican" or "likely Republican" state — and if Texas is seriously in play for Biden, as former Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke has been arguing, Trump's path to reelection is narrowing.

According to Cook Political's Amy Walter, "Texas is a state that Biden doesn't need to win, but it is clear that it's more competitive than ever. Texas' shift from 'lean republican' to 'toss up' shouldn't come as a surprise. Recent polling in the state, both public and private, shows a 2-4 point race. That's pretty much in line with the hotly contested 2018 Senate race in the state where Sen. Ted Cruz narrowly defeated Rep. Beto O'Rourke 51% to 48%."

When O'Rourke first announced that he was running for Senate, pundits expected him to lose to Cruz by about 8% or 9%. Instead, he came within striking distance of Cruz — and O'Rourke is imploring Biden to visit Texas before Election Day. The former congressman believes that a visit to the Lone Star State could tip the scales in Biden's favor and help him win Texas' 38 electoral votes.

Walter, however, notes, "We don't have a whole lot of experience with Texas as a battleground state. Neither do national pollsters. In an analysis of polling errors in 2016 and 2018, my colleague David Wasserman wrote this week that polls in the Southwest undershot Democrats' final margin in 17 of 19 cases, including by an average of 1.4 points in 2016 and 4.2 points in 2018."

If Biden wins every state that 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won four years ago and flips three Rust Belt States that Trump won — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan — that would get him to the 270 electoral votes he needs to win the election. Pennsylvania, which has 20 electoral votes, is the most challenging of the three for Biden: some polls are showing Biden ahead in the Keystone State, but Trump within striking distance. And if Biden lost Pennsylvania, he would need some Sun Belt states to offset that loss.

At this point, Texas, like Georgia, is arguably a light red state rather than a deep red state. Trump won Texas by 9% in 2016 compared to the double-digit landslides he enjoyed in other red states — for example, defeating Clinton by 46% in Wyoming or 32% in Idaho.

Before 2016, double-digit victories in Texas were the norm for GOP presidential nominees. In 2012, for example, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney —now a U.S. senator via Utah — defeated President Barack Obama by 16% in Texas. The Obama campaign never believed that Texas was in play for them; so, Democratic efforts were concentrated in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other swing states that Obama won in both 2008 and 2012.

Recent polls have shown Biden with narrow leads in Texas, including 3% (University of Texas at Tyler) or 1% (Data for Progress). However, a recent New York Times/Siena poll found Trump ahead by 4% in the Lone Star State.

Walter explains, "To win the election, Trump will need to win every state we currently have in the 'toss up' column: Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Iowa, Ohio, Maine's 2nd CD, as well as the newest addition, Texas. Even then, Trump would be 22 electoral votes short of 270. He would need to win at least two of the seven states currently sitting in Lean Democrat: Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada and New Hampshire. Trump carried all but Minnesota, Nevada and New Hampshire in 2016."

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