Leaning or Tossed Up? Three Scenarios for Texas Based on the Presidential Polls

The latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, fielded October 14-23, finds Donald Trump clinging to a 3-point lead over Hillary Clinton on the heels of a series of polls finding a similar differential between the major party candidates. This string of results revealing an unexpectedly close race in Texas – Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama by more than 15 percentage points here in 2012 – has attracted a flurry of national media attention and inspired poll prediction sites to move Texas from “solid Republican” to “leaning Republican” in the last week. Real Clear Politics even went so far as to declare Texas a “toss-up” state early this week.

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Donald Trump45%
Hillary Clinton42%
Gary Johnson7%
Jill Stein2%
Someone Else5%

While the breathlessness is certainly understandable, given that Clinton has led in only one public poll in the state (among registered voters back in September), dropping Texas in a bucket with Ohio, Florida, and the rest of their swing-state ilk seems a little overstated. 

That said, we can see why one might make the argument. As we anticipate the results of the election, we can construct 3 different scenarios envisioning different election results in Texas. A “business-as-usual” scenario anticipates the election following typical characteristics and dynamics of Texas elections; another scenario might give more emphasis to some of the distinctive, specific factors that seem at play in this election as evidenced in recent poll results; and an X-factor scenario that might emphasize the possibility of a very significant divergence from patterns both recent polling and history have led us to expect.

In the business-as-usual scenario, we anticipate apparent Democratic enthusiasm to be muted by poor turnout, the Libertarian vote total to shrink significantly and defect in large part to the GOP candidate, and, in general, a reversion to party identification and partisan patterns that shape voter behavior. In this poll, for example, Libertarian party candidate Gary Johnson pulls 7 percent of the likely voters into his column. But Gary Johnson ran in 2012, garnering just 1.11 percent, besting Bob Barr’s 0.69 percent in 2008, and though Johnson may get more votes than the Libertarian Party has historically, it’s likely to be closer to 2 percent than 7 on Election Day. In sum, not all Johnson supporters will end up supporting Johnson. While not all of these defections will go to Trump, in our most recent poll, 61 percent of Johnson supporters identify with the Republican Party, compared to only 9 percent who identify with the Democrats. (By the way, a caution to those speculating upon higher-than-usual Democratic defections to Johnson.) 

In addition to the Johnson vote, there is actually a 5-point party ID gap favoring the Republican Party among likely voters despite Trump’s 3 point lead among that same group. So if partisanship takes root in the final weeks, that too could provide trump with another point or two as Republicans reluctantly come home when faced with an alternative that they truly despise. 

A business-as-usual approach to thinking about this election would also highlight the fact that Republican voters in Texas – as elsewhere – tend to be more consistent in their voting behavior. Clinton’s competitiveness here must be fueled in some part by motivating less consistent voters to show up. To belabor this point: our likely voter screen required voters to either indicate that they are “certain” that they will vote in this election, or to tell us that they have voted in “every” recent election. Only 42 percent of Trump’s likely voters were “prospective only,” meaning that they said that they were certain to vote in this election, but did not report voting in every recent election, compared to 60 percent of Clinton’s likely voters who fell into this category. These are the voters that Democrats need to show up in Texas, and the one’s who are – in a usual election – less likely to do so. 

Given these factors, the business-as-usual scenario would expect the current three-point gap to open up by a few points, giving Donald Trump the state’s electoral votes with a vote margin that likely remains below 10 percent, but is somewhat higher than current polling.

Another scenario reflects the unusual circumstances of this election, and finds the polls in the last few week accurately predicting a Trump win by about 3 percentage points. While the emphasis in the media and interested parties on the left (for different reasons) has been to interpret this string of polling results as reinforcing evidence that Texas is a toss-up state, another simpler and more likely interpretation is that these polls actually reinforce the fact that Trump has a durable lead of between 2 and 4 points. 

While most of the recent individual results have been within the margin of error, if the polls were combined and averaged (which one could do, though there are complicating factors with respect to mode and overall disclosure with many of these recent results), they would show a roughly 3-point lead, and a margin of error between 1.6 and 1.8 percent. It’s worth noting again that Clinton has not led in any of these most recent polls. While individual surveys may be off in ways that miss a Clinton tie or even a small lead, the average of a number of polls is usually very accurate.

