Early soundings of the 2024 Presidential election in Texas

The days when anyone other than the most gullible of editors or the most shameless of partisans seriously believed that Texas might be on the cusp of “turning blue” are mostly past. Yet the narrowing victory margins enjoyed by Republican presidential candidates and some close calls near the top of the ballot in 2018 (particularly U.S. Senator Ted Cruz’s race, though there were others), coupled with Texas' over-sized role in the electoral college and in national political discourse, provide the right mix of uncertainty and interest to make the question “how competitive is Texas?” just interesting enough to engage, even if the best response is pretty conventional: We should expect the presidential race to be more competitive than during the four that made up the Bush-Obama years, but not enough to change the judgment that the Republican candidate for president should be the strong favorite to win the state’s electoral votes in November.

This is hardly going out on a limb, and matches the various expectations of the array of pundits and political prediction sites, most of whom are classifying Texas as “likely” or “solid” Republican in the presidential race, with a few hedging with “lean” ratings. Of course, the voting remains more than six months in the future as of this writing – and the environment surrounding the 2024 election contains many sources of uncertainty that might manifest between now and November, from the uniqueness of both Biden and Trump as candidates to competing narratives about the economy to the volatile international environment, just to name some of the larger elements at play. Adding in the roiled politics within the Republican Party, both nationally and in Texas, any present assessments about the play of forces in October can only be tentative, however clear the leading indicators seem at this point in the campaign.

However contingent the outcome of the presidential election, with the primaries behind us and the summer and fall campaigns yet to unfold, the Texas Politics Project offers a deep archive of data to assess the public opinion context as the current presidential election moves to center stage. 

Texas Presidential election trends

Republican presidential candidates’ margins of victory over their Democratic opponents have clearly declined over the course of the 21st century, a period of Republican electoral dominance in the state. 

Setting color schemes aside, the trend in presidential election results legitimately invites the perennial questions about the state of competition between the Republican and Democratic parties in Texas. The more subtle question of the trajectory of competition between the parties remains a live one mostly due to the narrowing gap evident in the margin of Republican presidential victories over Democratic opponents since the last time a Texas Republican, George W. Bush, was on the presidential ballot in 2004. As the table below illustrates, Bush enjoyed a 20+ point margin of victory during his successful campaigns in 2000 and 2004. The Obama elections, while clearly mobilizing for Republicans writ large, produced a decline in their statewide victory margins to 12 to 16 points, respectively, in the 2008 and 2012 elections. Finally, in the two most recent elections, with Trump the Republican standard bearer — both highly regarded by Republican voters and extremely polarizing — those margins dropped to 9 and 6 points, respectively, over the last two elections.

Texas General Election Results: President
  Republican Votes Democratic Votes Other Votes Republican Percent Democratic Percent Other Percent Republican Advantage
2020 5,890,347 5,259,126 165,583 52.06% 46.48% 1.46% +6
2016 4,685,047 3,877,868 406,311 52.23% 43.24% 4.52% +9
2012 4,569,843 3,308,124 115,884 57.17% 41.38% 1.45% +16
2008 4,479,328 3,528,633 69,834 55.45% 43.68% 0.85% +12
2004 4,526,917 2,832,704 51,144 61.09% 38.22% 0.67% +23
2000 3,799,639 2,433,746 174,252 59.30% 37.98% 2.71% +21

The 2018 elections in Texas also loom large in the argument that Texas may be more competitive than a simple look at the final scores suggests. While the U.S. Senate results as presented along a timeline don’t provide as clear a pattern as the presidential results, looked at by candidate, we see the state’s senior Senator, John Cornyn’s, margin of victory decline from 27 points in 2014 to 10 points in 2020 (a 17 point drop), and Senator Cruz’s margin drop from 16 points to 2.6 points (a 13 point drop) between 2012 and 2018. Even acknowledging the role that the national environment plays in state level elections, including the occupant of the White House and the overall tilt of the election environment, it’s clear that both Republican Senators have experienced a decline in performance over their last two elections.

