One of my all-time favorite lines is “How do you make God laugh?” Answer: “Tell Him your plans.”
And my recent political counterpart is “How do you make Republicans laugh?” Answer: “Texas is the 2020 battleground state.”
The quadrennial three-dimensional math game, more commonly known as the Electoral College, already challenges President Trump with an excessively large number of 2016 red states in need of serious defending — with no plans to expand his base. But Texas as a bona fide swing state is the campaign equivalent of launching the D-Day invasion while fighting the Battle of the Bulge.
Widely reported nationally, the fight for Texas has in fact begun (and not as a Republican laugh line).
An early harbinger of this confrontation is the RealClearPolitics general election match-up poll average showing Joe Biden leading Trump in the Lone Star State by three percentage points. Folks, this is Texas, so Trump should be leading the Democrats’ front-runner well outside the error margin after having won there by nine points in 2016. But as Republicans laugh about “battleground” Texas, they generally downplay any negative Trump polling.
They shouldn’t. To appropriate the familiar Apollo 13 quote: “Houston, we have a problem.” In a recent piece headlined “Texas Republicans Brace for 2020 Drubbing,” Politico reported, “In one sign of potential concern about Democrats’ inroads in the state, Trump’s campaign is currently spending more money on digital ads in Texas than in any other state.”
Team Trump’s spending there in the summer of 2019 is an unprecedented warning sign that the GOP’s once-firm grip on its 38-electoral-vote ruby-red “crown jewel” could be in jeopardy.
Since 1980, no Republican nominee or incumbent has ever needed to wage a serious battle to win those 38 votes in a state long regarded as “safe.”
Texas last went "blue" in 1976 when Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter defeated President Gerald Ford. (This was decades before states were designated as blue or red, which started during the contentious 2000 presidential election.)
More recently, the 2016 election results proved that Texas’ bright red-state star had begun to flicker. Although Trump won there with 52.2% support to Clinton’s 43.2%, it was the smallest margin of victory for a Republican presidential nominee in the 21st century. (Yes, nine percentage points is “Texas small.”)
By comparison, Mitt Romney trumped Barack Obama by 16 points in 2012, 57.2% to 41.1%. In 2008, John McCain defeated Obama by 12 points. And before that George W. Bush won his home state by 23 points in 2004 and 21 points in 2000.
Now Trump’s margin of victory is further clouded by troubling downward trends.
According to Morning Consult’s state tracking data, when Trump took office in January 2017, his job approval rating in the state was 54% with 34% disapproving. By July 2019’s end, his rating showed a net approval decrease of 14 percentage points with 51% approving and 45% disapproving.
The good news is that the president’s Texas job approval is 7.8 percentage points higher than his national RealClearPolitics average of 43.3% with 53.6% disapproving.
Note that Morning Consult’s July data did not include any fallout from the Aug. 3, mass shooting in El Paso. But Civiqs' survey this week of registered voters shows Trump’s Texas approval has dipped to 50% with 47% disapproving.
As a 50-50 tossup, Texas amplifies the alarms heard after 2018 midterm election when a virtually unknown (at the time) U.S. Senate candidate named Beto O’Rourke, then a three-term El Paso congressman, assembled a “new coalition” of voters — young, non-white, female, urban — and almost unseated Ted Cruz, who won reelection only by 50.9% to 48.3%.
For a deeper dive, read Sean Trende’s recent RCP piece, "Yes, the GOP Should Worry About Texas," which explains inconvenient demographic truths about why Beto’s 2018 results could be a bellwether for 2020 races up and down the Texas ballot.
Perhaps if the late Tim Russert, NBC’s iconic “Meet the Press” moderator, were alive today, he would hold a whiteboard with the words “Texas,Texas,Texas” as the 2020 state to watch — while, in his other hand, still holding his famous “Florida, Florida, Florida” sign. Ever since the explosive 2000 presidential election, Florida has been the “mother of all swing states” with its 29 electoral votes. But in 2020 that status could be “trumped” by Texas as the “Godzilla of all swing states.”
If the Democratic presidential nominee were to win Texas’ 38 electoral votes, America would undergo a political “tectonic-plate shift.” Theoretically, the Democratic Party would dominate the Electoral College vote, painting the White House “blue, blue, blue” for the foreseeable future.
As a Republican, I can only imagine how a “blue Texas” would demolish the morale of red-state voters. Potentially, the loss could ignite a Republican firestorm to replace the constitutionally mandated Electoral College with the popular vote. Ironically, such as shift has long been opposed by the GOP, but the idea continues to gain traction after the 2000 and 2016 presidential elections exposed quirks and flaws in the current system. (Some would say resulting in “illegitimate” presidents.)
No one knows what will happen in 2020 except that the entire country will be a battleground, both literally and figuratively. And that is not a laugh line.