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What Does It Take To Flip A State From Red To Blue (Or Blue To Red)?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): OK, we have a special politics chat team gathered today to talk about this: When do states flip? From red to blue, or blue to red, or whatever.

The impetus for this question is a Quinnipiac poll published last week that showed Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in real danger of losing his re-election bid to Democrat Beto O’Rourke. But I also want to use Texas as a way to talk about flipping states more broadly.

Our special guest today: Meghan Ashford-Grooms, FiveThirtyEight editor and former Texan.

Meghan, give us your Texas bona fides.

meghan (Meghan Ashford-Grooms, copy chief): I worked at PolitiFact Texas, which is housed at the Austin American-Statesman, in the late 2000s. So I was an Austin resident for eight years! (All other Texans will now groan, considering that Austin is such an oddball space in terms of state politics. But that’s what I have.)

micah: So, Meghan, you’re playing the role of blue-Texas skeptic.

Nate, you’re playing the role of blue-Texas believer.

meghan: I can’t believe that the blue-Texas skeptic is now the conventional wisdom peddler.

micah: Let’s start with Texas and then we’ll broaden it out … can O’Rourke turn Texas blue in 2018?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Wait, I didn’t know the chat had started!

I don’t think Beto can turn Texas blue. But I think Texas might already be maroon (somewhere between purple and red), and a Democrat can maybe win in a maroon state in this sort of political environment.

meghan: I think that makes sense, but let me channel our dear friend Harry in exclaiming that all of this ruckus that’s been created is based on one poll.

ONE POLL

That seems like a lot of talk, right, Nate? Or should I care about this one?

micah: Also, is maroon really between purple and red?

natesilver: I was going to call it a “burgundy state,” but then you’d all laugh at me for being a snob.

meghan: Very true.

I’m googling it now.

“Maroon is a dark brownish red color which takes its name from the French word marron, or chestnut.” — according to Wikipedia.

natesilver: The thing about the one poll is that … it’s not like there are a whole bunch of other polls that contradict it. There haven’t really been a lot of reliable polls of Texas, period.

I mean, here’s what the Always Reliable (TM) Wikipedia lists as the polls in the race:

The U.S. Senate race in Texas: Ted Cruz vs. Beto O’Rourke
Poll Dates Cruz O’Rourke Other Undecided
Quinnipiac University April 12-17, 2018 47% 44% 1% 8%
Public Policy Polling* Jan. 17-18, 2018 45 37 18
WPA Intelligence* Dec. 12-14, 2017 52 34 1 13
Texas Lyceum April 3-9, 2017 30 30 3 37

*Partisan poll

meghan: The difference in the number of undecided voters from last year to this year is interesting.

natesilver: So, you’ve got two partisan polls that are several months old, both of which showed a bigger Cruz lead than Quinnipiac did. Then a nonpartisan poll from like a year ago that showed a tie, but with a huge number of undecideds. It’s all sort of a mess.

meghan: Texas is the second-largest state in the country, and knowing what’s going on down there seems like it should be a bigger deal among the polling community.

micah: Yes!

natesilver: Well, to its credit, Quinnipiac added Texas to its list of states!

And they kinda got crap for it from polling know-it-alls. The fact is that Texas isn’t one of those states with a highly reputed local pollster, so getting Q-Pac down there is a pretty good get.

meghan: Does that mean Quinnipiac will keep doing polls of Texas through November? I’d be more willing to reconsider my blue-Texas skeptic position with more data.

micah: I think so, yeah.

meghan: Progress!

micah: That Quinnipiac poll also found that a majority of Texans still don’t know much about O’Rourke: “O’Rourke gets a 30-16 percent favorability rating, but 53 percent of Texas voters don’t know enough about him to form an opinion of him.”

So I feel like the race is still super fluid.

natesilver: Yeah, I think O’Rourke is the least interesting part of the story here.

He’s a competent candidate who will raise plenty of money … but the question is less about Beto and more about whether a “generic Democrat” can beat Ted Cruz.

micah: OK, so let’s forget about the poll and O’Rourke for a second …

Without the poll, and given President Trump’s poor approval rating, Democrats’ advantage on the generic ballot, special election results and the candidates (experience, fundraising, etc.), how competitive would you expect this race to be?

natesilver: I mean … it depends on whether you’re using 2016 or 2012 as a baseline.

meghan: I’m deeply biased by my ties to the state, so I’m not sure my answer would actually be based on the parameters you laid out there, Micah. I expect the national media to tell me it’s going to be close and then Cruz to win by way more than we expected.

micah: Wait, both of you need to say more on what you just said.

natesilver: Texas is about 12 percentage points more Republican than the country overall. If the national environment favors Democrats by, like, 7 points (where the generic ballot has been lately), that might make Texas have a 5-point Republican lean in this political environment.

