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Against The Trend: South Texas

INTRODUCTION

With the strenuous 2022 House campaign over at last, it’s time to dive into the electoral analysis phase. Our first new article series, Against The Trend, will regionally address three defining characteristics of the recent House elections: candidate quality still matters, crossover voting can be decisive, and trends don’t always carry over consistently between cycles. This inaugural edition takes us to one of the nation’s most discussed and misunderstood locales: South Texas. Future publications will cover House results from other parts of the country like New York, California, New England, and the Plains.

BACKGROUND – SOUTH TEXAS?

Before discussing its electoral history, “South Texas” deserves a strict geographic definition. For the purposes of this article, the map provided below suffices for a valid visualization. South Texas, as the name implies, runs for hundreds of miles along the Mexico-United States border between Cameron (Brownsville) and Val Verde (Del Rio) counties. Since the end of the Mexican-American War, the Rio Grande has been the southernmost dividing line between the two countries. The Rio Grande Valley, though, encompasses the southeastern counties: Cameron, Hidalgo, and Starr.

To the east, this territory is hugged by the Gulf of Mexico, which has opened counties like Nueces (Corpus Christi) to tourism and outside investment. Further north, in Bexar County, lies one of the Lone Star State’s largest metropolises: San Antonio. Despite its large population, smaller southern cities like McAllen, Laredo, and Brownsville play a bigger part in the competitive congressional races discussed in this write-up.

Source

Apart from a handful of metros, South Texas’s population distribution ranges from sparse to downright rural, though still more populated than the Panhandle. In terms of demographics, Hispanics unsurprisingly dominate this part of the state. The vast majority of them are of Mexican descent, largely a phenomenon of the Sun Belt’s proximity to the mother country. Keep in mind, though, that many of these families immigrated to the U.S. over a century ago. 

Electoral Traditions

Up until the Trump-era, the politics of the deepest parts of South Texas were rather sleepy and pro forma. The historical preference, just as now, albeit to a lesser extent, was for the Democratic Party. In the southwestern half of South Texas, currently represented by Henry Cuellar, an overwhelming population of Hispanic workers, mostly new arrivals from across the border, sustained the political machine of white landowners for much of the 20th century. Similar to the deep south, the GOP was functionally non-existent in this part of Texas before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, something Armin Thomas and Leon Sit have discussed before

To really get a sense of how Democratic the so-called Partido Viejo left the western parts of South Texas, just look at the 1972 election results. President Richard Nixon stomped Democratic Senator George McGovern that year, winning 520 electoral votes. Despite the national deluge, McGovern got majorities in counties like Webb (Laredo) and Starr. In nearby Duval, ethnic “block voting” was so pronounced that Democrats won 86% of the vote.

The eastern half of South Texas, on the other hand, also preferred Democrats, but never as fervently as the west. Both Hidalgo (McAllen) and Cameron counties backed Eisenhower twice and broke for Nixon comfortably in 1972 before shifting more reliably into the Democratic column. There are three potential causes for the geographic political divergence between east and west: higher voting populations associated with faster growth in the east, the dominance of the Partido Viejo political machine out west, and regionally-stratified differences in the Hispanic portion of the electorate between both halves.

The “Redshift” (2016-2020)

In the 1980s, the federal voting patterns of the east and west converged and South Texas began to reliably back Democrats at all levels. Some Republicans, like Ronald Reagan in 1984 and George W. Bush in 2004, had enough Hispanic appeal to make the region’s key counties competitive — both actually won Cameron County — but the best recent national Republican performance in the region actually occurred during Donald Trump’s failed 2020 reelection. Given Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s colossal margins in the region, the sharp rightward swings caught most observers off guard and sparked debate over a potential realignment.

2016 vs. 2020 Presidential Elections

The maps presented above show the massive changes that occurred between the 2016 and 2020 presidential contests in South Texas’s three primary congressional seats: the 15th, 28th, and 34th. Note first that, apart from Starr, many of the counties that saw the sharpest red shifts (like Zapata and Duval) have relatively tiny populations. Trump was the first Republican presidential nominee in a century, for example, to carry Zapata.