Texas General Election Results: U.S. Senate
  Republican Votes Democratic Votes Other Votes Republican Percent Democratic Percent Other Percent Republican Advantage
2020 5,962,983 4,888,764 292,293 53.50% 43.90% 2.62% +10
2018 4,260,553 4,045,632 65,470 50.89% 48.33% 0.78% +2.6
2014 2,861,531 1,597,387 189,440 61.56% 34.36% 4.08% +27
2012 4,440,137 3,194,927 229,758 56.46% 40.62% 2.92% +16

Attempting to draw a trend line through two points of data is a non-starter on principle, and Cruz’s next election could see him over-perform his close call in a very difficult 2018 election environment with a Republican incumbent in the White House as counter-mobilizing as Donald Trump.

That said, the Cruz campaign is clearly conscious of the senator’s close call last time around, and is in the midst of attempting something of a brand pivot from disruptive bomb thrower to prudent bipartisan lawmaker. The DC political press picked up on the shift in both behavior and messaging at least a year ago (see early articles by NBC’s Scott Wong and Sahile Kapur and the Houston Chronicle’s DC correspondent Benjamin Wermund in the spring of 2023), and the Cruz campaign continues to push the message. “I actually have very good relationships with many of my colleagues across the aisle,” Cruz purred to The Texas Tribune earlier this month –  shortly after the announcement of the campaign’s “Democrats for Cruz” initiative.

Looked at jointly, the smaller victory margins of both Texas senators in their most recent races suggest the broader pressures on top- or near-top of the ballot Republicans as they seek to reconcile the increasing dominance of the Trump-inflected far right of the Texas GOP with the slow but real increase in the competitiveness of statewide federal races for the senate and the state’s winner-take-all electoral votes in the presidential race.

Presidential trial ballots in the early stages of the election in 2020 and 2024

Comparing February 2020 and the February 2024 presidential trial ballot toplines from UT/TxP polling reveals a lot of consistency in public opinion at the same stage of the two presidential election cycles. 

In February of 2020, 47% of registered voters said they would be supporting Donald Trump come November, statistically indistinguishable from the 48% who said the same thing in February of this year. For Biden the story is much the same, with 43% expressing support in February 2020 and 41% in 2024.

We have some confidence in these results as the final poll of 2020 (in October of that year) estimated Trump’s support among likely voters at 50% and Biden’s at 45%, with the official results (52.06% for Trump, 46.48% for Biden) sitting well within the margin of error. (That confidence notwithstanding, 2024 is a volatile environment, as was, of course, 2020.)

There are potentially telling differences between the February 2020 and February 2024 results and their implications for the 2024 election. Biden’s weakening among key electoral groups compared to 2020, a troubling sign for the Biden campaign that has shown up in a lot of national polling and generated a lot of discussion among the political press, is evident in Texas, too.

While partisans remain firmly and consistently committed to their parties’ candidates, independent voters have demonstrated a clear shift compared to four years ago. In February 2020, 32% said they would be supporting Trump, a share that has grown to 46% in 2024, while the share who say that they’ll be supporting Biden has declined by 11 points from 38% to 27%.

Presidential Trial Ballots Comparison,
February 2020 and February 2024

(University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Polling)
  February 2020 February 2024
  Trump Biden Trump Biden
Overall 47 43 48 41
Republicans 90 5 90 3
Democrats 5 85 6 85
Independents 32 38 46 27
Urban voters 35 54 37 52
Suburban voters 46 44 50 40
Rural voters 66 25 69 21
White 58 34 61 32
Black 13 72 12 77
Hispanic 38 49 42 43
18-29 years old 32 47 37 51

Another key group to both the 2024 results and future elections, Hispanics, demonstrate a similar pattern, though on a smaller scale than independents. Between the 2020 and 2024 surveys, Trump’s disadvantage among Hispanic voters has declined from -11 in February 2020 to -1 in the February 2024 poll. Hispanics, however, make up a much larger share of the electorate than do true independents (i.e. not those who “lean” toward one party or the other).

Given a Texas electorate which generally contains more Republicans than Democrats, it’s among these groups of less committed, and often less reliable voters, that Democrats need to perform well in order to continue chipping away at Republican advantages — something the current polling data suggests might present a real challenge.