If the national environment is more favorable to Democrats than that — say a 12-point lead, which is what you might infer if you’re looking at a blend of the generic ballot and special elections — then Texas is pretty purple in this climate.

However, that all describes an open-seat election, and Cruz is an incumbent.

micah: And, Meghan, you seem to be making the case that Texas is somewhat immune from national factors?

meghan: Maybe everyone thinks this about the states that they come to know well, but Texas is different from many other places. Although I definitely agree with Nate and others who have said that the national environment will have some effect … I just don’t think it’ll be what some of the media narratives will predict.

micah: Texas is special at thinking it’s special.

meghan: Dammit.

natesilver: Haha.

meghan: Also true. (Please don’t send me emails reminding me that I’m not a native Texan, dear readers.)

natesilver: Texas exceptionalism

micah: Nate, how big an effect does Cruz’s incumbency have?

[Editor’s note: Nate’s has owed me an article about that incumbency question for like three months.]

natesilver: Well, it mostly helps to be an incumbent. Even though it doesn’t help as much as it once did. But you might expect an incumbent to have an advantage of, say, 7 points above and beyond an open-seat candidate.

On the other hand, Cruz’s approval ratings are pretty middling.

meghan: I should have set up the Wendy Davis bot for my answer above.

natesilver: So the way I see it is something like this: Texas has a 12-point Republican lean, but the national environment favors Democrats by, say, 9 points, but then Cruz has like a 5-point incumbency advantage (slightly less than normal). So that would put Cruz ahead by mid-to-high single digits. That’s my prior, anyway.

micah: You on board with that, Meghan?

meghan: So … yes.

micah: But maybe with a 3-point +GOP special Texas BBQ sauce?

meghan: Micah, you cannot make BBQ jokes.

micah: Jeez.

meghan: Do y’all think the media’s coverage of that Quinnipiac poll reflected Nate’s view of the race and the landscape — or was it more like, “WAIT CRUZ COULD LOSE?!?!?”

micah: OK, so yeah, I’m not sure how I would characterize media coverage of the Q poll.

HOW WOULD YOU CHARACTERIZE THE MEDIA COVERAGE!?!

natesilver: I’d characterize it as a little overheated on both sides, which is of course how media coverage always is about everything.

micah: So people yelling “Texas will never flip!” and people yelling “Texas is blue!”?

meghan: I thought the local Texas coverage was super interesting. You could definitely tell that reporters there have been spending more time thinking about what polling is — they seemed to be avoiding just reporting the topline numbers.

So there was more context than there would have been even in the 2016 cycle, I think.

natesilver: I agree with that. Also, though, there was a little bit too much effort spent trying to pick apart the poll’s demographics.

micah: A Dallas Morning News piece cited our soon-to-be-updated Pollster Ratings! (Great paper with a great editor at the helm.)

meghan: I like that there’s more debate about the question of whether Texas will go blue in the national coverage now. When I was working in Texas, the national media reporting seemed to be very monolithic.

natesilver: We’re still 200 days out from the election, or something. No one poll should be getting all that much attention. The flip side of that is that people also shouldn’t be trying to “debunk” a poll they don’t like. I just don’t think it’s at all crazy to think that a Democrat is within single digits of a Republican there right now. The question is whether Beto can get 50 percent +1, or whether he might stall out at, say, 47 or 48 percent, which is what sometimes happens to Democrats in states like Georgia and Arizona.

micah: OK, so let’s broaden this …

There’s always this question in the run-up to every election of what the battleground is. Pollsters, for example, literally have to decide which states to poll. In the past, has that battleground been defined too narrowly — are analysts and reporters too unwilling to imagine “safe” states flipping? Or has it been defined too broadly?

And how do we define it?

natesilver: I mean, the Clinton campaign fucked up in 2016 by playing in too narrow a range of states.

People reduce the problem to Michigan and Wisconsin, which reflects a certain amount of hindsight bias. But what was foreseeable in advance is that the Clinton campaign was treating it as an eight-state election, and the Trump campaign was seeing it as a 15-state election. And the Trump campaign got it right.

