Texas: The Real Swing State

The second largest in the union is in many ways America’s truest swing state.

Texas State Capitol Austin
Night falls on the Texas State Capitol in Austin (Shutterstock/Ryan Conine)

There are, in a certain sense, three big political regions in the United States: the Northeast, the Southeast and the Southwest.

The Northeast has a temperate climate, excellent natural harbors along the Atlantic Ocean and Great Lakes and a long border with Canada. The Southeast has a subtropical climate, less-than-excellent natural harbors (excepting New Orleans) and no international borders. The Southwest has a semi-desert climate, an abundance of energy and mineral resources and an extremely long border with Mexico.

For the purposes of this article, the Northeast has five “core” states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusettes. These are geographically contiguous and have voted for the same party as one another in all six of the presidential elections since 1988 and in 23 out of the thirty elections since 1892. At least four have voted in unison in 27 of the past thirty elections.

If you subtract the smallest of these states, Connecticut, then at least three of the remaining four of these states have voted in unison in 29 of the past thirty elections. The sole exception was 1988 when New Jersey and Pennsylvania voted for Bush senior while New York and Massachusetts were two of only ten states to vote for Michael Dukakis, who had been governor of Massachusetts.

(Before that, you have to go back 31 elections to see the Northeast split when, in 1892, Grover Cleveland won New York and New Jersey while Benjamin Harrison took Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. While in those days the Democrats had been more popular in the South than in the north, the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, had already been governor of New York, mayor of Buffalo and president of the United States and he was born and raised in New Jersey.)

Today, the five Northeastern core states account for 15 percent of American Electoral College seats. New York and Pennsylvania, by the far the most populous of the five, account for 9 percent of American Electoral College seats.

The Southeast arguably has five core states as well: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. These too are geogaphically contiguous and they have voted in unison during all four of the most recent presidential elections, nine out of the past thirteen elections and 27 out of the past 34 elections — including a run of seventeen elections in a row from 1880 to 1948. Other states, like Arkansas, could probably be included in this group too, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll leave them out for now.

Today, the Southeastern core states account for 8 percent of American Electoral College seats, led by Georgia which is by far the largest of the five. As the Southeast core is roughly half as small as the Northeast core, it often requires support from adjacent populous states, most notably Texas and Florida but also North Carolina and Tennessee (both of which are larger than any of the Southeastern core states with the exception of Georgia) in order to be electorally competitive with other regions.

The Southwest, in contrast, has just two core states, which are not geographically contiguous: Texas and California. These have not voted in unison since 1988 and have voted in unison in just five of the past thirteen elections — twice for Ronald Reagan, who had been governor of California, twice for Richard Nixon, who was born in California and served as both a congressman and senator for the state, and once for George H.W. Bush, who had been Reagan’s vice president.

This division has, perhaps more than anything else, defined modern American politics, as California and Texas are the most populous states in the country, accounting for 17 percent of the Electoral College seats in a presidential election. By comparison, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada combined only account for 7 percent of Electoral College seats.

Fringe states

During the past six elections, starting with the very first post-Cold War election of 1992, which also happened to be the dawn of the (ongoing) Clinton era, the Northeast core and California have voted for the Democrats while the Southeast core and Texas have voted Republican. This has occasionally left the presidency in the hands of populous areas located on the fringe of the three political regions, such as Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Colorado, Virginia, Michigan and upstate Pennsylvania. Not incidentally, this year’s Democratic National Convention will be held in Pennsylvania while the Republican National Convention will be held in Ohio.

Ohio, currently the seventh most populous state in America, has voted for the winning president in every election since it voted for Nixon (who was beaten by John F. Kennedy) it 1960, Thomas E. Dewey (who was beaten by Franklin D. Roosevelt) in 1944 and Benjamin Harrison (who was beaten by Grover Cleveland) in 1892. Ohio’s president-picking has been even better than that of Missouri, the “bellwether state”, which voted for all but one victorious president between 1904 and 2004 before failing to pick Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Florida has almost exactly the same successful record as Ohio since 1928, except that unlike Ohio it voted for Bush senior, who was beaten by Clinton, in 1992, and for FDR to have a fourth term as president during the Second World War election of 1944. While today Florida has a population much larger than any state apart from California and Texas, it was only the eighteenth most populous state in 1950 and at the begining of the twentieth century had a population barely larger than that of Rhode Island.

Illinois, in spite of being America’s fifth most populous state, has been less successful in getting its preferred candidates into the Oval Office. It did not vote for George W. Bush in either of his elections and voted for Gerald Ford rather than for a victorious Jimmy Carter in 1976. Many people, however, believe that Illinois was the decisive state in the election of 1960, the closest election of the twentieth century. It has been alleged that Illinois’ vote was rigged in Kennedy’s favor that year.

Michigan has been nearly identical to Illinois in its voting patterns, meanwhile, with the exception of 1968 (Michigan voted for Hubert Humphrey rather than Nixon), 1948 (Michigan voted for Dewey rather than for Harry Truman), 1940 (Michigan was the largest of just ten states to vote for Indiana-born Wendell Wilkie instead of Franklin D. Roosevelt) and 1912 (Michigan was one of just seven states to vote for Progessive Party candidate Theodore Roosevelt instead of for Woodrow Wilson). Today Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Florida account for 15 percent of Electoral College seats.

