Skip to main content

Analysis: For Presidential Trendline to Change in Texas, Check Door No. 3

It’s not just that the Republicans have been winning presidential contests here for the past 40 years; the Democrats haven’t been gaining on them — except when strong independent candidates intervene.

Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump are facing off in the 2016 presidential election.

Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.

One of the races that didn’t make our list of hot tickets on the state’s November ballot was the top one.

Hillary Clinton told an interviewer this week that Texas might be in play this year, but there is no evidence to back her up. Democrats haven’t won a presidential contest here since 1976, when Georgia Democrat Jimmy Carter beat Michigan Republican Gerald Ford.

If you voted that year, you’ll be at least 58 years old when it’s time to vote in this year’s general election. No Texan younger than that has ever taken part in such a thing.

It’s not just that the Republicans have been winning presidential contests here for the past 40 years; the Democrats haven’t been gaining on them — except when strong independent candidates intervene.

Over the past 100 years, Texans have split their votes evenly, voting for the Democratic candidate for president 12 times and for the Republican 13 times. It’s not the record of a swing state, however, so much as the record of a state that has run in long political streaks.

From 1916 to 1948, Texans favored the Democrat in all but one election — the 1928 race where 51.8 percent went for Republican Herbert Hoover (They gave him 11.3 percent in his re-election bid four years later, favoring Franklin Roosevelt).

Texan voters switched to Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, then switched back to the Democrats. The next streak started in 1972 — two-thirds of Texas voters went for Republican Richard Nixon — and Carter’s win four years later, after the Watergate scandal, was the only hiccup between then and now.

It’s not just that the Republicans have been winning presidential contests here for the past 40 years; the Democrats haven’t been gaining on them — except when strong independent candidates intervene.

From the Democrats’ point of view, the numbers in the past four presidential elections in Texas are daunting. Since the Carter win in ’76, no Democratic candidate for president has broken 44 percent here. Carter himself got only 41.4 percent in his 1980 re-election bid against Ronald Reagan. The Democrats’ numbers in the past four elections? Al Gore, 38 percent; John Kerry, 38.2 percent; Barack Obama, 43.7 percent; Obama, 41.4 percent.

That’s a pretty clear trendline.

Three elections stick out because of popular independents who stole votes and made the elections much closer than they might have been.

In Texas in 1968, Democrat Hubert Humphrey, with 41.1 percent, narrowly beat Nixon, with 39.9 percent. The fly in the soup was George Wallace, the Alabama segregationist governor running as an independent. Wallace got 19 percent of the vote.

George H.W. Bush, a Texas Republican seeking re-election in 1992, won here (while losing nationally) with 40.6 percent of the vote to Democrat Bill Clinton’s 37.1 percent. This time, the bug was Dallas billionaire Ross Perot Sr., who got 22 percent of the vote.

Perot was less of a factor four years later, but still got 6.7 percent of the vote and kept both Clinton and Republican Bob Dole from reaching 50 percent of the vote. Dole carried Texas; Clinton won re-election.

That sets the table for one serving of 2016 speculation: With two remarkably unpopular candidates on their way to the major party nominations, how will other candidates do in Texas?

Libertarian Gary Johnson served two terms as a Republican governor of New Mexico and could siphon some votes from people unhappy with either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. On the other hand, he was his party’s candidate in 2012 and only received 1.1 percent of the Texas vote.

Candidates with that word “independent” next to their names on the ballot have done better, both in presidential and non-presidential years in Texas. Think of 2006, when Rick Perry was re-elected governor with just over 39 percent of the vote. Democrat Chris Bell was held to 29.8 percent, while independent candidates Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Richard "Kinky" Friedman scooped up the rest.

The deadline to get independent presidential candidates on the ballot in Texas has passed, but many election law experts say similar deadlines in other states have been bulldozed by the courts. Legal or not, it’s getting late for an independent candidacy.

Without strong independents in the race, Republican presidential candidates in Texas have kept their percentages in the mid-50s and above since 1980. Independent candidates have sometimes closed the gap between the majority and the minority party.

It doesn’t always work, as 2006 demonstrates. But nothing else seems to slow the red tide in Texas.

Support public-service journalism that gets the context right

Yes, I'll donate today