The Biden Campaign Turns to Texas

Early voting is at record levels and the pollsters now call the state a toss-up.

People in face masks line up beside a parking lot.
Voters wait in line at a polling location on Oct. 13 in Austin, Texas. Sergio Flores/Getty Images

It’s six days from a presidential election, and the anchor of the Republican Electoral College coalition—Texas—is a toss-up. That is not just us being goofballs and throwing around dramatic words. “Toss-up” is the status to which forecasters at both the Cook Political Report and Inside Elections shifted the Texas presidential race on Wednesday. NBC News had done so the previous day. And the Biden campaign, which has been reluctant to devote resources to an expensive state it didn’t expect to need to win, has chosen in the last few days of the campaign to spend a valuable resource: a three-stop visit from its vice presidential candidate on Friday, the state’s last early voting day.

The race still tilts Republican in polling, with the FiveThirtyEight forecast predicting about a 3-point victory, and a 70 percent win probability, for Donald Trump. But a couple of factors have made Texas difficult to accurately forecast. As Cook noted, there’s not much experience in measuring Texas as a battleground state, so analysts and pollsters—who underestimated Democrats’ strength in the state in 2018—are going in somewhat blind. And the sheer population growth in Texas over the past four years, matched by its soaring early-voting turnout rates this cycle, add more uncertainty to the final result.

The early turnout in Texas has been astounding. On Wednesday afternoon, with six days remaining until the election, nearly 8.2 million votes had been cast—or 91 percent of the total number of votes cast in the state in 2016. The next closest state, as of this writing, was Montana at 81 percent of its 2016 total; nationally, voters have cast 54 percent of the total votes in 2016. Rapidly growing counties like Hays, Collin, Denton, and Williamson outside major metropolises were among the first counties in the country to surpass their 2016 totals.

Texas, as Democratic strategist and TargetSmart CEO Tom Bonier told me, is “at a higher level of engagement than any other state.” And a big part of what’s driving that, he said, is voters who didn’t vote in 2016.

“You look at it from the Biden perspective, how do you win Texas?” Bonier said. “Well yeah, you need to do better from a persuasion perspective among a lot of the likely voters, but you also have to change the electorate. And you’ve got to bring new people in who weren’t there in 2016. And that’s clearly happening.” More than 2 million people have voted in Texas already who didn’t vote in 2016, he said, or over 27 percent of all ballots cast. And 300,000 of those surge voters, he said, are seniors.

“Generally when we look at surge vote, we’re looking at young voters, we’re looking at African American voters, we’re looking at Latino voters,” Bonier said. “We’re not usually talking about seniors. But it’s happening. It’s happening in Texas, it’s happening in other competitive states, and it seems to be favoring Democrats at this point.” The number of Black voters over 65 who’ve voted in Texas, he said, “exceeds the total number who voted entirely in the 2016 election.”

For Biden to win the state, he needs to hit somewhere around the mid-30s with white voters and tie or slightly lead Trump among white voters with college degrees. (Clinton, according to 2016 exit polls, earned 26 percent of white voters and 31 percent of white college graduates.) The surging turnout in politically realigning suburbs gives him a real shot of that.

The other element of the equation, though, is that Democrats need Latino voters and younger Black voters to turn out at high volume. These are the elements of the coalition that have been sagging, relatively, in early voting. In the overwhelmingly Latinio Hidalgo County in the Rio Grande Valley, for example, turnout as a percent of registered voters was running behind its 2016 numbers—the only county of Texas’ 10 largest counties where that’s the case.

Democrats are expecting that to improve as younger voters, and younger voters of color, tend historically to wait longer to vote. But the itinerary of Kamala Harris’ trip is surgical: She’s looking to nudge younger Black and Hispanic voters in the Dallas–Fort Worth and Houston markets. And then she’s visiting McAllen, in Hidalgo County, to help bring along the Rio Grande Valley. The Biden campaign, meanwhile—which hasn’t spent much on television in Texas—is on the air with ads in El Paso and San Antonio. Michael Bloomberg, too, announced that he would devote some spare change toward Texas advertisements in the closing days.

The late push in Texas doesn’t just represent an opportunity to rub a landslide in Republicans’ faces. It represents another option, another hedge against disaster elsewhere. As analyst Dave Wasserman wrote this week, “In both 2016 and the 2018 midterm elections, state polls chronically underestimated Republicans’ strength in the Midwest and Florida, and underestimated Democrats’ strength in the Southwest.” If that pattern strikes again and throws Democrats’ Plan A of locking up the election with Pennsylvania into disarray, perhaps an equal and opposite error could strike in the Southwest with the country’s second-largest electoral prize.

It’s worth a visit.