*Editor's note: This story has been updated to include the political affiliation of a Texas pollster.
It's a question most Texas politicos aren't used to asking, let alone having to debate: How close, really, is the presidential race in the Lone Star State?
Yet in recent weeks, the question has taken on new salience thanks to a batch of polls showing the contest within single digits in a a state that typically picks Republican presidents by overwhelming margins. The numbers are breathing new life into Democratic hopes that the state will become more competitive, while fueling Republican derision of what they see as flawed polls — and the unfounded hype to go with them.
If anything is certain at this point, it's that this is an unusual election cycle in Texas.
"I think the emerging picture is one that looks a little bit tighter in the presidential election than we’ve seen in recent elections in the state," said Joshua Blank, whose Texas Lyceum poll, released Thursday, found GOP nominee Donald Trump leading Democratic rival Hillary Clinton by only 7 percentage points among likely voters. "The Lyceum poll is another data point in a trend for a race that increasingly looks in the single digits at this time."
That means Trump is behind where a generic Republican would be at this juncture in a general election in Texas — 10 to 12 points ahead of his Democratic opponent, added Blank, the manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
The Lyceum Poll was the third survey in recent weeks to find a single-digit race in Texas, which the past two GOP nominees, Mitt Romney and John McCain, won by 16 and 12 points, respectively. According to a polling average compiled by the website RealClear Politics, Trump is now ahead of Clinton by 7.2 points in Texas.
Democrats are expressing cautious optimism about the state of the race in Texas, saying the polling, at the least, bodes well for down-ballot candidates and the post-2016 future of the beleaguered state party. Few are openly talking about winning the state this time around, though they cannot help but wonder what the margin will look like on Election Day if it is so irregularly narrow two months out.
"Three polls in a row can't be wrong, right?" Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa told the Texas Tribune on Saturday as he left the opening of a Clinton campaign office in Houston. It was there that U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston declared, "We are going to win Texas," on the heels of a Washington Post/SurveyMonkey poll that showed the race tied in the Lone Star State.
Such declarations draw long eye rolls from Texas Republicans, who frequently refer to Democrats' largely failed efforts to move the state in their direction during the 2014 elections. While some concede Trump may not carry the state as much as, say, Romney did, GOP operatives are skeptical of the methodologies used for recent public polls and suggest private surveys have found Trump leading by double digits, a more normal result.
"The theory that Texas is in play from the presidential standpoint — currently, as of right now — is just not the case," said Chris Perkins, a top Texas pollster who works for Republicans.
If the Trump campaign is worried about the numbers, it is not entirely showing it. While the nominee has taken the unusual step of tacking public appearances on to his fundraising swings through Texas, his advisers and allies have not given the impression it is meant to do anything more than soak up the free media attention that greets him wherever he goes.
"The margin in Texas from the public polls may be different from what we saw a few years ago, but it’s not enough to warrant a change in going after the true battleground states," said Mike Baselice, a seasoned Austin-based pollster working for the Trump campaign. "The short of it is ... anybody that’s looking at these polls may see some difference with what few polls existed in 2012, but the difference is irrelevant because this is going to go Republican."
The list of GOP objections to recent public surveys is long and varied. The polls have been criticized for being conducted online, leaving out cell phone interviews, over- or under-sampling certain groups, ignoring the fact Texas does not have party registration and generally producing results out of sync with national trends.
Some pollsters, their critics say, just have a bad record in Texas. Emerson College, for example, released a poll shortly before the Texas Republican presidential primary that showed Cruz up by only 3 points. He went on to win the contest by nearly six times that.
On Tuesday, the college put out a survey showing Trump up 6 points on Clinton in the state.
Still, Texas Republicans have not hesitated to capitalize on the supposedly tight race when it comes to a vital part of politics in either party: raising money. Gov. Greg Abbott's political operation has been particularly vocal, firing off dire fundraising emails warning that Democrats are making a full-court press for the state — and the polls are reflecting that.
Asked Thursday whether he was worried about the numbers, Abbott told the Texas Tribune that Republicans are not taking the state for granted and that he hopes Trump will triumph by double digits.
"You know, we've seen some of these polls that make it look close, and I don't know what polling that is," said Abbott, who is set to campaign Saturday in San Antonio with endangered U.S. Rep. Will Hurd. "What I do know is what can be achieved by hard work, and we're going to put the hard work in, not just in San Antonio this weekend, but in Dallas and Houston and across this state to make sure that we have a robust voter turnout so that the race is not going to be close."
Then there are more specific theories for why the race currently looks as tight as does in Texas. Longtime Democratic pollster Leland Beatty has posited that dissatisfied Republicans are starting to abandon straight-ticket voting for more than one reason, including a growing frustration with what they see as corruption in Texas' GOP-led government.
“Why should anybody believe six, seven, eight points in Texas?" said Beatty, who was behind the first poll this year to get attention for Trump's single-digit lead. "If you haven't noticed it, a big fog has fallen on Texas."
The notion that Texas Republicans will split their tickets in November more than usual has something of an ally in House Speaker Joe Straus. The San Antonio Republican told reporters Tuesday he imagines the practice will go both ways this year.
"I would suspect so, just from what I've picked up, but I don't know," Straus said. "Who knows? This year I would be reluctant to make too many predictions."
- The Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee opened an office Saturday in Houston.
- Cecile Richards, during a visit to Austin in support of Hillary Clinton, drew comparisons between the Democratic presidential nominee and Richards' mom.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.