Post-Trump politics in Texas

Photo by Shelby Tauber

While one should hesitate to feed the megalomania, there is no point in denying that there is a meaningful distinction between pre-Trump and post-Trump politics in the United States. The mogul turned presidential candidate has not been the sole author of this shift — he has, to adapt a phrase, made history, though not in conditions that he himself has created. But the distinction is a very real one, with real consequences for party politics in Texas.

One aspect of the post-Trump political world — particularly if either Trump or the alternative whose path he has cleared, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, should win the GOP nomination — is the demise of GOP efforts to attract Latino voters to the party or, at least, to avoid alienating them in large numbers. Should abandoning these efforts in the service of mobilizing the faction of the GOP base most energized by the prospect of deporting large numbers of illegal immigrants become the core approach of the post-Trump GOP (including if its standard bearer is Cruz), it will likely render the Texas GOP's perennial if Janus-faced efforts to attract Latinos much more difficult.

While low voter turnout among Latinos and the comparative conservatism of the Latino population in Texas make a sudden political earthquake highly unlikely, it is equally unlikely that the Texas GOP can completely insulate itself from an intensely nativist turn by the national Republican Party.

While Democrats have always been skeptical of GOP efforts to attract Latino voters, those efforts were real. Think back two years to Greg Abbott's candidacy to succeed Rick Perry as governor of Texas. The then-attorney general hit familiar themes in his announcement speech — Second Amendment rights, small government, low taxes and so on — on a hot July afternoon at San Antonio's La Villita. But the choice of the Alamo City for his campaign kick-off took on stronger significance when a few months later Abbott participated in a joint announcement of the launch of the Republican National Committee's Texas Hispanic Engagement Team, meant to court Latinos in the upcoming election.

While the harsh rhetoric of the hotly contested race for the GOP nomination to be lieutenant governor stalled Abbott's efforts at Latino outreach, Team Abbott resumed course after the conclusion of that brawl, releasing their first campaign ad in Spanish. Abbott won somewhere in the range of 44 percent of the Latino vote in the general election — an extremely poor result for Democrats and certainly a vindication for the Abbott strategy, however much one qualified the result in the context of a low-turnout midterm election.

Greg Abbott has certainly issued his share of harsh rhetoric on border security and illegal immigration, and even sued the Obama immigration over those executive orders, but the contrast in tone between the approaches now dominating the GOP presidential contest and the imperatives, however conflicted, at work in the 2014 Abbott campaign for governor reflect a familiar choice. Both Abbott's predecessors faced the same need to reconcile the realities of demographic change and the ever-increasing pressure from the GOP base to take a harder line on immigration.

Donald Trump, with his now defining promise to "build a great wall on our southern border" and to "terminate President Obama's illegal executive order on immigration," is steering the national party toward a different, markedly short-term strategy for managing this dilemma — by siding solely with the base instead of attempting to reconcile competing interests.

What the base wants is very clear — so clear that the origins of Trump's (and Cruz's) strategy are no mystery: As we've previously written on the subject, concerns about immigration, consistently rated as the most important problem facing Texas, have long been evident in conjunction with the embrace of a bundle of restrictive attitudes, from the immediate deportation of undocumented immigrants and opposition to sanctuary cities to support for English-only proposals. These poll results have been driven by large majorities of Republican voters. Erstwhile presidential hopeful Jeb Bush famously said that immigration was an act of love; among Texas Republicans, 74 percent, apparently less lovingly, think that undocumented immigrants should be deported immediately.

This choice by the leading GOP presidential candidates has fed a new manifestation of the speculation that first swept Democratic circles in the wake of the 2010 census, in a form borne of the post-Trump world: Could Trump's likely claiming of the GOP nomination put Texas in play for the Democrats in 2016, as Latinos flocked to the polls to vote against him?

In short, the answer is no. For one, Trump's rhetoric is unlikely to turn off large enough numbers of Republicans to close the wide gap between the two parties in Texas. For evidence of this, one need only look at how immigration made its way into most contested Republican legislative primaries last month. Even if large numbers of Republicans were turned off by Trump, the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, is so very disliked by Texas Republicans that there's very little chance of defection. (Nor are Texas Democrats as enamored with Hillary as legend has it, making the chances of a huge surge in Democratic turnout very low).

Trump's impact on the Texas GOP could, however, still be felt in the medium- to long-term. The demographics-is-destiny argument is usually presented in a simplistic manner that ignores patterns in Hispanic attitudes, partisan identification and their actual political behavior, especially in Texas – as well as the capacity of the opposition party to persuade and mobilize voters.

And yet, Donald Trump's candidacy seems to threaten these limits on Democratic prospects. Recent national polling shows more than 80 percent of Hispanics holding an unfavorable view of Trump. And in the February 2016 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, 69 percent of Texas' Hispanic voters held a similar view.

The problem for the Texas GOP is that the very voters who are either voting for the first time in this election or are just becoming cognizant of the political world are overwhelmingly Hispanic. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services' population estimates for 2016, 49 percent of Texans between the ages of 15 and 24 are Hispanic, compared with only 32 percent who are white. Among those 25 and older, it's the opposite — 47 percent are white, while 35 percent are Hispanic. Texas is a young state, and those young people are overwhelmingly Latinos. There is much research suggesting that voting behavior is habitual – and how voters enter the electorate is a good predictor of their later behavior. In other words: Donald Trump and Ted Cruz could be creating a lot of long-term Democratic voters among Texas' emerging Hispanic majority.

It remains the task of the Democrats to integrate those voters into their party and consistently mobilize them, especially in midterm elections. These tasks not withstanding, ironically a hallmark of the post-Trump world in Texas may be that the remaining GOP candidates for president are helping the Texas Democratic Party accomplish something they haven't had much success doing on their own: provide Latinos with a sharp distinction between the parties that can't be blunted by symbolic gestures and strategic messaging.

James Henson

Texas Tribune pollster and director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin


Joshua Blank

Research director, Texas Politics Project, University of Texas at Austin