While there has been much discussion of the erosion of support for Biden among young voters nationally, UT/TxPP polling shows no sign of this erosion, at least at this stage of the election. As the table above illustrates, among 18-29 year old registered voters, Biden held a 15-point edge over this cohort in February 2020 (47%-32%), which shifted only slightly to a 14-point advantage in February 2024 (51% to 37%). (Final 2020 exit polls showed Biden winning 18-29 year olds 57%-40%, with that age group making up 14% of the electorate.)

Assessments of Biden and Trump in the early stages of the election in 2020 and 2024

The uniqueness of the confrontation between an incumbent president and a challenger who has previously occupied the White House provides the highly unusual opportunity to compare voters’ job approval ratings of both candidates’ performance. The similarities and differences in their ratings during each of their terms provides additional insight into their relative strengths and weaknesses as each settles into this stage of their campaigns.

Looking at Biden’s ratings in February of 2024 and Trump’s in the same month of 2020, their overall job approval numbers in Texas are remarkably similar. In February 2020, 45% approved and 48% disapproved of Trump’s job performance; in February 2024 42% approved and 50% disapproved of Biden’s performance. The reaction of Texas as a whole to each is rather similar, though the underlying makeup of these results does indeed vary significantly – another indirect sign of the overall competitiveness of the state, albeit one that also illustrates a Republican advantage. (Another way to parse those approval numbers: Trump’s rating was net -3, while Biden’s was net -8 — a five percentage point difference that closely resembles Trump’s margin of victory in the state in 2020.)

While there has been considerable chatter on both the left and right about partisan dissatisfaction with their standard bearers in 2024, just as there was in 2020, there is little evidence that Trump was facing significant headwinds from within his party in 2020 (only 9% of Republicans expressed disapproval of his performance). Nor is there evidence that Biden is currently facing a major backlash from Democratic voters (only 10% of Democrats express disapproval of his performance as of February 2024).

Trump and Biden Job Approvals as Incumbent Candidates,
2020 and 2024

(University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Polling)
  Trump - February 2020 Trump - October 2020 Biden - February 2024
  Approve Disapprove Approve Disapprove Approve Disapprove
Overall 45 48 49 46 42 50
Republicans 87 9 90 8 8 85
Democrats 5 89 7 89 84 10
Independents 36 47 31 53 23 69
Urban voters 37 55 37 57 56 30
Suburban voters 44 51 51 46 39 56
Rural voters 61 31 62 33 23 73
White 57 40 61 36 35 61
Black 12 76 15 73 78 12
Hispanic 35 52 36 59 39 45

While the two prior observations might make Texas Democrats hopeful that they can continue to narrow the gap, it’s also clear from these results that Biden has serious problems with some key constituencies in Texas that Democrats need in order to be competitive in statewide races, including independents, suburban voters, and Latinos.

While it’s not uncommon to find independents dissatisfied with major party politicians (almost by definition), the extent of their dissatisfaction is an important indicator of their likely contribution to the election. In February 2020, Trump found himself 11 points underwater with independents (36% approving; 47% disapproving). Bad as that split seems, Biden’s numbers are worse: February 2024 polling finds Biden 46 points underwater (23% approving; 69% disapproving). While this may simply be a reversion to the mean in Texas where independents tend to look relatively conservative overall, the difference presents a real challenge to Democrats looking to further close the electoral gap this year.

Biden also faces challenges in the state’s suburban battlegrounds. In 2020, Trump found himself underwater to the tune of 7 points in the suburbs (44% approve; 51% disapprove), while today, Biden finds himself 17 points underwater (39% approve; 56% disapprove).

A final, though important observation in comparing the approval data at the beginning of each’s reelection year is the role that COVID does or doesn’t play in our interpretation of these results. While Trump’s February 2020 job approval ratings don’t take into account his handling of the pandemic, his October 2020 job approval numbers, especially when compared to his February results, should caution against over-weighting the force of the pandemic on the prior assessment. Overall, Trump’s job approval numbers actually increased slightly between February 2020 and October 2020, partially from a slight increase in the ratings of Republican voters. And while his approval numbers did decline among independents (net -11 to net -22), his approval ratings actually increased in the suburbs (from net -7 to net +5). Outside some of these slight deviations, as attitudes toward COVID and related policies settled into a predictably partisan pattern, his ratings remained largely unchanged by the pandemic by the time the fall election season arrived in 2020.

