2020 Election Analysis: Changes, but a lot of status quo

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Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Editor’s note: Presidential elections are the championship playoffs of the political world, so Fort Worth Business Press Editor Robert Francis reached out to one of the best political sideline observers in the business, Texas Christian University Political Science professor Dr. James Riddlesperger to talk about what can be gleaned from the results. His take? There’s a lot that was status quo this election, even if we do get a new president. Here’s a lightly edited version of the conversation.

FWBP: On the presidential side, I got to say, Biden did a lot better in Texas than I think many would have thought.

Riddlesperger: Biden, clearly, he’s closed the gap. [In Texas] Trump won by nine points four years ago, Romney won by 16 eight years ago, and it looks like when all the votes are counted – of course, nobody knows, we still have quite a few votes left to count – but this may end up being a five or five and a half percent margin this year. So, there’s clearly movement.

Dr. James Riddlesperger, TCU courtesy photo

Of course, Democrats are very disappointed because they thought that this was the year it was going to flip, and that’s not just Texas Democrats, but it’s also the national Democratic Party … And so, the Democrats are very disappointed in their results from Texas, and this year is… I guess the large message in this year’s election is status quo.

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FWBP: I talked to some Democrats probably a month ago and they were overly confident that they had the Texas House, that they would flip some seats and gain a statewide office and none of that happened.

Riddlesperger: Yeah. And it was typical over-interpretation of data. The truth is that the high quality polls were showing it close, but the last high quality poll was the New York Times poll, and it showed Trump up by four points, which is within sampling error of where it actually is going to turn out. So, I never bought into that narrative. I thought the math was extraordinarily difficult in the Texas House. There were 18 Republican seats that were competitive and 9 Democratic seats. That would’ve meant that the Democrats would have had to flip half of the Republican seats while keeping all of theirs. And of course, what we ended up with was I think one Democrat and one Republican seat flipping statewide.

So it ends up with an absolute net being equal. And in the U.S. House elections, I thought the Democrats were going to flip two or three seats. They ended up flipping none of them. So, even my thoughts, my assessment, I thought that the 23rd district … would flip. It didn’t. And I thought the 24th district here, the MidCities district here in Fort Worth would flip. It apparently is not going to either. So, there’s a lot to digest there, but it was certainly a disappointing election for Democrats.

FWBP: I noticed a lot of people are talking about how well the President did along the border. That seemed to surprise a lot of people.

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Riddlesperger: There’s a lot going on there and I don’t think that we really know the true nature of it yet. The Latino vote has always been a difficult one because it’s a composition of really three things, right? So one thing is that Latinos typically are in favor of social services. They like expenditures on public education, health care, social security, those kinds of government programs, but they’re very conservative on social issues, such as abortion, same-sex marriage and other things, particularly those who are Catholic or Pentecostals in their religious affiliation. While the rest of our society is secularizing, that’s certainly not true among the Latino population. And then the third thing is, of course, they’re sensitive to issues of race, and four years ago, I think the biggest issue was the wall.

And I think that was something that really troubled most of our Mexican American voters, in particular the Mexican American voters along the Rio Grande. It was just simply not nearly as big an issue this year as it was four years ago, and I think for that reason, other factors fed into their voting patterns.

So, when I look at Latino voting, it really is an interesting thing to look at because it really varies between maybe 75-25 Democrat over Republican to 60-40 Democrat over Republican. So the Latino vote has traditionally been Democratic in terms of its leanings, but it’s been in different elections. This year’s was actually a little bit outside of that window, a little bit more favorable to Trump, but it’s going to be interesting to see if it remains that way or if it will go back to the norm in elections going forward.

FWBP: It sounds like basically what you’re saying is that that voting block is a little more nuanced than sometimes it is portrayed.

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Riddlesperger: It always has been. Latino voters have never been easy to typecast, and much is made of the fact that Latino voters are from different countries and different backgrounds and so forth.
So, much is made of that. Having said that, there are also many other things. They have different religious leanings; they have a different heritage. I’m always careful in Texas, and it’s important in Texas to remember that when the Texicans came in the 1830s, they met a Mexican population in Texas already. Our longest standing families in Texas are Latino. And then we have recent immigrants, and obviously recent immigrants and longstanding Texas families view politics differently. We’ve had our Latino representatives. Some of them have been liberal, some of them have been really quite conservative. The Latino vote has never been monolithic, and it stems from a variety of factors, national origin only being one of them.

FWBP: You mentioned the race and I guess it’s part of Northeast, the Texas District 24 race, which was apparently won by former Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne over Democrat Candace Valenzuela. Anything in general you’re taking away from this, from Tarrant County? We always seem to be perennially almost turning Democrat, but then we end up keeping our more Republican ways.