Those surprises don’t look unbelievable in hindsight given the “perfect storm” that was the 2020 campaign. After all, smaller communities are statistically more likely to produce highly-variable results in elections because they have fewer voters. That doesn’t mean the red shift in places like Zapata isn’t indicative of a long-term realignment, but rather that the scale of change may have been anomalously larger than a modest underlying Republican trend would suggest.

Presidential Shift (2016-2020)

Excluding the periphery to focus on large counties like Webb, Hidalgo, and Cameron paints a similar, albeit less sanguine, picture of Republican growth. Webb is especially interesting because Bush (‘00, ‘04) and Reagan (‘84) both received higher shares of the county’s vote than did Trump. To the average observer, though, Trump’s 38% looks very impressive when compared with Mitt Romney’s paltry 23% or Bob Dole’s 19%. The 45th president himself only got 23% when he ran in 2016, getting crushed with Hispanics throughout South Texas. The situation was similar in Hidalgo and Cameron, where Trump did not surpass Bush’s 2004 performance but did recover the GOP’s pre-Obama floor.

Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the swing map stems from the heavily-Republican northern counties near San Antonio, some of which, like Guadulupe, Wilson, and Atascosa, are well-populated. Compared to their counterparts further south, the white population in these three counties, as well as in their lightly populated surroundings, is significantly higher. Remember also that Hispanics usually account for a smaller portion of the voting age populations (CVAP) relative to their stake of the total population. 

Both of these factors make the northernmost parts of South Texas, including a Democratic-leaning, plurality-Hispanic sliver of Bexar County, ostensibly more favorable to Republicans. Note on the swing map that the whiter parts of the region, where the GOP already had strong footing, either swung less fervently rightward or even moved left. 

The Bexar and Guadalupe portions, encompassing the suburbs and exurbs of San Antonio, in particular, bucked 2020’s regional patterns and remained creatures of national trends. Finally, when analyzing Trump’s pull in South Texas, one must recognize his ability to bring new voters to the polls. This line of reasoning suggests that much of the GOP’s improvement came not from convincing large swaths of the electorate to change its party preferences, but from turning out low-propensity Hispanics who, in some cases, may have never even voted.

The Republican swing between the last two presidential contests was greatest in the 34th district (17.5 points), which the GOP came closer to winning than the 28th, a slightly redder seat. Otherwise, differences in district shifts were minor enough that their 2020 outcomes could be predicted using an averaged uniform swing. Despite significant modifications in redistricting,  these swing patterns broadly held up.

2020 Congressional Results – Down Ballot Lag

Down ballot lag is a concept that Split Ticket has written about repeatedly. In the most basic sense, the term describes locales in which ancestral political preferences remain prominent enough in down ballot elections to delay long-term realignments. Often manifested through crossover voting, this lag sometimes emanates upwards and affects congressional elections. In presidential cycles, which are less elastic than midterms, candidate quality is critical to supplement down ballot effects enough to outperform the top of the ticket.

2020 House vs. 2020 President

2020 House Democratic Overperformance

In 2020, South Texas congressional Democrats Vicente Gonzalez (TX-15), Henry Cuellar (TX-28), and Filemon Vela (TX-34) all overperformed in their districts despite having the closest general elections of their careers up to that point. At first glance, the combined county map for all three seats looks almost identical to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance. The fact that these members held their ground amid a red shift that cut Democratic presidential margins from double to single-digits in each seat is a testament to the crossover support generated by both down ballot lag and candidate quality deltas. One notable exception to this pattern is Guadalupe County, which trended Democratic between 2016 and 2020 and saw Republicans perform predictably better down ballot.

Although each member technically outran Joe Biden, they did not do so equally. The data presented above show that Cuellar, the most conservative of the Democrats, had the largest raw overperformance (about 15 points). Vela did similarly well, though Biden carried his seat by a bit less than he did Cuellar’s. Gonzalez, running in the reddest of the three districts, overperformed by only 1 point — the worst of the group. Split Ticket’s WAR research, when controlling for other factors, actually found that he underperformed relative to expectations. To be fair, though, Gonzalez did surpass Biden in the traditionally Democratic, heavily-Hispanic parts of his seat (like Duval). Guadalupe, a GOP anchor in the 15th, held him back.

2022 – A Temporary Reversion? 

