More rapid change has come among white-collar whites. Republicans for years predominated among these voters in Texas, even as the bloc in other parts of the country moved toward the Democrats. In 2016, Clinton won only 31 percent of whites in Texas holding at least a four-year college degree, virtually unchanged from the meager 28 percent Davis attracted in the 2014 governor’s race, according to exit polls.
But in 2018, amid the backlash to Trump among college-educated whites almost everywhere, O’Rourke’s share spiked to 44 percent. That closely tracked Trump’s erosion with those voters: November’s exit poll put the president’s approval rating among college-educated whites at 53 percent, a notable decline from his 62 percent share of their vote in 2016. Polling this June from the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune hinted at potential further erosion: It showed that college-educated whites in the state split exactly in half on whether they approved of Trump’s job performance and whether they now leaned toward reelecting him or backing a Democrat in 2020, according to results provided to me by Blank.
If there’s stronger turnout in 2020 among Latinos, Asians, and African Americans, even something close to a split among college-educated whites might be enough to allow a Democratic presidential candidate to withstand a towering Trump margin among nonurban, evangelical, and blue-collar white Texans.
The big question for Democrats is whether that prospect justifies the enormous resource investment that Texas would require. Carville, the skeptic in 1992, believes the balance of factors now tilt toward yes. That’s in part because he thinks the amount of money available to the nominee and any super PACs supporting that person will be unprecedented in 2020.
“The problem is the dollars,” Carville says. “If somebody says in a staff meeting, ‘If you guys go ahead and do this, you are going to spend X million on a state where you have 35 percent chance to win, where we could take that money and crank it up in, say, North Carolina,’ I understand the attraction [of that argument]. But there’s going to be so much money in this cycle, and given the role of soft money and everything else, the actual campaign doesn’t have to spend that much.
“The [Chuck] Schumer people are going to be like, ‘Fuck, we have a chance at a Senate seat,’” Carville added, referring to the Senate minority leader. “The House people want to compete. I think the pressure on the Democrats to play in Texas is going to be enormous.”
The longtime Democratic strategist Tad Devine, who coordinated Electoral College targeting for the party nominees Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Al Gore in 2000, largely agrees.
“I think a Democrat has to take a close and real look at Texas in the general election for targeting purposes,” he told me in an email. Just forcing Republicans to spend time and money defending a state they have long considered “part of their base” would be valuable, he said. “And that calculus becomes even more important when you talk about mega states.” While, like most Democrats, Devine still considers Texas a reach in 2020, he added: “I also think with Trump you cannot rely on historical models. A number of states which should be considered safe Republican states may come into play because he is singularly a candidate who could lose almost everywhere.”