Texas smashed early voting records. Which party will benefit?

Madlin Mekelburg and Nicole Cobler, Austin American-Statesman
·7 min read

With a record number of ballots cast during the early voting period in Texas, candidates, strategists and political analysts are poring over the numbers, looking for clues as to which way the state might go on Election Day.

Roughly 57% of registered voters in the state voted early, shattering previous turnout records with one day of voting ahead. The 9.6 million Texans voted early was a 47% increase from the number of early voters in the 2016 general election. About 735,000 more people voted early this year in Texas than voted in the entire 2016 presidential election, including on Election Day.

For decades, general election turnout in Texas has been among the lowest in the country as most statewide contests have been foregone conclusions. The last time a Democrat won statewide office was in 1996, and the last Democratic presidential candidate to carry Texas was Jimmy Carter in 1976.

But this year is different, at least according to Democrats who are optimistic that the surge in early voting signals greater numbers of Democrats turning out to the polls, raising the possibility of Democratic victories up and down the ballot. In addition to the state’s 38 electoral votes, control of the Texas House is also at stake. And Democrats are targeting several GOP-held congressional seats anchored in the suburbs of the state’s biggest cities, including four in the Austin area.

Republicans look at the numbers and see a different story: a close election, but one that will return statewide GOP candidates to office and deliver Texas to the Republican column in the presidential race.

Recent polling has shown President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden running neck-and-neck in Texas, and the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, a leading election forecasting site, on Wednesday moved the state from "lean Republican" to "toss up."

Early voting was more popular than ever in large cities and suburban areas where Republicans lost ground in 2018. In Travis County, more than half a million voters cast ballots during early voting and mail-in voting, more than 64% of registered voters, far surpassing the vote total for the entire 2016 general election.

Although early voter turnout is "extraordinarily high," Daron Shaw, a University of Texas political science professor, cautioned that the numbers alone don’t demonstrate that Texas is in play, as there are several factors to consider.

For one, Gov. Greg Abbott expanded the early voting period in the state by six days to alleviate crowding at polling places amid the coronavirus pandemic, creating more opportunities for Texans to cast their ballots. And the early vote as a share of the overall vote has been growing every election for years.

"With that in mind, I don’t quite know how to gauge what we’re seeing against historical precedent, because the context has changed," Shaw said. "I’m therefore suspicious of people who want to read in all sorts of partisan implications. I’m not sure what we’re looking at, in that regard."

He added, "I think sometimes we get a little too cute with the data."

'Texas is in play'

Different modeling based on data compiled from voters who have cast their ballots thus far suggests that Texas is closer to being a toss-up than it has been in recent history – the question is just how slim the margin will be, and in whose favor.

Modeling from FiveThirtyEight shows that Trump is “slightly favored” to win Texas, in 66 of 100 scenarios run by analysts at the outlet. TargetSmart, a national Democratic group, said data show "Texas is in play," and that the electorate this year is at least 2% more Democratic than the electorate in the 2018 election. That year, Sen. Ted Cruz defeated Democratic rival Beto O’Rourke by 2.6 percentage points.

In shifting the presidential race in Texas to toss-up status, Cook Political Report cited polling showing a competitive presidential contest in the state, but it cautioned that there is a level of uncertainty surrounding the state, due in part to its growing population.

"It’s also the case that we don’t have a whole lot of experience with Texas as a battleground state," wrote Amy Walter, a Cook Political Report staff writer. "Neither do national pollsters."

Crunching the numbers

Once voting starts, consultants numbers based on the number of ballots cast by mail and in-person during early voting, and voter data from past elections. Texas voters do not have to register with a political party, complicating the task of forecasting results.

Derek Ryan, a Republican consultant and data analyst in Texas, said he models voter data by matching every person who has voted so far this year against a list he maintains of all registered voters, which includes such details as age, gender, location, and in which previous elections each person cast a ballot.

Previous elections can reveal a voter’s political leanings, especially if they consistently vote in one party’s primary election. But voters can switch party primaries from one election to the next, so primary voting doesn’t always serve as an accurate prediction for how they might vote in a general election.

Ryan’s latest report, published Thursday, shows that nearly 30% of people voting early this year have a history of voting in Republican primary elections and about 23% previously voted in Democratic primaries.

In an update from his research firm, Ryan said the numbers show “voters who most recently voted in a Republican primary have about a 350,000 vote advantage over voters who most recently voted in a Democratic Primary.”

"The modeling and all that stuff that both parties use has gotten pretty sophisticated and good over the years — better each year," said Keir Murray, a Democratic consultant in Texas. "But, it still has limitations on what it can actually predict."

This year, one limitation is high turnout among first-time voters or occasional voters, making it harder to predict who they’ll support. In these cases, analysts can turn to such demographic data as age, race and location to assess which candidates an individual might support. Some modeling firms even use consumer data to predict how someone will vote.

Ryan’s latest figures show that 16% of people who have voted so far have no general or primary election history, and nearly 29% have no primary election history, meaning that they have voted in past general elections but not in primaries. Voters who have never voted in a primary election are poised to be the largest group of voters, Ryan found.

This year, an edge in early voting could make all the difference. Murray said his sense is that as turnout grows, it creates a disadvantage for Republicans as they “exhaust their base.”

Ryan said Democrats could be at an advantage when it comes to campaign strategy, as their base has already voted and they can focus their attention on independent voters. Republicans will be “waging a battle on two fronts: contacting independents and making sure the Republican base ends up voting.”

11th hour push

Democrats have poured money into Texas in the election’s final days as polls have tightened.

Even as the Biden campaign hasn’t devoted much money to Texas, New York businessman Michael Bloomberg said Tuesday that he is spending about $1 million a day in the campaign’s last week on statewide advertising for the man who was briefly his rival for the Democratic nomination.

Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, campaigned Friday in Fort Worth, McAllen and Houston, urging voters to keep up enthusiasm through Election Day. It was her first trip to Texas as the vice presidential candidate.

Biden hasn’t visited Texas during the general election campaign, and Trump hasn’t stopped in the state since the summer. His absence from the state also could be a sign of Republican confidence.

An average of recent Texas polls, as calculated by RealClear Politics, show Trump ahead by 2.3 points. That gap is within the margin of error of most surveys. The latest poll, from the University of Massachusetts Lowell released Thursday, showed Trump ahead by 1 point, 48% to Biden’s 47%.

"My sense of the state is right now, it’s extremely close," said Murray. The Democratic consultant added, "I think the state is a toss-up at this point."

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Texas smashed early voting records. Is that good for Trump or Biden?