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The Memo: Texas could deliver political earthquake

The result of the presidential election in Texas will say a lot about where American politics is right now — and where it’s headed.

If Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE carries the state, President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE is on his way to a landslide defeat.

If the result is even close, the Lone Star State will be flashing a bright warning sign for the GOP, especially when it comes to the electoral downside of Trump’s approach, including his hard-line rhetoric on immigration.

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But if the president coasts home comfortably, it will be a sign that many important parts of the country remain out of reach for Democrats.

Texas is more competitive at the presidential level this year than it has been for a generation, according to opinion polls. 

A new poll Thursday, from UMass-Lowell, showed the race effectively tied, with 48 percent of likely voters backing Trump and 47 supporting Biden. The Cook Political Report classifies Texas as a toss-up. Trump had a 2.3-point edge in the RealClearPolitics polling average in the state as of Thursday evening.

Early voting figures from the nation’s second most populous state have been at an all-time high. 

More than 8.6 million Texans had voted through Wednesday, according to a tally maintained by the Texas Tribune. The early-voting period continues through Friday, and most experts believe the early-vote total is likely to exceed the total number of people who voted in the 2016 election. Early votes in 2016 amounted to about 6.6 million, and the final tally was just under 9 million.

The result is anyone’s guess. 

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“It’s going to be tight as bark on a tree,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston.

The fact that Biden is in serious contention to win the state is startling in itself. The last Democrat to carry Texas in a presidential election was Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterCan Biden vanquish Democrats' old, debilitating ghosts? CNN acquires Joe Biden documentary 'President in Waiting' French radio station mistakenly publishes obituaries of celebrities MORE in 1976. Four years ago, Trump defeated Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden to name longtime aide Blinken as secretary of State: report Understanding mixed results in Pennsylvania key to future elections What's behind the divisions over Biden's secretary of Labor? MORE by nine percentage points in the state.

It’s virtually impossible to see a path to an Electoral College win for the president without the state’s 38 votes. In any event, a Trump loss in the state would likely mean he is having a bad day across the nation and is on course to lose other crucial battlegrounds.

Texas has been shifting politically for years, albeit slowly. Former President George W. Bush rolled up margins in excess of 20 points over his Democratic challengers in 2000 and 2004 — perhaps no surprise given he had been the state’s governor. Former President Obama lost Texas by double-digits in 2008 and 2012, before Clinton narrowed things down to 9 points in 2016.

The shifting ground revealed itself again in 2018, when then-Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) drew huge national attention as he sought to oust incumbent Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzMcSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol Capitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview Republican senators urge Trump to label West Bank goods as 'Made in Israel' MORE (R-Texas). Cruz held on, but the margin of victory — 2.6 percentage points — was uncomfortably narrow for the incumbent and his party.

A Biden campaign source contended that Democrats in the state were energized by O’Rourke’s performance — and that Biden is continuing to benefit.

“Even though Beto fell short in the end, what he did was awaken a new kind of electorate into thinking ‘My vote matters,’” this source said. “And that is what is going on this year.”

Many analyses of Texas focus overwhelmingly on the Latino population, which has been growing for years. But experts in the state say it’s important not to ignore other ingredients in a more Democratic-friendly blend, including an influx of new arrivals from other states and a growing, liberal-leaning Asian vote.

“We have added 2 million or so registered voters since the last presidential election,” said Texas Democratic strategist Keir Murray. “Latinos will soon make up a plurality of the state’s population, and we have a large number of college-educated professionals whose politics are simply not as reliably red as Texas used to be.”

Murray stopped short of projecting a Biden victory, saying instead that the state was “quite competitive.” But he asserted that the demographic changes, coupled with the polarizing nature of President Trump, was a potent combination.

“These trends were already happening,” he said. “But the Trump presidency has turbocharged them.”

The Trump campaign is scathing about any suggestion that the president could lose Texas. 

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He has not seen the need to visit the state during the peak of campaign season. A campaign spokeswoman, Samantha Zager, said: “With no ground game and no data, Joe Biden’s campaign is left to fabricate narratives and waste money on states he can’t win, like Texas.” 

The Trump campaign buttresses its case by noting the enormous money O’Rourke expended on his losing Senate bid — around $80 million. The president’s backers also recall that there were predictions from some quarters that Clinton could win Texas in 2016.

But not all Republicans sound so bullish. Sen. John CornynJohn CornynTop GOP senator: Biden should be getting intel briefings GOP senator congratulates Biden, says Trump should accept results Trump keeps tight grip on GOP amid divisions MORE (R-Texas), who is facing a spirited challenge from Democrat M.J. Hegar, told “The Daily Briefing” on Fox News Channel on Tuesday that this year’s results in Texas “will be much closer than traditionally it’s been.” 

Former Texas Gov. Rick PerryRick PerryChip Roy fends off challenge from Wendy Davis to win reelection in Texas The Memo: Texas could deliver political earthquake The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump, Biden blitz battleground states MORE (R) told The Hill earlier this week that “the Republican Party in Texas over the last 10 years ... got complacent.”

One question for the GOP in the state — and nationwide — is whether it is Trump’s policies or his rhetoric and abrasive personality that have put Texas in peril. The question is vital because were Texas to ever become solidly Democratic, nationwide wins for the GOP would become next to impossible.

A Republican strategist in Texas, Brendan Steinhauser, said that the state’s voters had not suddenly abandoned conservative policies en masse. 

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Even Texas swing voters, he said, “want lower taxes, they don’t like massive government spending, they are open to a lot of conservative ideas. But it’s how you talk to people and make people feel.”

Trump, he added, “is losing them on personality and character.”

Right now, the only thing that experts are predicting with confidence is a tight race.

“Very close, very close,” said the University of Houston’s Richard Murray, asked for his assessment of the state of the race in Texas. “I would be surprised if the difference in the end was more than 2 percentage points.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.