Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | November 9, 2016
This story was originally published November 9, 2016. It is being re-shared to coincide with Trump’s inauguration.
In a presidential upset that few pundits and pollsters saw coming, Republicans now control the House, Senate and the presidency, with Donald Trump winning key battleground states, including Florida and Pennsylvania.
As Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and other states that voted for President Obama in 2012 went red, exit polling revealed that Hillary Clinton, despite appearing to win the popular vote, underperformed relative to Obama with many voters, including Hispanic voters. Amid the tidal wave of red, though, there was one surprising story of Democrats gaining ground: Texas.
To be clear, Trump won Texas — and he was expected to. But his margin of victory in the solidly red state was roughly nine points, the smallest margin of victory of any Republican candidate in the state in the past 20 years. “It was the state’s closest race for the White House since 1996, when GOP nominee Bob Dole won by 5 points,” wrote Patrick Svitek for the Texas Tribune. Democrats picked up a few seats in the state house.
Local Democratic victories
And in Harris County, which surrounds Houston, Democratic challengers unseated the Republican incumbents in two major county-wide offices: district attorney and sheriff. Record numbers of voters showed up early to the polls, and Hispanic voters in particular helped drive that momentum. “Hispanics went from 11 percent of the share of votes cast early to 17 percent” in Harris County, said Bob Stein, a political scientist and professor at Rice University who studies local elections.
Though some of the turnout could have been driven anti-Trump sentiment in a county where Clinton led by more than 150,000 votes, annual survey data also reveal that this election is part of a broader shift underway.
In 2004, roughly 35 percent of Harris County residents identified with Democrats, compared to 37 percent who identified with Republicans, according to the Kinder Houston Area Survey. By 2016, the numbers had flipped dramatically. More than half of Harris County residents — 52 percent — affiliated with the Democratic party, while only 30 percent identified as Republican, according to survey results released this spring.
In recent elections, Democrats have anxiously watched Texas and Harris County for signs that the state may one day go blue again. And in this year’s election, Stein actually thinks he sees some indications that the party may have made significant inroads. “It’s like a glacier,” he said. “The movement has been there. We just don’t see it but every four years.”
Shifting Hispanic demographics
In Harris County, he said, of all the new voters roughly a third of those had Hispanic surnames. In his own polling, Stein said, “I could see what they look like: median age was 45, they had children in the household, two-wage earners, some were college graduates — all the characteristics of a habitual regular voter.” In other words, they’re likely to stick around and keep voting.
Though much of the growth of Harris County Democrats has been driven by Hispanics, it’s important to note that Hispanic voters are a uniformly Democratic constituency, said Stephen Klineberg, founding director of the Kinder Institute. Nationally, 26 percent of Hispanic women and 33 percent of Hispanic men voted for Trump, according to exit polling.
In Texas, 34 percent of Latino voters went for Trump, said Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston. “That’s a lower number than [Gov. Greg] Abbott got,” he said of the Republican governor, “but that’s not going to get the job done for Democrats,” who would need more Latino support to take the state.
But Clinton was weak among several key constituencies nationally and in Texas. More than half of white women voted for Trump in the national election, and an AP exit poll shows white women favoring Trump by a 2-1 margin. Rottinghaus credits a large part of Trump’s success in Texas and nationally to that demographic.
“To be honest, it seems the Trump campaign did everything to repel women voters,” said Rottinghaus. Aside from a paid leave policy floated by the campaign — that isn’t even in practice at all Trump hotels — there was little outreach to women voters, he said. And yet, this election saw a return to party for many Republican women, said Rottinghaus.
“In terms of how Democrats want to compete nationwide and in Texas,” he said, “they need to have these college-educated, suburban women come to their side. If they didn’t do that in this election, it’s not clear when that would happen.”
But if Harris County and its aging white population are an indication of a demographic shift awaiting the country, as Klineberg suggests, then that constituency’s influence may be expected to shrink gradually anyway.
Though he said the results in Harris County are reflective of the area’s increasing diversity, the national results also reflect systemic concerns revealed in his own research. “Good blue collar jobs have disappeared,” Klineberg said. Wages for most Americans have stagnated and educational attainment matters more today than ever before for an individual’s economic outlook. And those are issues, Klineberg said, that neither candidate addressed substantively.