“Remember the Alamo!” is the way Texans mark the nine years Texas was an independent republic, freed from Mexico, before it agreed to annexation by the United States in 1845. Today it is a nation-sized state, 26 million strong, larger in area than any of the nations of the European Union and more populous than all but five. In the 13 presidential elections since 1960, Americans have elected Texans four times and Californians four times. The two largest states have put their stamp on national politics in our time, just as New York did from 1900 to 1960, when it produced five of the winners and eight of the losers in 15 presidential elections. Texas has been the second-largest state in area since Alaska was admitted to the Union in 1959, and it became the second-largest in population in 1994, when it surpassed New York. A formative strain in the state’s history is that it is a society without an aristocratic past, a state not formed by plantation owners or plutocrats, but by dirt farmers and citizen-soldiers like Sam Houston. Texas was founded by Southerners, particularly Tennesseans, who wanted to establish their own enclave within the borders of Mexico, a republic with Anglo-Saxon freedoms and black slavery. They defended their dream to the death at the Alamo and to a bloody victory at San Jacinto. They entered the Union willingly in 1845 and left it enthusiastically in 1861. The Texas that emerged from the Civil War was still young and poor. Not until 1901 was oil discovered at Spindletop, setting Texas wildcatters on the road to riches.
Without the underpinnings and burdens of tradition, 20th century Texas produced fabulous wealth, generously rewarding success while being unforgiving of failure. It has respect for learning and style—think of its great universities and Neiman Marcus—and it revels in rough manners and Western wear. Texans are prone to wild swings in fortune—think of Sam Houston and the wildcatters, and Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush. In the 21st century, Texans, despite their history of slavery and segregation, have proved open to immigrants and friendly to their Mexican neighbors. The North American Free Trade Agreement, the opening up of the border and the coming together of these two countries that are at such different economic levels and have such different cultures, was a project mainly of Texans of both political parties, of Republican President George H.W. Bush and Democratic Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, of Democratic Gov. Ann Richards and Republican Gov. George W. Bush. At the same time, Texas has become a high-technology powerhouse with some of the nation’s most creative businesses. But its success is not just economic. There are elements of heroism—some mythical, some genuine—in the Texas history that every public school student learns.
Texas started off as a marchland on the border of the Third World, with an economy based on commodities, mainly cotton, when cotton prices were in long-term decline. Its farmers felt like they were part of a colonial economy controlled by bankers and Wall Street financiers. After Spindletop, Texas became the nation’s—and for a time the world’s—leading producer of oil. But oil prices, too, fell in free markets and were propped up by politicians. There was the 1935 “hot oil” act that Democrat Sam Rayburn, as chairman of the House Commerce Committee, pushed through and the oil depletion allowance maintained for years by Rayburn when he was speaker and by Johnson when he was Senate majority leader and later by Bentsen as Senate Finance Committee chairman. These politicians also secured subsidies for cotton growers and contracts for defense plants and space facilities in World War II and through the Cold War years. Most Texas voters stayed Democratic up to 1970 because of Confederate memories, New Deal affections, and the clout and competence of Texas Democratic officeholders.
By the 1970s, Texas was no longer dependent on raw commodities. The “awl bidness” here became less a matter of extracting oil than it was playing host to the greatest concentration of highly skilled specialists in extracting oil and natural gas in any part of the world. Also beginning in the 1960s, Texas became a center for technology with the critical mass of knowledge and finances needed to produce firms like Texas Instruments and Dell Computer and a university infrastructure in the University of Texas and Texas A&M. Today, oil extraction is still important. Thanks to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing—known as fracking—production has taken off, with the Permian Basin around Midland and Odessa producing one-seventh of the nation’s oil and the Barnett shale near Fort Worth producing oil and natural gas.
The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is rich with defense contractors and with erstwhile small firms that grew large with exports to Mexico. Houston is home to firms like Schlumberger, the global oil services company, to many of the high-tech spinoffs from the space program, and to the enormous Texas Medical Center. San Antonio, with the Air Force’s prime hospital, has significant medical technology and biotech industries. As UT doubled its number of engineering professors, Austin became a high-tech center vying for second place after California’s Silicon Valley. Texas’ low taxes and lack of a state income tax have helped attract corporate headquarters like American Airlines, GTE, J.C. Penney, Exxon Mobil, Anadarko, and the U.S. headquarters of Huawei. Oil is just a small part of the Texas economy now. As a result, the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston metro areas are the fourth and fifth largest in the country, ahead of Philadelphia and Washington.
