The Crumbling Red Texas Firewall

The Electoral College is a strange and unique system we use in America to elect a president. It’s so strange that many people in our nation don’t really understand how it truly works. It’s so unique we are the only major nation in the world to use such a system. Every year, candidates will fight to win what are called the battleground states because we have reached a balance where only a few states really decide the race. That’s in part due to a few large states that serve as firewalls for their parties. Texas is one of those firewall states. But that red firewall is starting to crumble and could change the presidential landscape for decades to come.

Every presidential year, candidates will learn the complex mosaic of state math that must count to 270 or greater for them to win the White House. It consists of large states, small states, red states, blue states, and each with its own individual traits. It’s a system our founders created to balance the power in the young nation to prevent southern populous states from running over the smaller northern states. Today, that balance still exists but for different reasons, primarily party ideology.

In most cases, the EC vote reflects the popular vote of the nation. But in recent years, the EC vote may not always match up with what the people were thinking. The past election is a prime example where Trump won the EC vote by 14% and Clinton won the popular vote by 2%. Why the difference? Clinton won disproportionately in California and New York. But, because almost all states are winner-take-all, Trump’s narrow victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin helped him rack up more electoral votes than Clinton.

For the most part, the system is pretty balanced. Though there is the oddity where the popular vote can be overridden by the electoral vote. That leaves the public wondering if this is really the right approach to electing a president of the people. Remember, we are the only nation in the world that uses this sort of system.

With all this crazy math, two states have served as the great firewalls for their respective parties, helping hold the balance between the parties. California with its 55 votes has always provided a stronghold for Democrats, counting for one fifth of the total needed to win the election. Texas sits on the other side of the partisan aisle with 38 votes, boosted by the large number of small red states, counters California’s blue wave.

That has held, going back to Ronald Reagan in 1980. With a winner-take-all model, Texas has boosted its influence in electing Republicans to the White House. It’s easy to say that without Texas, the chances of a Republican winning the White House are almost non-existent. But things have been changing as the state moves from a balance between urban and rural to one that is more urban.

Going back to 2008, Democrats won the urban centers of Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and El Paso by sizable margins. However, the donut counties around those urban centers offset the urban centers by voting solidly for Republicans. The one county that seemed to be defying the odds was Fort Bend County outside Houston. The home county of Tom DeLay remained red, but by a slim margin of around 2,000 votes. It would be one to watch in the coming elections.

2012 was pretty much a duplicate of 2008 with the urbans showing blue and the donuts flagging red. In 2016, most of the donut counties still voted red except for Fort Bend County. In that year, the Houston suburb voted for Clinton by almost 17,000 votes, signaling a shift in the areas around the largest urban center. Another donut county of Austin, Hays County, barely voted for Trump in 2016.

In 2018 when Beto O’Rourke ran against Ted Cruz for the US Senate, things started to become even more interesting. Fort Bend and Hays had moved solidly into the blue category. Tarrant County joined the ranks of the urban blues for the first time and Denton and Collins, donut counties of Fort Worth and Dallas respectively, narrowed their margins by several thousand votes. That year, Cruz beat O’Rourke by only 3%, one of the tightest statewide margins in recent history.

What is causing this shift in politics? Most who watch the population and demographics of Texas attribute it to a migration of tech workers from the coasts to the urban centers of the state. With that influx comes an influx of their politics. Progressive workers from California, New York, Virginia, and Washington state have been moving into Texas and changing the color of the state.

No one really knows when the scales will tip in Texas. There are many factors that could affect that. Continued migration from expensive areas like the Bay, DC, or NYC to less expensive areas like Austin (to a degree), San Antonio, and Houston. A growing Hispanic population that begins to exercise its vote in greater numbers. Even increasing the Hispanic voter turnout by a few points could have erased the margin of victory by Cruz in 2018.

But even before the scales tilt, Republicans have started to realize they must do more to defend their advantage in Texas during presidential years. You can expect to see Trump spend more time in Texas in 2020 just to make sure the state doesn’t slide into blue territory. They realize that once those 38 electoral votes shift sides, the impact is greater than California’s 55 votes. It would represent a shift of 76 votes, the likes of which cannot be made up easily.

What this means from a national election is that Republicans will have to spend more in Texas than ever before, pulling resources that normally would have been spent in battleground states. They will have to balance their spends in the expensive media markets of Texas with similar spends in less expensive markets. All this to hold the firewall and prevent a great blue avalanche of electoral votes.

I doubt this will happen this year and probably not in 2024. But starting in 2028 the lines may be too thin for the comfort level of Republicans. That’s when the great red firewall may be breached.

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