The breakup

The most significant modern shift in American politics has probably been in the Southwest. Whereas California voted for the Republicans nine out of ten times between 1952 and 1988, it has voted for the Democrats in all six elections since. Whereas Texas voted for the Democrats four out of ten times between 1952 and 1988, it has voted for the Republicans in all six elections since. And whereas Texas and California voted in unison seven out of ten times between 1952, and 1988 and fourteen out of nineteen times between 1916 and 1988, they have not voted in unison since. It is certainly more difficult now to imagine a Republican president hailing from California, as both Reagan and Nixon did, or a Democratic president hailing from Texas, as Lyndon Johnson did.

California’s shift has occured probably as a result of a demographic influx from Latin America, the Pacific rim and other parts of the US. Texas’ political shift has been less distinctive than California’s, meanwhile; it went from red-violet to red whereas California went from nearly red to blue.

Texas’ solidification as a Republican state may be partly due to economics and environmental politics. Whereas oil and gas production across much of the rest of the United States plummeted during the 1980s and 90s (including in California, where oil production has halved since 1985), oil in the Gulf of Mexico rose from under 15 percent of total American oil production in 1985 to nearly 45 percent of total American oil production by 2000. This left Texas, which also produces prodigious amounts of natural gas and coal, with an even larger role in American energy production just as many Americans were becoming increasingly concerned with the ozone layer and global warming. As states were forced to choose a side in the environmental war, Texas’ allegience was an obvious one: it is with the Republicans.

The Bush and Clinton families may perhaps have played a role in the political shift in Texas as well.

The Bushes, historically a Northeastern family, shrewdly put down roots in Texas during the 1950s. George H.W. Bush became a Texas congressman and George W. Bush would later become its governor from 1995 to 2000.

Bill Clinton, meanwhile, was born in neighboring Arkansas and served as its governor from 1983 to 1992 (remember when Hillary Clinton had a Southern accent?) before beating George H.W. Bush in the 1992 presidential election. In that year, Texas voted for a second Bush term while Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia and Tennessee voted Clinton.

The Clinton-Bush rivalry has continued in intensity since then, first because of the contested election between Bush and Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, in the wake of Clinton’s perjury scandal, then because of Hillary’s 2008 anti-Bush primary campaign (before it became clear that Hillary’s true opponent was Obama, rather than just the legacy of George W.) and finally during 2015, when many thought that this year’s election would be Hillary versus Jeb. Perhaps this Clinton-Bush, Arkansas-Texas dynamic has helped to sour the Texans on the modern-day Democratic Party to some degree.

Looking ahead

The question now is whether or not the post-1980s predictable electoral system will begin to change. Will the Republicans continue to dominate the Southeast or will the Democrats make inroads there, solidifying their position in Florida and even moving into the Southeast core?

The Southeast has certainly been changing in recent years; among the ten fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the United States during the 2000s, eight were in the Southeast. The Southeast may also have seen growth among its white liberal population as metropolitan areas like Raleigh, Atlanta, Nashville, Austin, Houston and Dallas have all been among the fastest-growing American cities in the past decade.

Similarly, could the Republicans look to take back some Northeast (and Midwest) states that have been reliably Democratic-leaning since 1992? The Northeast too has seen some big changes; Pennsylvania, for example, is in the midst of a gargantuan natural gas boom that could perhaps help tilt the state toward the Republicans, assuming environmentalist voters finally tire of the Democrats’ somewhat cynical embrace of burning natural gas as a “transitional” substitute for coal. New York may have similar gas resources, but fracking there is prohibited for now.

Finally, could California and Texas reconcile?

Texas, now effectively serving as the Republican heartland, and California, now the Democratic heartland, actually have some commonalities. Both have large Mexican populations. Both are arid. Both have a lot of sunlight. Both have a lot of oil (especially if the Monterrey basin is viable; though even without it California remains the fourth biggest oil producer in the United States). Both have substantial ties to Asia: California because of its Pacific frontage and sizeable Asian population; Texas because the port nexus of Houston-New Orleans handles by far the most bulk goods of any shipping region in America, making it an integral component of US-Asian trade. (Houston, in fact, has suprisingly become one of the top Chinese tourist destination in the United States, a legacy of Yao Ming and later Jeremy Lin having played for the Rockets).

Texas and California are also the two most populous states and so would benefit from electoral reforms that would stop the Senate and presidential contest rules from continuing to overrepresent small states like Rhode Island in favor of big ones like Florida. Indeed, Florida too has commonalities with the Southwest: it is populous, sunny and Spanish.

Texas and California, when combined with Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Colorado, have 24 percent of the Electoral College seats in the United States. Between 1928 and 1964, Texas and California voted for the same candidate in nine out of ten elections in a row: three Republicans, six Democrats. Could it happen again? It seems extremely unlikely to this year, but the longer-term future is less certain. Indeed, Texas, with its enormous population, its twentieth-century history as a purple state and its position straddling both the Southwest and the Southeast, is in some ways arguably America’s truest swing state. It has simply forgotten how to fly.

This story first appeared at Future Economics, March 4, 2016.