For a generation, being Texan has been as much about a love for the Alamo and barbecue as for picking Republican presidents. Now, with Donald Trump as the party’s nominee, there are signs that the grip on the Lone Star State may be weakening.
Trump arrives in Austin Tuesday for a rally after a poll released last week by left-leaning Public Policy Polling shows him ahead of Democrat Hillary Clinton by 6 percentage points, one of the slimmest margins in recent Texas history. Among voters 45 and under, Clinton is beating Trump by 25 points. A June poll from the University of Texas/Texas Tribune showed Trump leading Clinton by 8 percentage points.
“He’s negatively impacting the future of the Republican Party in Texas,” said Jerry Patterson, a Republican who formerly held the position of Texas Land Commissioner.
Texas voted Republican in the past nine presidential elections, with Mitt Romney winning the state by 16 points in 2012. Still, the state’s leadership is grappling with how the party will fare in coming years when pit against powerful demographic changes, including a growing Hispanic population that tends to vote Democrat and the aging of the party’s white male base.
Trump’s visit to a state that should have been a shoo-in highlights how swiftly these demographic forces have caught up to the candidate lagging in every national poll, particularly among millennials and Hispanics. That Trump is willing to spend time and money in Texas indicates the unusual nature of this campaign where nothing is certain, even in reliably Republican territory, said Steve Munisteri, the former chairman of the Texas GOP and a senior adviser to Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus.
“You cannot take the state for granted,” Munisteri said. “The fact that Trump’s coming to Texas means he’s coming to win the state.”
Even though there has been much hand-wringing over what many describe as the eventual turning purple of the Lone Star State, a theory favored by Democrats hopeful that time is on their side, Republicans still hold both houses of the state legislature, and no Democrat has been elected statewide since 1994.
“That demographic destiny would take 20 years at minimum,” said Mark Jones, political science professor at Rice University in Houston.
Still, Trump hasn’t help keep at bay trends that could one day put Texas in play. In a state where Hispanics represent one of every three voters, he’s generated ire among the group with repeated promises to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and his immigration policies that call for rounding up and deporting millions in the country illegally.
Munisteri said the RNC is “working hand in glove” with the Trump campaign to activate youth programs and to motivate Hispanics in the state. Current Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush – the half-Mexican son of Jeb Bush – has endorsed Trump.
Trump’s millennial challenge is also uniquely stark in Texas, which has the third-lowest median age in the nation, according to the Texas demographer’s office. Future GOP candidates in the state may face the same challenges because of higher birth rates among Hispanics and an increase in death rates among middle-aged white males, the state office said.
“Young people are dissatisfied with or not very excited about Donald Trump,” said Charlie Kirk, the 22-year-old founder and executive director of Turning Point USA, a conservative campus group based in Lemont, Illinois.
A silver lining for Trump: Young people and Hispanics tend to have lower turnout at the polls. Fewer than half of eligible Hispanics cast a ballot in 2012. Only 46 percent of millennials, who make up nearly a third of the U.S. electorate, voted for president that year, compared to 69 percent of baby boomers, according to the Pew Research Center.
Noelle Mandell, a 25-year old University of Houston philosophy graduate and co-founder of the nonprofit Texas Millennial Institute, said doesn’t plan to cast a vote for president in November, although she may vote in state and local races.
“I think that Trump’s rhetoric has proven to be a problem,” said Mandell. “He’s just activating the darkest parts of people and making society more divisive.”
At the same time she believes Clinton is “untrustworthy” and voting third party isn’t worth her time.
“I just don’t think that necessarily voting in the presidential election has very much impact,” she said. “It makes more sense to better myself and those around me.”