Jumping to a contemporary comparison of assessments of each candidate, February 2024 favorability ratings put Trump at a notable advantage. More voters have a favorable impression of Trump (49%) than an unfavorable one (45%), while Biden remains underwater with 50% holding an unfavorable view compared to 43% holding a favorable one. Reinforcing prior results, only 12% of Republicans and only 9% of Democrats hold an unfavorable view of Trump and Biden respectively.

Biden again finds a steep hill with independents, even though both are in net-negative territory among the most staunch of non-partisans. Trump remains underwater, with a net favorability rating of -7 (42% favorable; 49% unfavorable), but Biden finds himself with a staggering net favorability rating of -48 (22% favorable; 70% unfavorable).

Among suburban voters, net favorability ratings again favor Trump over Biden (-3 to -15), while among Hispanics, the major party candidates have failed to significantly distinguish themselves, with Trump’s net favorability at -8 and Biden’s at -6. This is a draw that likely feels like a loss in a state that requires the Democratic candidate to pull in at least 60% of the Hispanic vote to approach competitiveness, and likely closer to 65% or 70%.

February 2024 Favorability Ratings
(University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Poll)
  Donald Trump Joe Biden
  Favorable Unfavorable Favorable Unfavorable
Overall 49 45 43 50
Republicans 83 12 9 86
Democrats 15 78 82 9
Independents 42 49 22 70
Urban voters 45 47 55 32
Suburban voters 45 48 40 55
Rural voters 63 32 24 73
White 57 37 35 60
Black 26 63 76 14
Hispanic 42 50 40 46

Views of the economy and the general environment, 2020 vs. 2024

Other core ingredients of election outcomes include the overall “mood”, both about the state of the country and of course, the quality of the economy. A quick comparison of both informs how both candidates are approaching this race. Asked about the direction of the country in February 2020, 40% said the country was headed in the right direction while 49% said the country was on the wrong track, significantly better than the current results: the February 2024 UT/TxP Poll finds only 28% of Texans saying that the country is headed in the right direction compared to 62% who say that we’re on the wrong track.

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PollRight DirectionWrong Track
October 200935%59%
February 201031%56%
May 201027%62%
September 201026%63%
October 201025%64%
February 201126%59%
May 201124%63%
October 201114%75%
February 201228%61%
May 201225%61%
October 201231%58%
February 201329%62%
June 201328%60%
October 201320%69%
February 201425%63%
June 201423%65%
October 201425%65%
February 201526%59%
June 201523%64%
November 201522%68%
February 201622%66%
June 201618%70%
October 201622%67%
February 201739%49%
June 201734%54%
October 201729%61%
February 201839%50%
June 201841%47%
October 201842%49%
February 201939%53%
June 201940%50%
October 201937%54%
February 202040%49%
April 202039%52%
June 202030%62%
October 202029%62%
February 202131%56%
April 202132%57%
June 202131%57%
August 202125%64%
October 202120%70%
February 202223%66%
April 202223%66%
June 202216%76%
August 202221%69%
October 202221%69%
December 202223%65%
February 202325%65%
April 202321%68%
June 202322%70%
August 202322%68%
October 202320%71%
December 202324%67%
February 202428%62%
April 202429%62%

While this comparison presents a tough environment for Biden, the February 2024 results are almost identical to the October 2020 election results taken on the eve of Trump’s loss, when 29% said the country was heading in the right direction and 62% said it was on the wrong track. (Here, the pandemic and its effects clearly had an impact on attitudes: direction assessments plummeted between February and October of 2020.)

Direction of the Country
(University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Poll)
  Right Direction Wrong Track
February 2020 40 49
October 2020 29 62
February 2024 28 62

Views of the economy tell a similar though slightly more complicated story. In February 2020, 48% said that the national economy had improved over the last year while only 24% said that it had worsened. This year, only 33% rate the economy better compared to 43% who rate it worse. Again, taken in isolation, this presents a clear advantage to Trump’s campaign. However, like the directional assessments, views of the economy shifted dramatically over the remainder of 2020, and by the end of that year in the October poll, only 17% rated the economy as better than the prior year, while 67% rated it worse.

