Is Texas really becoming a battleground?

Early Returns

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Let's talk Texas. Abby Livingston has a terrific item in the Texas Tribune about how Democrats have been competitive here; the story begins in the U.S. House district I live in, which until recently was a totally safe Republican seat but which is now being strongly contested by former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis.

I've lived in or near this district for 20 years, and only in the last two cycles has there been even a hint of a campaign. But now I'm receiving mailers from both candidates, seeing TV and online ads constantly, and even noticing a fair number of lawn signs around the neighborhood. Which gets back to what Livingston reports, which is that there's been a surge in bottom-up organizing by Democrats during Donald Trump's presidency. I've always been skeptical of predictions that Democrats would eventually dominate the state thanks to shifting demographics, but this is different: They're gaining through political action.

It's still going to be a stretch for the party to win statewide here. FiveThirtyEight's prediction model says that Trump is mildly favored, with an estimated margin of 3.5 percentage points for the president at the same time that Joe Biden is estimated to win the national vote by 7.9 percentage points — in other words, Texas is still projected to be about 10 points more Republican than the nation at large. That's a real change from Barack Obama's elections, when Texas was 19 points (in 2008) and 20 points (in 2012) more Republican than the nation. 

For now, given Biden's large national lead, the state is become something of a battleground. That's a big deal: As Dave Hopkins reports, there are now 14 states being contested, with Texas and Georgia added from 2016 and Virginia and Colorado dropping out. It's not just that a larger percentage of the population is in actively contested states. It's also that the anti-urban bias in the recent Electoral College makeup has been alleviated a bit. Yes, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago are all still in safe states, as are almost all of their metro areas. But while only two of the 10 largest cities and seven of the largest 25 were in contested states in 2016, this year it's five of the biggest 10 and 12 of 25. A similar change happened with metro areas. Simply put, it's a lot harder to run as a candidate hostile to cities than it's been for a while, and more rewarding for presidential candidates to appeal to urban voters. That's good for democracy, given the anti-urban bias of the Senate. But if this were a closer election, it's unlikely that Biden would be spending money here; Texas will need to shift a bit more toward the Democrats to really become a regular battleground.

If that did happen, it might have one other big national consequence: If Democrats could establish a small edge in Texas, they'd likely have a large Electoral College advantage, perhaps larger than their current disadvantage. Electoral College bias mainly comes from an efficient distribution of votes, and Democrats are penalized by being inefficient in that they win California and New York by landslides yet receive no more electoral votes than if they won by a single ballot. A competitive or Democratic-leaning Texas might also force Republicans to seek out some popular policy ideas to appeal to more voters, instead of their current strategy of trying to keep voters who oppose them away from the polls.

None of this, again, is a done deal. Democrats have certainly improved in Texas, but they started from a deep hole, and we'll have to see if the forecasts are accurate — and if not, in which direction they misfire. Still, as a Texan since the 2000 campaign, I can at least say that general elections have become a lot more interesting around here.

1. Bethany Albertson at the Monkey Cage on the consequences of reckless charges of voter fraud.

2. Terri Bimes on the history of early voting.

3. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Conor Sen on the economy without stimulus.

4. Kirk Bado on trouble for Republicans in House elections.

5. And Matt Yglesias on Republican policy positions too unpopular to believe.

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