Here’s a fact about the 2020 election: Texas is a swing state.
Yes, you read that right. And no, it is not really up for debate.
- A new Quinnipiac University poll released on Wednesday showed the presidential race as a dead heat in the state, with former Vice President Joe Biden at 45% and President Donald Trump at 44%.
- The Q poll is simply the latest of a series of data points that show the race is essentially tied; in the Real Clear Politics average of all polling in the state, Trump has a lead of less than a single point over Biden.
- Every leading campaign handicapper rates Texas as competitive. The Cook Political Report and the Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia put Texas in the “lean Republican” category, while Inside Elections rates the Lone Star State more precariously as “tilt Republican.”
- Trump has already spent $3 million – primarily on digital ads – in the state.
- Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz issued a grim warning to activists at the Texas Republican convention late last week: “This is a real race,” he acknowledged.
So, like I said, it’s not really terribly controversial – or, really, controversial at all – to say that Texas is now one of a dozen or so battleground states between Trump and Biden. What really matters now is to understand just how much that new reality changes the electoral playing field.
And the short answer is, well, a lot – for two main reasons.
1) Electoral votes:
Texas is a big state with a huge population, which means lots and lots of electoral votes. Thirty-eight to be exact – the second largest haul behind only California’s 55.
Think of it this way: Win Texas and you’ve won 14% of the total electoral votes (270) you need to be elected president. Or this way: Texas has more electoral votes than Michigan (16), Wisconsin (10) and Arizona (11) combined.
To suddenly have that sort of massive electoral prize in the mix – Jimmy Carter was the last Democrat to win the state back in 1976 – gives Biden even more paths to get to the 270 electoral votes he needs. (And he already had a lot more paths than Trump.)
To run an effective campaign in Texas, which includes statewide TV ads, is a massively expensive proposition. Texas has two of the eight largest media markets in the country (Dallas-Fort Worth at No. 4 and Houston at No. 8) and three of the top 31 (San Antonio is No. 31.) To buy TV ads in such large media markets costs a whole lot of money.
Take the 2018 Senate race between Cruz and then-Rep. Beto O’Rourke as an example. O’Rourke, a Democrat, raised and spent more than $80 million, while Cruz’s spending was just short of $46 million. (Cruz won narrowly.) Do the math and you get a $126 million price tag. For a Senate race! And that number doesn’t even include all the spending by outside groups!
If Cruz and O’Rourke spent $126 million less than two years ago in a Senate race, what might that mean for the cost of a fully engaged presidential contest in Texas? $200 million? More?
The point here is not that Trump won’t have that money to spend. He will. But rather than spending even $50 million (or $20 million) in Texas means that he can’t spend that sum in a state where he is playing offense like, say, Minnesota. Every dollar that gets spent in Texas to keep the state red is a dollar that doesn’t go to expanding the map in favor of the incumbent. And because this is Texas we are talking about, there are going to be a whole lot of dollars spent in the state.
Given all of that, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the competitiveness of Texas, which, as I noted, is now beyond debate, is the single biggest development of the 2020 race to date. Even if Biden doesn’t wind up winning the state, the money Trump seems likely to need to expend to simply hold it could reorient the electoral map in critical ways – all of which favor the Democrat.