Before the Dobbs decision, historical evidence and conventional wisdom suggested a Republican wave in response to President Biden’s unpopularity. That, along with the 2020 red shift, led many pundits, including us at Split Ticket, to acknowledge the possibility that the GOP would have a better night in South Texas than it would nationwide. This “RGV sweep” sentiment was based on shaky extrapolation and subjective interpretations of rosy Republican internals. 

Given all of these assumptions, it was a bit surprising when Democrats comfortably held the 28th and 34th districts on election night. But were the returns actually shocking in hindsight? Fundamental evidence suggests not.

Midterm elasticity and down ballot lag help us understand what actually happened in South Texas: temporary reversion lessening, to a certain extent, a gradual realignment toward the GOP driven by educational polarization and low socio-economic statuses. Had we focused more on the modest pre-Dobbs rightward shift that occurred in June’s 34th district special election, our regional general election predictions would have been more accurate.

Just like under the old lines, the 2016 to 2020 presidential shift was largest in TX-34 (21 points) but remained similar to its counterparts when averaged out as a uniform swing across all three seats. There were a few redistricting changes of note, though. The 15th was redrawn as a Trump district in exchange for making the 28th and 34th more Democratic. The 34th also became bluer than the 28th, reversing the relationship between the old seats.

On November 8th, only one Democrat managed to outrun Biden’s floor: Henry Cuellar. That was primarily the product of his strong personal brand. Democrats Michelle Vallejo (TX-15) and Vicente Gonzalez (TX-34) underran Biden’s 2020 margin despite down ballot lag and an ostensibly neutral environment. Let’s look at each race in more detail.

TX-15 (2020 Pres vs. 2022 House)

(2020 Pres vs. 2022 House)

In Texas-15, the reddest of the three former “fajita” seats, Republican Monica de la Cruz comfortably defeated progressive Democrat Michelle Vallejo. De la Cruz had run a closer than expected race against Gonzalez in 2020, making her an heir apparent for the redrawn district long before the midterm campaign began in earnest. Both Vallejo and de la Cruz hail from Hidalgo County, the seat’s population center, where the Republican managed to slightly outperform Trump. Unsurprisingly, de la Cruz outpaced fundamentals in Guadalupe. A weak sign of traditional down ballot Democratic strength came in Brooks and Jim Wells counties. 

TX-28 (2020 Pres vs. 2022 House)

(2020 Pres vs. 2022 House)

Just like in 2020, conservative Democrat Henry Cuellar posted the most impressive South Texas overperformance of the 2022 cycle after fending off progressive primary challenger Jessica Cisneros three times in two years. Cuellar defeated Republican Cassy Garcia by 13 points by turning out his Webb County base (Laredo) which has been familiar with him for decades, though its 18 point leftward swing from 2020 President was comparatively small. The Last Politiquero also posted absolutely massive overperformances in other southern counties like Starr (36 points) and Zapata (52 points). In many ways, his base carried over from the primary, as Leon Sit’s map below shows.

TX-34 (2020 Pres vs. 2022 House)

(2020 Pres vs. 2022 House)

One of 2022’s most interesting congressional races occurred in the 34th district, the most Democratic seat in South Texas. Going into the cycle, Congressman Filemon Vela, one of 2020’s bigger overperformers, announced his retirement before resigning. His colleague, Vicente Gonzalez, decided to switch districts and secured the Democratic nomination.

In the special election to replace Vela in his Biden +4 seat, though, Republican Mayra Flores managed to pull off a modest victory despite little active Democratic investment for her opponent Dan Sanchez.

Gonzalez and Flores then faced off in November, with most pundits expecting the Republican to prevail. Flores did outrun Trump across the seat, but her failure to win Cameron County, along with Gonzalez’s ability to stave off bleeding in Hidalgo relative to the seat as a whole, prevented the GOP from coming out on top.

Takeaways

At the end of the day, the installments in this series are not intended to debunk political realignments. In South Texas, for instance, 2022 still showed favorable trends for Republicans relative to the last presidential race. But that doesn’t mean that each election will unilaterally shift the goalpost toward the GOP going forward. The main takeaway should simply be that elections are often so difficult to accurately forecast that it isn’t worthwhile to create long-term predictions regarding coalition change with any sense of certainty.

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