To me, Texas is definitely worth watching because there aren’t that many Democratic targets. Tennessee is another state like that. Democrats could very well need one of those states, whether because something goes wrong in their attempt to take over Arizona or Nevada, or because they lose one or more of their own incumbents in Missouri, North Dakota, etc.

meghan: Guys, you are talking about both of my states today. I’m from Nashville. (btw, my sister had a baby this week in Nashville. Shoutout to the Volunteer State!)

I don’t watch polling in general the way that Nate does, so I don’t have a great sense of whether those battleground definitions have historically been too tight, but there were states in the 2016 election that voted differently than the media and others expected.

micah: I remember the Obama campaign had a really broad map. Which turned out to be kinda half right?

natesilver: Yes, the Obama campaign did play a broader map, especially in 2008.

They flipped a lot of states that had traditionally been Republican, some of which (e.g., Virginia) were harbingers of things to come, and some of which (Indiana) were one-off flukes.

meghan: I wonder if there’s any reason to think Texas and Tennessee won’t be flipping again any time soon because they only pretty recently went full Republican. (Tennessee had a Democratic governor as recently as 2011, and Texas’s Legislature didn’t become fully GOP-controlled until 2003.)

natesilver:I mean, I’d just say all of this is tied together. If Democrats are losing ground among non-college whites but gaining ground among college whites and minorities, you’d expect them to make gains in Texas.

Whereas Tennessee would be more of a one-off.

meghan: So the timing of this potential switch doesn’t matter? There are people in Texas who were Democrats and then became Republicans. Do we think they’d potentially switch back, by virtue of the fact that they have college educations? In that category, you would have to include Energy Secretary (and former Texas Gov.) Rick Perry! He used to be a Democrat, and he went to Texas A&M. (Which I admit is barely a college. Sorry, Aggies.)

natesilver: I mean, Texas has a pretty darn robust economy. So maybe people there increasingly see themselves as the “haves” and not the “have-nots,” and the “haves” are increasingly associating themselves with Democrats. Hillary Clinton did make some pretty big gains in Texas in 2016 relative to Obama in 2012. But I’ll defer to Meghan on that.

A lot of this, though, is that Texas’s population is changing. There’s a lot of domestic migration into Texas. And the younger population, which is now reaching voting age, is quite diverse.

meghan: Well, I have a perspective on the 2016 margins that is maybe a little out there. Here’s the “statement” I gave to Micah for the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast that published on Monday:

It seems like the Democrats do have something going for them this cycle — a lot of unusually good candidates (including Beto). BUT I have a hard time not being skeptical of the frequently resurrected coastal media narrative that we’re in for a big change in Texas voting. Harry did an article about that, kinda, before he left, and it’s a good reminder that the electorate in Texas is way more Republican-leaning than the state’s population at large.
Also, and this is totally my hot take: I think that the media types have gotten fired up by how badly Trump did in Texas in 2016 (relatively of course) but that that could be a misinterpretation of the data. I think it’s possible that Texans, who are very defensive and protective of their people, were upset at how Trump treated Ted Cruz in the Republican primary. But I think that effect (of punishing Trump for that particular sin) will wear off — eventually. Not sure what that means for the midterms though.

micah: 🔥 take

meghan: Yes.

micah: OK, so the harbinger vs. one-off is a good transition into the question of why states flip.

Nate started to get at this, but in Texas we’re getting a combination of long-term demographic trends (urbanization, growing and nonwhite population) and more immediate political trends (college-educated voters swinging left, Trump’s somewhat idiosyncratic coalition).

Is that typical? (i.e. you inherently need both to flip what had been a safely blue or safely red state)

And does the cause have a predictable effect on whether the flip is a harbinger or a one-off?

meghan: cough … Nate … cough

We have entered the portion of the chat in which I make jokes in between Nate’s insights.

micah: Meghan, you’ve succinctly and perfectly summarized my role in these chats.

natesilver: Texas is undergoing more rapid demographic and economic change than most states. Probably as rapid as any state in the country. So that gives more of a warrant to the claim that the state’s politics could be changing.

On top of that, the changes correlate with the shifts for Democrats from the Bill Clinton coalition to the Hillary Clinton coalition. Texas is becoming both more well-off and also more diverse.

meghan: But what about the participation/electorate issue in Texas? One blue-Texas skeptic response to the “changing demographics” argument is that populations that tend to vote Democratic aren’t going to the polls in huge numbers … so the changing overall demographics might not have the impact one would expect. Here’s a table from that recent Harry article:

Texas voters are a lot more Republican than adults overall

Former President Obama’s net approval rating among adults and likely voters in Marist College polls conducted in October and November of 2016

Obama’s net approval rating
State Adults Likely voters Difference
Texas +5 -8 -13
Arizona +2 -5 -7
Georgia +7 +1 -6
Nevada +8 +2 -6
Florida* +4 -1 -5
Ohio 0 -4 -4
New Hampshire +10 +7 -3
North Carolina* +5 +5 0
Pennsylvania +13 +14 +1
Average -5

*Data is from the final survey conducted in the state.