Texas surged ahead despite some formidable obstacles: the crash of oil prices and the savings and loan crisis in the 1980s, the defense cuts of the early 1990s, and the World Trade Organization ruling against cotton subsidies in 2005. It was hit late and only lightly by the 2007-09 recession. Low housing prices, tight lending practices, and tough foreclosure laws meant that Texas did not have much of a housing bubble. Foreclosure rates were well below the national average and far below those in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Florida. The state’s unemployment rate remained well under the national average. Texas kept producing an increasing number of jobs during the recession and Republican Gov. Rick Perry bragged that Texas produced more than 70% of the nation’s new jobs in late 2007 and much of 2008. But by some indicators, the state is underperforming: While its public colleges prosper, the rest of the public school system is cash-starved and Texas has a high percentage of people without health insurance.
Texas is a religious state, with 17 of the nation’s 100 largest churches, according to one survey, and charitable giving is a widespread habit among rich and poor alike. Texas has developed a civic culture of adaptability and resilience, as it demonstrated by taking in thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees in 2005. Three years later, Houston weathered Hurricane Ike with orderly and timely evacuations. While other states pass laws requiring alternative energy sources in some distant year, Texas already produces more electricity from wind power than any other state—8% of its total electricity in 2012, up from 3% in 2007, and it has seven of the nation’s ten largest wind farms.
Newcomers—think of the Bushes—have done much to put the stamp of Texas on the whole of the United States. And people have been voting for Texas with their feet. Its population grew from 21 million in 2000 to 25 million in 2010, a 21% increase. The state accounted for 16% of the population increase of the entire country. Growth came from both immigration and from domestic migration. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 933,000 immigrants came to the state between 2000 and 2009 and 849,000 people came from elsewhere in the United States. The reapportionment of House seats among the states reflects relative population growth; after the 2010 census, six states gained one seat, Florida gained two, California for the first time in its history gained none—and Texas gained four. Growth has continued since the 2010 census: The population rose another 913,000 from 2010 to 2012, 18% of the national population gain.
Latino activists pointed out that Hispanics accounted for about half of the state’s population increase, and immigration was particularly heavy in Dallas County and Houston’s Harris County. It was not, interestingly, nearly so heavy in San Antonio, which is closer to the Mexican border, or in El Paso or the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The biggest percentage population increases were in counties at the edge of big metro areas, where there was very little international immigration but more domestic migration—Collin and Denton counties north of Dallas and Fort Worth, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties near Houston, and Williamson County north of Austin. The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex grew 23% in the decade, metro Houston 26%, metro Austin 37%—one of the highest figures of any 1 million-plus metro area—and metro San Antonio 25%. The Rio Grande counties grew 20%, while the rest of Texas, mostly small city and rural, grew by 8%, just a little under the national average of 9.7%.
Texas has surged in part because it has nurtured and profited from its relationship with its southern neighbor, Mexico. The border is long, some 1,200 miles, and porous. Southern Texas along the Rio Grande is a transition zone between two very different economies. Despite a history of racial segregation, Texas has shown a friendly face to Mexicans. Fewer Latinos have crossed the border here to take advantage of welfare programs, which are much less generous in Texas than in California. Political leadership has made a difference. Gov. Rick Perry, who prepared for his office by taking Spanish lessons, followed the lead of predecessors George W. Bush and Ann Richards by maintaining good relations with Mexican officials. He has opposed putting up a border fence on the Rio Grande and backs Texas’ law providing in-state tuition for illegals brought here as children—stands that cost him support when he ran for the Republican nomination for president. Nearly half of U.S. merchandise exports to Mexico are from Texas. The North American Development Bank is headquartered in San Antonio, the Border Environment Cooperation Commission is in Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, and the busiest truck crossing between the countries is the new World Trade Bridge near Laredo and Nuevo Laredo.
