Why Texas stayed so red

Photo by Bob Daemmrich

As the books close on the 2014 Texas governor’s race, one of the more interesting storylines from this election cycle is the impressive debut, followed by the tremendous failure, of Battleground Texas and its efforts to increase Democratic voter registration and turnout.

In the wake of the media hype that accompanied the group’s introduction, consultants from both parties, particularly on the Republican side, became obsessed with understanding these “new” registrants and how they intended to vote. 

If anything, Republicans, including top strategists for statewide campaigns, took Battleground Texas’ promises too seriously. They presumed Battleground would register “likely Democrats” and then turn them out in November. The Abbott campaign in particular began to closely watch the voter file of new registrants.

But it’s now clear that Texas isn’t trending blue amid a tidal wave of new Democratic voters. Instead, Texas voters — specifically, new registrants — are identifying in much greater numbers with Republicans.

Each month, Greg Abbott’s campaign compiled a large voter file of new registrants from Texas’ large counties. What they learned from this data shocked them.

First, Republican strategists used demographics data to determine where new registrants were located and modeled each new registration to determine how they were inclined to vote. To confirm what it thought it was seeing, the Abbott campaign went a step further and began polling new registrants. 

Those results confirmed an unmistakable trend: Over the last year, Texas wasn’t becoming bluer — it was becoming redder. And the numbers weren’t even close.

About 56 percent of new registrants said they intended to support Republican candidates, a margin that remained fairly consistent. Of course, it’s impossible to know if the efforts of Battleground Texas prevented an even more lopsided margin, but there is now concrete evidence that over the past year, the number of new Texas Republicans exceeded the number of new Texas Democrats. 

Even more alarming for Democrats is the fact that this trend occurred while Battleground and affiliated groups were spending millions on their efforts. This was long before the Abbott campaign and the Texas Republican Party started spending large sums of money to identify new Republicans who may have recently moved to Texas. 

Gov. Rick Perry is known to say that people vote with their feet — usually a reference to companies moving to Texas for a more favorable business climate. But his claim now may pertain to more than just business.

Part of Perry’s legacy may ultimately be that Texas has become so identified with a favorable business climate that it attracts new voters who deem those values important enough to move here. In other words, Texas isn’t just a magnet for jobs — we may have also become a magnet for people who identify with conservative politics. 

Americans’ desire to surround themselves with like-minded individuals isn’t a groundbreaking political revelation. The tendency to “self sort” — documented in former Austin American-Statesman reporter Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort — seems clear, but until now, we hadn’t seen how it might manifest in specific political campaigns. 

As you might expect, many of these new GOP registrants live in the deeply conservative, fast-growing suburban areas of Texas. For instance, of the top 15 counties, Williamson, Fort Bend, Montgomery and Collin saw the highest increases in voter registration rates. 

I have three small kids, so I spend a good deal of time on the playground. About two years ago, I was in a local park when I struck up a conversation with a man in his mid-40s with small children. He said he was a consultant who “could pretty much work anywhere with internet access,” and that he had recently moved to Texas from Ohio and given himself “an automatic 8 percent pay raise.”

He said that he voted mostly for Republicans in Ohio, and that when his family decided to move, he identified several places around the country he might want to go that were close to an airport. His wife, he told me, fell in love with the state, and they found a home in Central Texas.

This may be just one example of a trend in which a mobile workforce chooses to move based on criteria that have little to do with regional employment opportunities. If this is proved true and more Republicans move to Texas every day, it’s also possible that the converse is true — that Texas Democrats are moving to Boston or Seattle from Plano or Conroe. 

Last night belonged to Republicans, who swept statewide offices for the 10th consecutive election. The reasons for the sweep and the GOP’s margin of victory are much more complex than the strength of Republican candidates and the unpopularity of the president.

Demographic trends portend a more competitive Texas in the future, but there are additional trends at play — some barely mentioned or scarcely reported — that may be more important from cycle to cycle. This influx of new voters may be a crucial, if little understood, factor in why Texas remains a deep shade of red.

Ted Delisi

Republican political consultant