An X-factor scenario in which Republican turnout craters and Democratic turnout soars could deliver a narrow win to Hillary Clinton. As we’ve written recently, this scenario constitutes a serious electoral event. This is the domain of outcomes that haunts adherents of electoral trends and continuity, and leads even the most seasoned observers at some point in the discussion to throw up their hands, and mutter, “but this year, who knows, we’ve been so wrong” – very often followed by some expletive. 

But if one wants to engage in this sort of exploration, this is what it would look like.

While the Texas GOP electorates’ reluctance toward Trump is unsurprising given his frequent missteps and questionable conservative credentials, it’s still notable. Fully 30 percent of Republican voters view the GOP nominee unfavorably; 26 percent say that he would make a “poor” or “terrible” president; 22 percent say that he lacks the temperament to be an effective commander in chief; and 27 percent say that he is not honest or trustworthy.

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Very favorable2%12%26%
Somewhat favorable3%15%34%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable3%9%9%
Somewhat unfavorable6%11%12%
Very unfavorable83%50%18%
Don't know/No opinion3%3%1%

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Great president1%8%23%
Good president4%24%35%
Average president3%22%20%
Poor president6%12%9%
Terrible president86%34%13%

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Don't know1%8%11%

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Don't know1%8%11%

In our back-of-the-envelope calculation of the kind of decline in turnout that would be required among Republicans to begin to make Clinton competitive in Texas, we posited that a 5 percent decrease in GOP turnout from a baseline generous to Democrats (2008) would be large given historic trends; Given the preceding set of attitudes among GOP voters, one might reasonably (if contentiously) question whether this is beyond the pale. The 2016 electoral environment in Texas and the political map reinforce the possibility of a potential decline in GOP turnout. There are no other high profile races to draw Republicans to the polls, and, as the Texas Tribune’s Ross Ramsey put it, “None of the 16 contests for the Texas Senate is likely to produce a party flip” while “only a dozen or so [seats] are in play” in the Texas House. Congressional District 23 is in play, as usual, but high turnout along the Texas-Mexico border is unlikely to benefit Trump. This is all to say, there are plenty of reasons for Texas Republican voters to sit this one out, even given the assumed backstop of Republican voters’ intensely unfavorable views of Clinton.

If we’re going to characterize the GOP reticence towards Trump as unsurprising, what is surprising is the degree of Democratic unity behind Clinton given the ever-present-meme of 2016 about what a poor candidate she is. While only 83 percent of Republicans say that they’re going to vote for Trump, 93 percent of Democrats say the same about Clinton. While only 46 percent of Republicans say that their vote for Trump is because they want him to be elected President (the remaining 54 percent want to keep Clinton out of the White House), 70 percent of Democratic, Clinton supporters want her elected president, up 10 points from the June UT/Texas Politics Project Poll. Only 12 percent of Democrats have an unfavorable view of Clinton, 74 percent hold a favorable one; 73 percent say that she would make a “great” or “good” president, and 92 percent say that she has the right temperament for the job. There are just no noticeable cracks in the Democratic coalition.

So in the X-factor scenario, Trump’s 3-point lead in Texas is actually tenuous at best. Republican voters, a large share holding very negative attitudes about their candidate and with few other races pushing them to the polls, stay home. Democrats, with enthusiasm towards their candidate and the faint hope of victory, rush to the polls at unprecedented rates, not necessarily outperforming the recent survey results, just matching them. As election night unfolds, a landslide develops for Hillary Clinton. Maybe Trump wins by 2 points, maybe by 1, maybe...even...well, you get the idea.

The X-factor scenario conjures up a dramatic Texas ending to a presidential election defined by the unexpected. Yet for all the surprises (October and otherwise) in the 2016 contest to occupy the White House, the numbers and historical precedent point toward a decidedly less dramatic outcome when the votes are finally cast and counted. That said, a single-digit Republican victory in a Texas presidential election in the 21st century provides drama aplenty.