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.