Analysis: Season of speculating on Trump effect in Texas is over

We've reached the eve of the election, with many political fortune-tellers predicting big changes in Texas. Here's a way to measure it, if it happens.

Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during their first presidential debate
at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, on Sept. 26, 2016.

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Let’s revisit our Hurricane Donald forecast, now that we’ve reached the eve of its election landfall.

Most recent polls of the state, including the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, have found Donald Trump ahead of Hillary Clinton by single digits — in a state where double-digit Republican wins have become the norm in presidential elections.

He’s not losing, but he’s underperforming. That’s got many Republicans battening down for a bout of purple rain.

It’s not that the politics of the state have changed so much — look at the responses from Republicans and Democrats on issues like transgender bathroom regulation, Syrian refugees, Black Lives Matter, gender and race discrimination, election security, the direction of the state and of the country and the approval/disapproval of high officials.

The state’s likely voters are conservative. Until the Democrats can prove otherwise, keep coloring the state red on your political map.

But the polls show some weakness at the top of the Republican ticket. Trump, in spite of those underlying conservative voter positions on issues, isn’t performing in the polls like a normal Republican. He is making down-ballot Republicans nervous, especially those who are hearing from #NeverTrump conservatives and from some GOP women who’ve had it up to here with this political cycle.

The season of speculation is about to end. We’ll soon have access to the fabled Only Poll That Counts, and it will reveal the extent of any damage to what has been a 20-year run of statewide Republican victories in Texas.

Barack Obama lost to Mitt Romney in 2012 by almost 16 percentage points — by 1.3 million votes. He won only 26 of the state’s 254 counties. Some of those were big counties: Obama racked up a 109,758-vote victory in Dallas County, the largest margin for either candidate in any Texas county.

Trump isn't losing, but he’s underperforming. That’s got many Republicans battening down for a bout of purple rain.

Some were big counties and tiny wins: Harris County went for Obama, but only by 971 votes out of 1.2 million cast. Romney ran the rest of the table, coasting to an easy win. Like other Republicans, he put up big numbers in a number of counties, quickly offsetting the counties where the Democrat did well: Montgomery, Tarrant, Collin and Denton each gave Romney at least 75,000 votes more than Obama. Another six counties each contributed 30,000 to 40,000 more votes to that margin.

One measure of the change — if this election marks any change at all — will be in the number of Republican and Democratic county wins, the margins in those counties, and the differences, if any, between the performance of the presidential candidates and of statewide Republicans and Democrats below them.

A number of Texas House seats are in play and will give some measure of how the night is going. Three incumbent Republicans — state Reps. John Lujan and Rick Galindo of San Antonio and Gilbert Peña of Pasadena — are the first line, the incumbents in the most danger in this election cycle.

Four more from North Texas — Linda Koop and Kenneth Sheets of Dallas, Cindy Burkett of Sunnyvale and Rodney Anderson of Grand Prairie — mark a second line.

The first group would be somewhat vulnerable in a normal year, the second group subject to a bad year for Republicans.

A third group would be in danger if the top of the Republican ticket does particularly bad or the Democrats do particularly well — however you’d like to think about it. State Reps. Wayne Faircloth of Galveston, J.M. Lozano of Kingsville, and Sarah Davis of West University Place would be a sign of high waters — of a really strong purple rain in Texas.

You might notice the absence of Democrats on that list. Some could lose, but those will be upsets: The Democratic legislators in Texas who were in districts that might be won by candidates from either party have been knocked off. The Texas House that had 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats in 2009 is long gone; Republicans briefly had more than 100 members and are now comfortably above 90.

That’s a safe majority, and those Republicans have drawn political maps that protect most of them from Democratic urges of the Texas electorate.

Even if this turns out to be a bad election year, they expect to remain in charge.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • Some elections are referendums on issues, public votes that give lawmakers a good idea of what voters want. This election isn't one of those.
  • Sure, there's a lot of pushing and shoving going on among the state's elected officials, but there's a lot of pushing and shoving going on with Texas voters, too.
  • Everybody wants to see the election results in a couple of weeks, but politicians — those who survive, that is — will be looking for something more: instructions from voters.