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Why Biden could actually win Texas

For decades, Texas has been enshrined into the American political psyche as a solid red state. 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. But this year, a potent combination of factors threatens Republican dominance of the state, potentially upending the nation’s electoral math forever.

A strong political environment for Democrats

According to the FiveThirtyEight polling average, 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 currently leads Donald 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 by about 9 points nationwide. That would be a 7-point improvement over 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’s 2-point popular vote edge in 2016. If this 7-point improvement happened uniformly across every state, we would expect Trump’s 9-point victory in Texas from 2016 to turn into just a 2-point victory. That alone would put Texas firmly in competitive territory. The current polls of Texas seem to confirm this competitiveness, giving Trump a narrow 1.8-point advantage.

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College-educated white voters in the suburbs

The biggest political realignment of the 2016 election was a shift based on education. Trump made big gains with white voters without a college degree, allowing him to crack the “Blue Wall” and win Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. The flipside, however, was that Clinton made big gains with white voters with a college degree, especially in Sun Belt states where they had historically been pretty Republican.

In Texas, this political tradeoff was a net negative for Republicans. Although Trump won Texas by 9 points in 2016, this was a substantial underperformance compared to Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyDemocrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Hogan 'embarrassed that more people' in the GOP 'aren't speaking up' against Trump Democrats gear up for last oversight showdown with Trump MORE’s 16-point margin in 2012, John McCainJohn Sidney McCainDemocrats' squabbling vindicates Biden non-campaign McSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol Palin responds to Obama: 'He is a purveyor of untruths' MORE’s 12-point margin in 2008, and George W. Bush’s 23-point margin in 2004.

In Texas, the counties with the highest percentage of college graduates are large suburban counties in the major metropolitan areas (Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio). One key example is Collin County, which includes the upscale northern Dallas suburbs of Plano, McKinney, and Frisco. After voting for Romney by 32 points in 2012, it voted for Trump by 17 points in 2016. Two years later, Republican 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 only carried the county by 6 points in his re-election bid against Democrat Beto O’Rourke.

If college-educated suburbanites continue to vote more Democratic, that is a huge liability for Trump, who won college-educated whites in Texas 62 percent to 31 percent according to 2016 exit polls, so Democrats definitely still have room to grow.

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Population growth in major metropolitan areas

Another reason for Democratic optimism is explosive population growth. According to Census estimates, Texas’s population increased by 15 percent from 2010 to 2019, more than any other state except Utah. Population growth has been most heavily concentrated in the urban and suburban parts of Texas. This growth is benefitting Democrats because the newcomers tend to be younger, more diverse, and more highly educated than the state as a whole.

One place where population growth is clearly helping Democrats is Hays County, a suburban county just south of Austin. Its population grew 47 percent from 2010 to 2019, making it the second fastest-growing county nationwide. This population growth has fueled rapid gains for Democratic candidates in recent elections. Comparing the 2012 presidential election, 2016 presidential election, and 2018 Senate election, the number of Republican votes stayed mostly stable (31,661 -> 33,826 -> 33,308). However, the number of Democratic votes skyrocketed (25,537 -> 33,224 -> 45,584). This Democratic growth helped transform the county from Romney +10 in 2012 to Trump +1 in 2016 to O’Rourke +15 in 2018.

According to Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, Hays County became the first county nationwide to surpass its total 2016 turnout, just on the basis of early and mail votes. If current trends continue and these newcomers vote heavily Democratic, Hays County could be a double-digit win for Biden.

Why Texas matters

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It is unlikely that Texas will be the decisive state in this year’s presidential election. Biden’s easiest path to victory is flipping back the three midwestern states that Trump carried by less than 1 point in 2016 — Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. If Biden does so well that he carries Texas, it would be the cherry on top of an electoral landslide.

But that’s exactly what makes Texas important. If current polling averages were off by about 3 points everywhere, Biden would win narrowly (279-259) in the Electoral College, flipping back Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, but none of the Sun Belt states. Even if he were to do so while winning the popular vote comfortably, the media narrative would likely be that Biden barely hung on, and that perhaps Trump would have won were it not for the coronavirus pandemic.

But if current polling averages were off by just 2 points in the other direction, Biden would win an Electoral College landslide (413-125), flipping Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Iowa, Ohio, Georgia, and Texas. If this were to happen, it would be seen as a broad mandate for Biden and a thorough repudiation of Trumpism.

Texas would be the exclamation point.

If Biden can finally capture the white whale, it may have a lasting impact on how future generations view the Trump legacy.

Ryan Matsumoto is a politics and elections analyst for Inside Elections, which provides nonpartisan analysis of campaigns for Senate, House, governor and president. His articles have been published at FiveThirtyEight and NBC News and he has been cited by The Washington Post, The Atlantic, New York Magazine and more. Follow him on Twitter @ryanmatsumoto1.