National Economic Conditions Compared to One Year Ago
(University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Poll)
  Better Same Worse
February 2020 48 25 24
October 2020 17 13 67
February 2024 33 22 43

Several factors complicate evaluating the role that views of the economy might play in this election. If taken as a judgment of Biden’s handling of the economy, current evaluations likely hurt his reelection attempts. The Biden campaign, rather than allowing the election to be a referendum on his four years of presiding over the economy, prefer this to be a choice between him and Trump. The question then becomes which Trump economy is the point of comparison – the pre-pandemic one at the beginning of Trump’s final year in office, in which case Biden’s economy is clearly second best, or the economy at the end of Trump’s final year in office, in which case Biden’s economy is a clear improvement. Expect much of the discussion of the economy during the campaign to be attempts at creating the most advantageous point of comparison. Here, too, the impact of the pandemic looms large.

Sources of uncertainty

For all that we know about Joe Biden and Donald Trump, and about voters’ views of them, there remain many sources of uncertainty shaping the 2024 presidential race.

The fact that the 2024 presidential election pits a former president versus the incumbent is in itself a rarity. Only 2 former presidents have tried to return to office by challenging an incumbent: Grover Cleveland was elected president in 1888, defeated in his reelection bid by Benjamin Harrison in 1882, then defeated Harrison to return to the White House in 1892, making him the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms (so far). Theodore Roosevelt, who became president in 1901 after the assassination of Wiliam McKinley, was elected to a full term in 1904, then declined to run again in 1908, when he endorsed his hand-picked successor, Will Howard Taft. Famously dissatisfied with Taft, Roosevelt ran against Taft as a third-party candidate in 1912, in effect handing the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. (The Pew Research Center’s Drew Desilver provided a brief but useful look at the efforts by a handful of former presidents to pursue political ambitions after being president.)

More than a century after Roosevelt’s defeat, the current election has the feel of a race between two incumbents. However selective and generally imperfect voters’ memories of the Trump presidency, his media omnipresence and dominance of the national Republican Party (as evidenced by his glide path through the GOP primary) provide many of the trappings of an incumbent without the liabilities of actually being the sitting president. How voters, especially the relatively narrow band of Texans with weak or no party attachments, decide their vote given two candidates viewed through the lens of their records in office has no recent precedent for comparison.

Both national and Texas polling has repeatedly shown that large shares of voters have reservations about both candidates’ ages, though the doubts are more pervasive about Biden (age 82) than Trump (age 78) on this score. In the October 2023 UT/TxPP Poll, 69% thought Biden was too old to be president in 2025, with only 22% saying he wasn’t too old. This included more than half (52%) of Democrats along with more than 80% of both Republicans and independents. In the same poll, a smaller but still telling share thought Trump was too old (37%), including 58% of Democrats but only 19% or Republicans and 39% of independents.

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categoryTotal
Yes69%
No22%
Don't know9%

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categoryTotal
Yes37%
No54%
Don't know9%

In addition to his age, Biden’s campaign may also suffer from lags in the implementation of some of his signature achievements in infrastructure, chip manufacturing, and energy. Voters looking for evidence of the benefits from this (mostly) bi-partisan legislation are unlikely to see either direct or second-order benefits from these programs before Election Day. Some of this legislation will fund projects in Texas that are in various stages of having an effect on the ground, including major highway improvements and subsidies for computer chip production, but Biden is unlikely to be able to garner full, or even partial, credit for the many projects that will take years if not decades to complete (though the campaign will certainly try).

Trump’s candidacy, like his two previous campaigns, includes a cluster of X factors. As discussed above, there is little indication that Republican support for Trump has flagged in any meaningful way as his political baggage has, nonetheless, accumulated since his final days in the White House – from encouraging the January 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol to his various legal troubles and business problems. While it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that nothing will dissuade Republican voters from standing by their man, the extent of Trump’s political liabilities is historically unprecedented among previous presidential candidates. It’s in the realm of possibility that Trump could bleed political support due to the negative exposure generated by his court battles; but the experience of Trump’s political career thus far, the lack of timely resolution of the indictments and lawsuits arrayed against him, and the lack of evidence of major erosion in his support thus far make it impossible to predict with any certainty.