What the 2018 Electorate Tells Us About 2020 and Beyond

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke meets voters in Dallas on Oct. 27.
Former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke meets voters in Dallas on Oct. 27.
Brian Maschino
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For two or three weeks before November's midterm election, there was no better parlor game in Texas than trying to figure out what the daily early voting numbers coming in from the Secretary of State's Office actually meant. Was 2018 going to be politics as usual in Texas or was the Beto O'Rourke campaign right when it said a midterm electorate like no one had ever seen before was going to show up?

The Daily Racing Form for the turnout guessing game was longtime Texas political consultant Derek Ryan's daily email breaking down the voting histories of those who had already shown up to vote and comparing 2018 early voting trends with voter behavior from previous elections in 2014 and 2016.

As the election grew closer, Ryan's reports began to indicate that 2018 really was a different sort of midterm, something that was borne out on Election Day. The electorate that showed up looked a lot more like those who typically cast ballots in a presidential election year. Younger voters turned out in greater numbers, as did first-time voters and those without strong voting histories.

Last week, Ryan released his final report for 2018, looking at all the data from everyone who voted in the state, regardless of whether they did so early or on Election Day.

The first thing that jumps out from Ryan's initial report is Texas' extreme geographic split. GOP incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz won the state's land area in a landslide. In fact, it's easy looking at a Ryan-shaded map of all 254 Texas counties — which O'Rourke bragged about visiting again and again — to quickly count the counties O'Rourke won. The challenger won just 31 counties, but he was able to get within 2.5 points of Cruz because he won every big city in the state.

Moving past the state's persistent geographic divide, Ryan's analysis shows that nearly a third (33.2 percent) of Texas' 2018 voters had never voted in a party primary, an increase of nearly 7 percent over the 2014 electorate. Voters who'd never previously voted before in any election made an even bigger statement, doubling their representation in the electorate from 6.2 percent in 2014, to 12.8 percent in 2018.

Look just at total votes cast, and the difference is staggering. In 2014, 292,416 voters who'd never voted before cast ballots. In 2018, 1,074,884 Texans went to the polls for the first time.

"The dominant thing to take away is that it looked much more like a presidential election than a midterm election," Rice University political scientist Mark Jones says. "You had younger voters turning out at a much higher rate, from other data we know that we had Latino voters turning out at a much higher rate and we had Democratic-leaning voters turning out at a much higher rate." 

In 2014, just 54 percent of registered Texas voters with a history of voting in Democratic primaries showed up to vote in the general election. In 2018, almost 82 percent of voters with strong Democratic voting histories did so.

Young voters made striking gains as well, with voters under 20 showing up at a five times higher rate in 2018 than 2014 and voters between 20 and 29 showing up almost three times as often.

The combination of O'Rourke's strong campaign and antipathy for President Donald Trump was potent for Democrats, Jones says. While that led to a good performance for the out-party last year, it doesn't necessarily mean Republican dominance in Texas is a thing of the past..

"I think we've overstated the hue of redness in Texas based on the 2010 and 2014 results. I don't think we want to make the same mistake by overstating the purple hue of the state based solely on the 2018 result," Jones says. "One thing that the 2010, 2014 and 2018 elections had in common was that their results were driven heavily by the occupant of the White House. Barack Obama drove up Republican support in 2010 and 2014, whereas President Trump drove up Democratic support in 2018."

If Trump completes his first term and runs for re-election, 2020 could be an even bigger year than 2018 for Texas Democrats — with the state House of Representatives and several Republican congressional seats coming into play depending on the Democratic nominee, Jones says.

"If [the Democratic nominee] is O'Rourke or [Joe] Biden, there are maybe a dozen Republican state House members and a few members of Congress that need to be really worried," Jones says, "because then you're going to get all the bad of Trump and — if it's someone like Beto or Biden — you're going to get a Democrat that's a positive, not a negative."

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