HOUSTON (Reuters) - Less than a week before Election Day, Joe Biden is tantalizingly close to a prize that has eluded generations of Democratic presidential candidates: Texas.
Public opinion polls show Biden and Republican President Donald Trump effectively tied in the Lone Star State. They also suggest the former vice president is leading among those helping to set its staggering early vote totals.
As of Tuesday, nearly 8 million Texans had cast ballots, approaching 90% of the entire 2016 vote - a higher percentage than any state in the country, according to the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida.
Trump appears to have the edge with voters planning to cast ballots on Nov. 3, according to polls, which also show him improving his standing among Hispanics in Texas, a huge constituency, mirroring modest gains he has made with that demographic nationally since 2016.
Texans do not register by party, which makes it difficult to say with certainty who is leading in early voting.
A Biden win in Texas, which hasn’t voted for a Democratic nominee for president since 1976, would end any chance of Trump’s re-election.
The Democrat’s campaign has been cautious not to lose its focus on the battleground states, however. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton was criticized for miscalculating by spending time in Republican states late in the campaign only to lose seemingly solid Democratic states to Trump.
“We’ve been really focused on our top six states,” said Jenn Ridder, the campaign’s national states director, referring to Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Florida and North Carolina. “But in these last 10 days, if we can do a little bit to put (other states) over the edge, we’re going to take that opportunity.”
Biden’s running mate, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, will visit Texas on Friday, and billionaire Michael Bloomberg plans to spend $15 million in Texas and Ohio in a last-minute bid to flip both Republican-leaning states.
The campaign’s reluctance to go all-in has frustrated some Texas Democrats, including Julian Castro and Beto O’Rourke, who both ran for their party’s 2020 presidential nomination.
“They’ve invested close to zero dollars in the state of Texas, and they’re doing this well,” O’Rourke told reporters last week. “Imagine if they invested some real dollars.”
Texas added a week of early voting to ease crowds on Election Day in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
Harris County, which includes Houston and has become a Democratic stronghold in recent years, has seen more than 1.1 million votes already.
But early voting is surging in all corners of the state, including Republican areas like Denton County, near Dallas, as well as Democratic centers like San Antonio’s Bexar County. Both counties have already surpassed their total votes cast in 2016.
Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, conducted a poll from Oct. 13-20 with the University of Houston that showed Biden leading among those who had already voted by a 59% to 39% margin. But Trump led by a similar amount among those who planned to vote on Nov. 3.
“Democrats are clearly dominating the early turnout,” Jones said. “The pivotal issue for Republicans is whether they can get their voters to turn out on Election Day.”
Besides the early vote, there are signs that Texas’ shift toward the Democratic Party is not a mirage.
Trump and Biden have been close in the state polls all year, and Democratic and Republican candidates are fiercely contesting dozens of congressional and state legislative races.
As in other parts of the country, Trump has seen his poll numbers erode in Texas’ rapidly diversifying suburbs. That could have calamitous effects on down-ballot Republicans, said Jones.
Biden has made gains among independent voters, who make up roughly 10% of the state’s electorate, according to James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.
An October poll conducted by Henson’s organization found Biden outperforming Trump among independents, 45% to 37%. In 2016, Clinton lost the same group by nearly 30 percentage points.
Democrats also point to more than 3 million newly registered voters in the state, many of whom moved to Texas from predominantly Democratic states.
Rebecca Acuna, Biden’s Texas campaign director, noted that the early voters include close to a million people who have never voted in a presidential election, many younger and more diverse voters who likely lean Democratic.
“We have every reason to believe that Texas is a tossup,” Acuna said.
The Trump campaign, citing its own internal analysis, asserted the president is ahead by hundreds of thousands of votes among early ballots. Trump won Texas by a nine-point margin in 2016.
In recent days, Trump has tried to hurt Biden with the state’s dominant oil and gas industry by playing up comments he made at last week’s debate about the need to transition eventually from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.
“Texas voters recognize Biden’s radical anti-energy agenda will destroy the state’s economy,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Cotten said.
Some Texans weren’t buying it, however.
Chase Lowe, a 35-year-old sales executive in Austin who considers himself an independent, has skipped presidential elections in the past because he was skeptical how much either party could do for the average middle-class American.
“My thoughts this year have completely changed,” said Lowe, who said he will vote for Biden. “Trump is just nasty for the country. He stokes divisiveness, and it feels like we’re in a time of hatred.”
Reporting by Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey, and Brad Brooks in Houston; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Sonya Hepinstall
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