Riddlesperger: The trend, I think, is still in that direction. I haven’t seen the final totals, but it was in shouting distance of flipping this year and I think we’re going to have to wait several days to get the final totals.
Our countywide offices two years ago remained Republican, even though Beto O’Rourke flipped the county in terms of the Senate election. But Tarrant County is an urban county. It’s the largest urban county in the country that is still Republican leaning. It’s certainly the largest urban county in Texas that’s Republican leaning. And I think it would be very unusual to see Tarrant County remain Republican in a climate where urban areas are universally, nationwide, Democratic leaning.

And I’m reminded that Tarrant County was the last county in Texas to flip the other way, too. It remained Democratic largely because of the presence of Jim Wright, but it remained Democratic for several years after the rest of the state had flipped, and that was something that we noted at the time.

Now we’re seeing similar kinds of things going on. What is that going to mean? Is Tarrant County going to flip in 2022? Is it going to a flip in 2024? We just don’t know the answer to that question because the only thing that is certain is politics has changed, and it may be, for example, just to continue with what we talked about, about the largest population growth in Tarrant County is Latino voters and Asian-American voters.

Latino voters are, as we pointed out, very difficult to assess, and Asian-American voters are pretty universally Democratic in their lane. But we’re just going to have to wait. We’re going to have to see, and I think trying to make a prediction about what is going to happen in Tarrant County two years before the next election is something that is just too early to do.

FWBP: Plus we have so many people moving into Tarrant County every week.

Riddlesperger: That’s right. Tarrant County is still growing very rapidly, and of course we have out-migration from the county as well. So people are moving to Parker County, for example, and South, and so the result of that is, and the demographics of those folks is typically Republican. So, Tarrant County is going to continue to evolve and apparently is going to continue to see a pattern of rapid growth.

FWBP: Anything else you notice locally from the results?

Riddlesperger: I think the biggest lesson of this year’s election is status quo. Tarrant County was a marginally Republican County two years ago. I know a lot is made of the fact that it flipped to Beto O’Rourke, and that was noteworthy to be sure, but remember, all our countywide officials also ran two years ago, and the Republicans won those countywide elections quite comfortably. So, Tarrant County was Republican, it remained Republican this year. [Note: after we spoke, new numbers were released and Biden won Tarrant County with 49.22% to Trump’s 49.17%] Of course, a lot was made of the flipping of the Senate seat, the state Senate seat two years ago. We didn’t see anything of that sort this year. But there was no state Senate election this year in Tarrant County.

It’s competitive. So, that 24th Congressional seat is the most interesting one in Tarrant County.
And again, I think that if you look at the decision by Kenny Marchant to retire from Congress, I think there are three potential reasons for that. One is personal, obviously. Maybe he was just ready to call it a career. But a couple of others were that… Well, in the first place, the house is Republican. It’s not much fun to be in the minority in the House of Representatives of the United States. And then the third was that he won by a fairly razor thin margin two years ago and knew that he was going to have to really ramp up for a vigorous reelection campaign. You expect when a member of Congress retires for that district to have a little slippage in party support.
Incumbents always do well in reelection campaigns. So, if you were looking at that election, you had to say that it was ripe for the Democrats to pluck it, and yet it appears that Beth Van Duyne has won that election, albeit by what may be less than 5,000 votes when all the votes are counted.

FWBP: I guess we’ll keep watching to see what ends up on the presidential side.

Riddlesperger: The presidential election is going to be interesting to watch. While I do think that… It’s more likely than not that Biden will end up with 270 electoral votes. We may know more today [Wednesday, Nov. 5] and we expect for Biden to win in Arizona, we expect him to win in Nevada. That gets him to 270, but both of those could go either way, and then we have the whole Pennsylvania situation and then the Georgia situation.
Again, those are all in flux as well. The thing is that we have those five states that are so critical, and President Trump really has to win nearly all of them in order to win the election, and maybe he will. Certainly he’s shown in such traits before.

FWBP: I hear Vegas odds are narrowing for a Trump win, but he’s a person who’s played long odds pretty often and won.

Riddlesperger: And the other story, and we’re going to have to weigh this as well in moving forward, the other part of the story is that Biden is going to end up winning this election by probably four full percentage points in terms of the popular vote.
Maybe over 5 million votes when all the votes are counted. The 2000 election was an election with frankly… it was so close that, sure, there was a half a million votes difference nationwide, but it was a relatively close election. Of course, the one four years ago, Hillary Clinton won by 2.85 million popular votes.
Well, Biden could be carrying nearly double that. So you can see if the Democrats were to lose this election, I do think that we’re beginning to get to the point where the Democrats are not only not going to be happy campers, they are going to be restless if you keep winning presidential elections by ever widening popular vote margins but losing them in the Electoral College. The Democrats have only lost the popular vote in one election since 1992 … that’s eight elections. Now, if President Trump wins, the Republicans will have won half those elections. So you can see how, in terms of just adjusting perceptions of fairness, Democrats are feeling fairly abused by the system, and that’s something that I think we’re going to have to grapple with moving forward.