Source: Marist College

micah: That’s very true.

meghan: And some coastal elites who tried to change that dynamic had very little success.

natesilver: Oh yeah, for sure. Polls of all adults in Texas are going to be misleadingly favorable to Democrats, because the registered voter population in Texas is much whiter than the population overall.

meghan: I feel like the first two paragraphs of that article I just linked are worth highlighting:

Battleground Texas launched in January 2013 with the goal of turning reliably red Texas into — at minimum — a purple state where Democrats could compete. But nearly two years later, on the day after the 2014 general election, Texas looks redder than ever.

No statewide Democrat came close to toppling a Republican opponent. That list of Democrats included Wendy Davis, who entered the governor’s race with more national attention than any Texas Democrat in recent memory. With Battleground Texas as her field operation, Davis earned a smaller percentage of the vote — and fewer votes total — than former Houston Mayor Bill White, the party’s gubernatorial nominee in 2010. Adding insult to injury? Davis’ seat in the Texas Senate flipped into Republican control.

micah: OK, but to broaden this out again, why was Virginia a harbinger in 2008 but Indiana a one-off?

meghan: That’s an interesting question.

natesilver: Because Indiana wasn’t really about demographic change. It was about McCain-Palin not really contesting the state, when Obama invested heavily in it — and he was from a neighboring state.

micah: OK, so IF Texas does flip, we’re in more of the harbinger category.

natesilver: Yeah, sure. I mean, it’s been very solidly red for a long time, that’s for sure.

micah: OK, to wrap …

Let’s leave people with a “start to take Texas turning blue more seriously” checklist. What should people be watching for?

People made a big deal out of O’Rourke outraising Cruz, for example.

Is it that kind of thing?

natesilver: Usually, I’d say no — fundraising doesn’t mean all that much, especially if the money is coming from out of state. But it may be a bit more important than usual in this case because Texas is a big state with a lot of media markets. You could actually spend $30 million there or something without it being ridiculous.

meghan: Yeah, I am always skeptical of that kind of reporting on fundraising because what I really want to know is how much of it is coming from Texans and how much from deep-pocketed liberals on the coasts.

I’m interested in whether this is a “chicken or egg” phenomenon, but I try to pay attention to the partisan breakdown in the Texas Senate and House to get a sense of where the state is headed.

I also think that state and local reporters in Texas do a great job of keeping on top of political trends.

micah: That “pay attention to what local reporters are saying” point is really good advice for all races! (At least, where local reporters still exist. ☹️ )

meghan: I think I mentioned some version of “coasts” like seven times in this chat.

Also, RIP local journalism in so many places.

natesilver: Texas is on a coast, FYI.

meghan: You can drive on the beaches. It’s fun.

micah: OK, so we have:

  1. Fundraising.
  2. Local reporters.
  3. Makeup of the state legislature (for the long run)

What else?

natesilver: Voter registration numbers are probably worth watching.

meghan: Does candidate quality play a role?

micah: What about … the polls?

meghan: My friend Erica Grieder, columnist for the Houston Chronicle, and I were talking on Monday, and she said the Democrats in Texas have a much, much better slate of candidates this cycle than usual. Maybe that’s something to watch out for?

natesilver: I mean, there is some lesson to Obama’s win in Indiana in 2008, which is that you can’t win unless you compete.

It does seem to me — although again I’d defer to Meghan — that Beto is a Texas-appropriate candidate, albeit one who’s happy to use the national media to gain notoriety, whereas Wendy Davis was more of a national figure.

meghan: I think that’s fair.

micah: OK, so our checklist is:

  1. Polls
  2. Local reporters
  3. Voter registration
  4. Candidate quality
  5. Makeup of the state legislature (for the long run)

To close, I’ll reveal my read: I think Texas is gonna flip — or come damn close.

natesilver: Wow, screencap this everyone.

meghan: 😬

micah: 💣🤯

meghan: Because you know … the internet is forever.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Meghan Ashford-Grooms is a senior editor for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s managing editor.

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