2020 Vision Tuesday: Dems say they can win Texas. Trump says he can win New Mexico. Who's right?

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
From left: Joe Biden, Beto O'Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, Julián Castro, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP)

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one smart, fast takeaway every weekday and a deeper roundup every weekend. Reminder: There are 146 days until the Iowa caucuses and 420 days until the 2020 election.

Fact No. 1: Donald Trump will be holding a 2020 campaign rally in Rio Rancho, N.M., next week.

Yes, that New Mexico. The one that no Republican presidential candidate has won since 2004. The one that Trump himself lost by 8 percentage points in 2016. The one that currently awards him a net approval rating of negative 17 percentage points.

Fact No. 2: Pretty much the entire Democratic primary field will be campaigning this week in Texas.

Yes, that Texas. The one that no Democratic presidential candidate has won since 1976. The one that Hillary Clinton lost by 9 percentage points in 2016. The one that currently awards Trump an approval rating 9 points higher than his national average.

What gives? Have the Republicans and Democrats swapped 2020 maps?

Not quite. But by showering attention on New Mexico and Texas at this point in the cycle, the respective parties are trying to signal that the battleground may have shifted since 2016, when about 77,000 voters in the Rust Belt states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania decided the election. This time around, both sides are telling reporters that they want to expand the map into Sun Belt states such as New Mexico and Texas — or least scare the other side into believing they could, thereby causing it to spend time and money there.

So who actually has the better opportunity here?

On Monday, Time magazine devoted thousands of words to Team Trump’s thinking on its “new math” — aka its “plan to flip blue states in 2020.” Along with New Mexico, the list apparently includes Nevada, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Maine. The theory is that many of these states were relatively close last time, and that by spending several months and tens of millions of dollars gathering data, which primary-preoccupied Democrats can’t afford to do now, they can turn out new voters, particularly rural voters, third-party voters and conservative Latinx voters, who they overlooked in 2016.

The problem, though, is that since he took office, Trump’s net approval rating has declined by 34 points in New Mexico, 23 points in Nevada, 21 points in Maine and 17 points in Minnesota. In other words, he is likely in worse shape now in all four states than he was in 2016, and therefore less likely to win them in 2020. Also: According to strategist Josh Schwerin of Priorities USA, the biggest Democratic super-PAC, the Trump campaign hasn’t actually been spending money in places like New Mexico — even as it repeatedly tells the press it plans to. “They do a lot of talking,” Schwerin told Time. But “it’s one thing to see what they’re saying and different to see what they’re actually doing” — i.e., investing in traditional battlegrounds such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida.

Julián Castro at the Islamic Society of North America’s Convention in Houston, Aug. 31. (Photo: Daniel Kramer/Reuters)

Democrats, meanwhile, have been talking about turning Texas blue for at least a decade. That’s at least part of the thinking behind this week’s candidate stampede; Julián Castro arrived Monday, Elizabeth Warren arrives Tuesday and the rest of the top 10 will descend on the state later this week for a series of forums and rallies, culminating in Thursday night’s nationally televised debate at Texas Southern University in Houston.

Democrats have at least a plausible case for being hopeful about Texas. While Trump carried the state in 2016, his single-digit margin of victory — over a Democratic rival who didn’t even bother to compete — was the narrowest for a Republican in nearly 20 years. He is significantly less popular now. In 2018, Beto O’Rourke won more votes than any other Democratic Senate candidate in Texas history and came within 3 percentage points of unseating Ted Cruz, largely by flipping red suburban districts such as Williamson County, outside of Austin, where Republicans had grown accustomed to winning by 20-plus points. Driving that change is a population that is at once increasingly minority and, in key suburbs, increasingly liberal — the latter due to an influx of young, college-educated, white transplants lured by the state’s tech and energy booms. This year alone, five congressional incumbents (all Republicans) have announced their retirements.

“The tectonic plates shifted in Texas in 2018,” Sen. John Cornyn, the powerful Republican who’s facing reelection in 2020, said recently. “If Texas turns back to a Democratic state, which it used to be, then we’ll never elect another Republican [president] in my lifetime.”

Early 2020 polls, meanwhile, have shown Trump losing Texas to O’Rourke, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, while he narrowly leads other Democratic candidates. Democrats say they’re ready to capitalize. On Monday, the state party unveiled its plan to register 2.6 million Texans by 2020 while boosting turnout in suburban areas and putting 1,000 field organizers on the ground. The Democratic National Committee has also increased its investments in the Texas Democratic Party by 33 percent compared with this point in the 2016 cycle.

In other words, Democrats — unlike the Trump campaign — are actually putting their money where their mouth is. Texas remains a long shot in 2020; it would cost a fortune to flip such a big, urban state. But to tie Trump in knots, all Dems have to do is frighten him into contesting it. They’re well on their way.

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