Politically, Texas is now a predominantly Republican state. Republicans hold all 29 statewide elective offices, including the entire state Supreme Court, and have large margins in both houses of the state legislature. They have carried the state in the last eight presidential elections, starting in 1980, and have won every gubernatorial election except one since 1986 and every U.S. Senate election since 1990. Perry won 55%-42% in 2010 and 58%-40% in 2002, not much different from Bush’s first win in 1994, 53%-46%. In presidential contests, John McCain carried the state 55%-44% in 2008, just about the same margin as George H. W. Bush carried it in 1988, 56%-43%, and Ronald Reagan in 1980, 55%-41%. John Cornyn was elected to the U.S. Senate by the identical margin of 55%-43% in 2002 and 2008. George W. Bush did run ahead of party lines for reelection as governor in 1998 and as a presidential candidate in 2000 and 2004, and Kay Bailey Hutchison ran ahead of party lines in her four races for the Senate in 1993 (a special election), 1994, 2000, and 2006. When Hutchison retired in 2012, Republican Ted Cruz, who won an upset victory in the Republican runoff against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, won the general election by 56%-41%.
The patterns of support in these races have changed over time. Texas can be divided into four roughly equal-size parts for electoral analysis—the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, metro Houston, the more Democratic parts of the state (metro Austin, metro San Antonio, the Rio Grande Valley) and the remainder, rural and small town Texas east, north, south, and west. In 1988, George H.W. Bush received his biggest margins in the Metroplex and metro Houston, 61% and 57%, respectively. He lost Austin, carried San Antonio, and lost the Rio Grande Valley 56%-43%, and he carried rural, small-town Texas 57%-43%. That was, by the way, a sharp change from ancestral Democratic voting habits: Rural, small-town Texas was a banner area for Democrat Bentsen in his four U.S. Senate races from 1970 to 1988. Fast forward a quarter century, and Mitt Romney carried the Metroplex and metro Houston with lower percentages, 56% and 55%, respectively, as the central cities with their increasing black and Latino populations voted Democratic, while the rapidly growing suburban counties voted heavily Republican. Romney lost metro Austin and carried metro San Antonio by percentages comparable to those in 1988, and he lost the Rio Grande Valley, 65%-34%. But Romney carried rural, small-town Texas, which still casts 25% of the state’s votes, by the huge margin of 72%-27%.
Many commentators have pointed out that demographic factors seem to threaten Republican dominance in the state. Rural, small-town Texas—now the Republican stronghold—is growing less than the rest of the state, and the Latino population is increasing. The 2010 census reported 38% of Texas’ residents as Hispanic and more than half of Texas public school pupils are so classified. Yet Texas so far has remained as defiantly Republican as California—also 38% Hispanic—has remained Democratic. The chief reason is that Anglo whites are still the large majority of voters in both states: in 2008 (there was no exit poll in Texas in 2012), they voted 52% for Barack Obama in California and 73% for McCain in Texas. Extrapolations from the Reuters-Ipsos poll of all 50 states indicate that in Texas in 2012, 76% of whites and 37% of Hispanics voted for Romney. Texas Hispanics have consistently been more Republican than those in many other states. They voted 49% or 39% (depending on which exit poll you believe) for George W. Bush in his 1998 reelection for governor, and 42% and 49% for Bush in his two presidential races, and 35% for John McCain in 2008. Hutchison got 44% of Latino votes in 2006, and Perry got 38% in 2010. A newspaper consortium estimated that Texas would become Democratic in 2024, based on demographic trends and current voting behavior, but noted that if Republicans get 40% of Hispanic votes—not an impossibility—that would not happen until 2036. Of course, that assumes no change in voters’ attitudes or candidate’s appeal for 10 or 20 years.
Republicans have been visibly and sometimes controversially in control of state government and the state’s congressional delegation for some time now, time enough to accumulate political baggage and to inspire creative campaigning by the opposition. In 2010, those factors seemed to be in play. Hutchison waged a fierce primary fight with Perry, whose 10 years in office, since he succeeded Bush, made him the longest-serving Texas governor in history. Perry had been reelected with only 39% of the vote in 2006 against Democratic former Rep. Chris Bell and two independents. He had suffered setbacks as his ambitious transportation plan—a combined rail line and toll highway parallel to Interstate 35—was rejected, and Republicans were reduced in 2008 to a 76-74 majority in the state House, which resulted in the election of a mostly Democratically supported moderate Republican as speaker (a powerful position in Texas). But as opposition to the Obama administration polices grew, Perry’s popularity increased. He dubbed his opponent “Kay Bailout Hutchison” for her support of the federal government’s rescue of the financial industry. Perry won the primary with 51% of the vote, to 30% for Hutchison and 19% for third candidate Debra Medina.
