Demographics is political destiny. Or, at least that’s what they want you to believe.
The fact is that in politics, just as in events that are eventually chronicled as a nation’s history, nothing is certain; individuals have a role to play as do other, larger factors, such as the economy and international affairs.
One reason why the demographics as destiny argument is so pervasive is that a large segment of punditry wants it to be true. The modern version of this theory started with “The Emerging Democratic Majority” by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira, whose 2002 book predicted a permanent liberal majority based on inevitable shifts in the American population. More recently, The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson asserted in “American Migration Patterns Should Terrify the GOP,” that young liberal millennials were shifting Texas blue.
In any case, there’s nothing that can stem the demographic tide of history. It will be what it will be, so resistance is futile.
The problem is, it’s just not so.
In the case of Judis and Teixeira, their well-researched thesis was upended by Republican presidential victories in 2004 and 2016, as well as the massive 2010 Tea Party election year. What they failed to see was the extent of the realignment of working-class voters.
In Thompson’s case, he appears to be heavily invested in his theory. Namely, that young professionals moving from California and Illinois to Texas’ urban centers will flip the state blue. The problem is that in his zeal, he ends up completely mischaracterizing a 2018 CNN exit poll that found that people who had moved to Texas voted for Sen. Ted Cruz’s reelection by 63%, rather than the other way around.
Does demographics matter? Of course it does. But it’s not destiny and its not as simple as its proponents would have their public believe. For instance, Hispanics are far from a monolith. Americans who trace their heritage to Cuba and the diaspora triggered by the communist dictatorship established in 1959 have different voting patterns than do Americans who moved to the mainland from Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory since 1898. Even Americans who have Mexican roots vary greatly as does Mexico itself.
Thus, culture, history, opportunity, and politics all shape the political attitudes of Hispanics in Texas, California and every other state in which they live. This is one reason why Hispanics in Texas are 10-15% more likely to vote more conservatively than their compatriots elsewhere in America.
Further, Hispanics, as with Americans of every persuasion, are likely to vote based on their own individual decisions rather than as a bloc. This is why the hard work of organizing and elections matters more than mere demographics.
In this respect, four major factors are contending with each other in the push to turn Texas blue or keep it red: union organizing, campaigns, civics and culture, and election integrity.
Texas is a right-to-work state, as Republican politicians like to remind people. That means that it’s harder for organized labor to achieve political supremacy as it has in places like New York and California.
“Harder” doesn’t mean “impossible.”
With their allies controlling Texas’ major cities, unions have relentlessly pushed a policy agenda, such as paid sick leave ordinances that, curiously, exempt unionized employers. The goal is simple: make the cost to run a non-unionized business in Texas the same or higher than the cost of union labor, then, with the added threat of labor strife, persuade corporate management that unionization is not bad compared to the alternative. In addition, liberal municipal elected officials are increasingly demanding that firms that do business with a city are unionized. This has long been the case in construction contracts.
Further, unions have invested tens of millions of dollars in Texas to unionize businesses that have little to no interaction with local government.
The tip of this iceberg was revealed in a $5.3 million judgement awarded in late 2016 against the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of America’s most aggressive and politically progressive labor unions. A few years earlier, the SEIU set out to unionize Houston’s largest building services companies. Five of the big six firms quickly surrendered—but one, Professional Janitorial Service of Houston Inc. (PJS), fought. The SEIU tried to destroy PJS, scaring off customers by storming into their buildings and occupying conference rooms, threatening employees, and waging a disruptive campaign against the local firm, using millions of dollars from the national union seeking to establish a beachhead in Texas. So PJS took the only recourse left it them: they sued. Eventually a jury found that the union’s scorched earth tactics and reckless disregard for the truth were illegal.
Why did the SEIU invest millions in Houston? The prize for such success isn’t simply union dues and membership, it’s the political power that comes with an army of union members that can be mobilized to sway elections. This happened in the 1990s in Los Angeles where the last Republican mayor to serve was Richard J. Riordan, whose term ended in mid-2001.
Political campaigns have their own rationale for explaining victory or defeat. Rarely does it include insight into the unglamorous but necessary blocking and tackling needed to identify supportive voters and then get them out to vote.
An examination of campaign finance reports from the 2018 election provides some illumination of this otherwise undiscussed factor. In the months leading up to the election, then-Congressman Robert Francis (Beto) O’Rourke’s campaign employed 18 full-time campaign coordinators around the state. These campaign workers labored to identify and recruit volunteers. Then, five weeks before the election, 821 of the best of these volunteers were brought on the campaign full time. They provided leadership to a volunteer army of thousands around the state. In comparison, Gov. Greg Abbott’s reelection effort, the best-staffed in the state, had 100 full-time people in the lead up to the election, growing to 140 a month out. Sen. Ted Cruz’s reelection effort employed about 18 field staff, spending most of its resources in TV ads.
Reinforcing this effort were millions of additional dollars from outside groups, most notably, California billionaire Tom Steyer, who also had his eye on building an organization for his 2020 presidential race. Steyer’s effort bore fruit in college campuses across Texas, where student turnout was increased by a factor of three or more, generating tens of thousands of additional votes and almost flipping a U.S. Senate seat.
Civics and history education and the culture at large also drive voter attitudes, arguably, in more profound ways than race or ancestry. The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in its 2017 “Annual Report on U.S. Attitudes Toward Socialism” found that only 42% of America’s youth wanted to live in a capitalist nation, with 44% favoring socialism, 7% wanting communism and 7% supporting fascism. Further, a large share of K-12 public school teachers in Texas observe, as one put it, “By the time students reach middle-school age, they come to class already cynical about the American project.”
A voter who believes that America is hopelessly flawed, a force for evil, irredeemably racist, and terribly polluted will have a vastly different world view than a voter who simply asks the question, “Compared to what other nation?” in response. America is based on a set of aspirational ideals, not blood and soil. That’s why Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. could say in his 1963 “I have a dream” address that,
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
If more students knew this about the American founding, would they be as cynical? Would their political habits be different?
Lastly, voter fraud and ballot integrity can and does change election outcomes. While Texas does have a voter ID law, it breaks down with the vote-by-mail process. The Texas Legislature did vote to tighten vote-by-mail rules in a 2017 special legislative session, but it passed up the opportunity to close new avenues for exploitation in the 2019 session by allowing campaign workers under the guise of providing “voter assistance” direct access to a voter’s secret ballot.
Further, while Texans have become more aware of how ballot fraud is committed, increasing the likelihood that elections officials and law enforcement will quickly know it’s happening, there remains tremendous reluctance as well as practical barriers to doing anything about it. The political hesitation revolves around the fear that moving against voter fraud during an election would elicit cries of “voter suppression” from those committing the fraud. As it is unlikely that election results be overturned while those at the greatest risk for penalties are the campaign workers, not the victorious politician, the temptation to resort to ballot manipulation remains strong.
Texas may well be a battleground in 2020, and increasingly so in the future. But any analysis of Texas’ political status that rests mostly on demographics is likely to be simplistic—and wrong.