In the general election, Perry faced about as strong an opponent as Democrats could field, Bill White, whose moderate record as Houston mayor had won widespread praise. But Texas’ basic partisan preferences prevailed; Perry won 55%-42%, losing the Rio Grande Valley and metro Austin, but carrying the Metroplex and metro Houston and winning rural, small-town Texas 65%-32%. Perry’s political prowess in Texas did not carry over into his presidential run, in which his support for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants brought in as children and his failure to recall the third federal department he would eliminate propelled him from the top of the polls in August 2011 to the bottom by November. His endorsement of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst over Ted Cruz in the 2012 Senate prevail was not heeded by most Republican primary and runoff voters. But in early 2013, he held out the possibility of running for another term, even as Attorney General Greg Abbott seemed to be preparing for a run, while Dewhurst said he would run for reelection as lieutenant governor.
In presidential general elections, Texas has not voted Democratic since 1976, when Jimmy Carter narrowly won its 26 electoral votes. Since then, the closest a Democratic nominee has come to carrying Texas was in 1996, when Texan Ross Perot split the opposition to Bill Clinton, and Bob Dole carried the state 49%-44%. Not surprisingly, Texas has not been a target state in this century. George W. Bush carried the state with 59% and 61% of the vote, respectively, in 2000 and 2004. In 2008, Barack Obama increased the Democratic percentage, but only to 44%, far behind John McCain’s 55%. Obama carried the central city counties including Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin, something no Democrat has done since Lyndon Johnson swept his home state in 1964. Whites voted 73%-26% for McCain, who also won 83% among white evangelical Protestants and 69% among white voters under 30. African-Americans voted 98%-2% for Obama. Hispanics voted 63%-35% for Obama. Hispanics and upscale white voters were the most likely to have switched from Bush in 2004 to Obama in 2008. In 2012, Mitt Romney carried the state 57%-41%. No exit poll was conducted, but extrapolation from a Reuters-Ipsos survey showed Romney carrying 75% of whites and 31% of Hispanics. Romney lost 65%-34% in the Rio Grande Valley and 52%-45% in metro Austin. But he won a solid 56% in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, 55% in metro Houston, 53% in metro San Antonio, and 72% in rural, small town Texas.
For the first time in 20 years, Texas was an important state in the presidential nomination process in 2008. Texas voted on March 4, after Obama won 14 straight Democratic primaries and 11 caucuses in February. So Texas and Ohio, voting on the same day, were must-wins for Hillary Clinton, and Texas got a lot more attention than it would have if the legislature had chosen to set the primary for Super Tuesday, February 5. Obama and Clinton debated and campaigned hard in Texas. Democratic turnout was nearly 2.9 million, more than triple the 839,000 who voted in 2004. The primary was a closer contest than Ohio’s. Clinton won by just 51%-47%. She carried women, older voters, downscale and rural whites, and Latinos by wide margins. Obama carried men, younger voters, upscale and urban whites, and blacks by wide margins. Clinton won 61% to 70% of the vote in San Antonio and border state Senate districts. (Texas Democrats elect delegates by state Senate districts.) Obama won 73% in heavily African-American state Senate districts in Houston and Dallas. Rural districts, except for one that includes exurban Austin’s Williamson County, voted for Clinton. Obama carried metro Dallas with 56%, metro Houston with 55%, and metro Austin with 60%. Clinton carried 18 Senate districts to Obama’s 13, but Obama won more delegates overall because one-third of them were selected in caucuses held on primary night and more Obama voters took the trouble to show up.
Turnout on the Republican side was much lower, 1.3 million, only slightly above the 1.1 million Republicans who voted in the not seriously contested primary in 2000. McCain beat Mike Huckabee 51%-38%. Huckabee carried only one U.S. House district, the 4th, which included Texarkana, right on the border with his native Arkansas. Half the primary voters were white evangelical Protestants, and Huckabee won more than 40% of the vote in the northern more- Baptist half of the state, including the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. He won less than 40% in most parts of the southern half of the state. McCain’s biggest majorities were in the border areas and in the most upscale districts in Houston and Dallas.