By Sabrina Page
You can learn a lot about population change in Texas simply by entering the parking lot of your local HEB. When I moved to Austin from Seattle last fall, I started noticing the high out-of-state representation by playing a game called “How many different license plates can I spot today?”: Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, California – lots of California. The license plates are demonstrative of the boom in net domestic migration Texas has experienced in the past decade. This phenomenon begs the question: how many of these new Texans will make their way to vote in the midterm elections come November? If new Texans do vote this November, will they benefit Democrats or Republicans? The unknown political power of new Texans should not be underestimated.
Gone to Texas:
Texas’s population is undeniably exploding. The number of people in the state is on track to double by 2050. Each week, thousands more move in, exceeding well beyond the national average rate. While births and international migration have stalled, net domestic migration alone accounted for 55 percent of Texas’s population growth since 2020. The rate at which Americans moved to Texas began to spike during the past few years of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the latest U.S. Census count, the population of Texas experienced its largest spike between the summer of 2020 and 2021, adding a whopping 310,288 residents. Texas’s population was estimated at 29,527,941 as of July 2021 – of those, 4.9 percent (1,446,243) were domestic migrants who had moved to Texas since 2010.
Texas is home to some of the fastest-growing cities in the country and four of the top 10 metro areas with the most growth. In the past year, Collin, Fort Bend, Williamson, Denton, and Montgomery counties alone added a total of 145,663 residents. Most of the net migration is centralized in the Texas Triangle region of Austin, Houston, and Dallas. Of course, there are some regions with declining populations – primarily rural communities and small towns in West, East, and Southern Texas. While 10 percent of Texans live in rural areas, the majority of the population lives east of the highway I-35, which is generally more urbanized.
So, who are these domestic migrants? The data shows they are primarily young adults between the ages of 25 and 44 who are more likely to be home renters with children. This subset of new residents is concentrated in fields like business, engineering, health care, and computer science. The state’s explosion in domestic migrants has proved a complex study for population experts to understand, as well. As Lloyd Potter, Texas’s State Demographer, points out:
“If you start looking at the characteristics of migrants… they tend to have higher levels of educational attainment. They tend to have occupations that are higher skilled, higher paying occupations… their income tends to be higher than Texas residents, so all of that would probably suggest that you know by and large on balance the domestic migrants are probably leaning more to the left or center-left than Texas residents on the whole. Migrants are also much more likely to be persons of color than Texas residents.”
Push and Pull Factors:
There are a multitude of contributing factors to Texas’s domestic migration influx but economic impetuses are the most significant. Lloyd Potter confirmed,
“I think the drivers of domestic migration are largely economic—so there’s kind of what’s happening in Texas, and then there’s what’s happening in other parts of the country. So as our economy is doing well, and if there are other parts of the country whose economy is not doing as well, that kind of creates a push in those places, and there’s the pull of our booming economy in Texas.”
Texas is commonly recognized as a tax haven for individuals and businesses alike, purporting an image that distinguishes the state from others like California. This claim is not completely true nor completely false. Texas has no personal income tax or capital gains tax and many are drawn here for these perceived individual tax benefits. However, numerous reports have determined Texans actually tend to pay a higher effective tax rate compared to Californians. Because of Texas’ regressive tax structure, this burden particularly falls on lower-income households.
From a business vantage point, many cities and counties across the state of Texas offer significant tax breaks and other financial incentives through the Texas Enterprise Fund—a legacy institution from former Governor Rick Perry’s time in office. Many corporations in the past decade picked up their headquarters and moved to Texas: for example, Charles Schwab moved to Denton County, Hewlett Packard Enterprise moved to Houston, and Oracle moved to Austin. In the case of Tesla, COVID restrictions imposed on their Fremont, CA facility were the impetus for a move to Austin where pandemic rules were and continue to be notoriously lax. Corporate regulatory policies are also generally favorable to businesses seeking easy places to set up shop.
Texas notoriously prides itself on its cultural and political priorities: independence, free market capitalism, low taxes, and property rights—conservative values may be an attraction to some. In 2019, 42 percent of the new Texans who moved from elsewhere in the US came from California. The surge in people coming to Texas from liberal states like New York and California is speculated to reveal grievances from residents with tight COVID restrictions and other progressive policies. Some Texas cities like Austin have even captured a sort of celebrity appeal with TV shows like Netflix’s “Twentysomethings: Austin,” capitalizing on the growing popularity amongst young people moving to the state.
Texans have historically been protective of their cultural independence from the rest of the country (and don’t you dare compare them to Californians). However, welcoming new Texans as political refugees seeking a state of conservatism is becoming politically expedient for Republicans. In a tone shift from his 2018 campaign slogan of “Don’t California My Texas”, Governor Greg Abbott even tweeted: “To the Californians moving to Texas: Remember those high taxes, burdensome regulations, & socialistic agenda advanced in CA? We don’t believe in that. We believe in less government & more individual freedom. If you agree with that you’ll fit right in.”
Registration and Redistricting:
So, does the influx of new residents mean we should expect to see a red or blue wave in November? For context, about two million new voters registered to vote in Texas in the last four years, though it’s unclear how many of those are new to Texas. For new residents, there are significant barriers to registering including Texas’ in-person voter registration deadline 30 days prior to Election Day, and many don’t know what the new processes are in the state or if they are eligible to vote. Furthermore, only about 18 percent of people registered to vote in Texas turned out in the primaries this spring and about 67 percent of those registered turned out for the 2020 Presidential elections. Neither statistic bodes well for the current state of civic engagement in Texas.
Another important element pertaining to the Texas electorate is the new state-wide redistricting map passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature in 2021. The suburban areas surrounding big Texan cities saw extreme population growth, with 95 percent of that growth from people of color. Hays County is a great example as this area between Austin and San Antonio doubled its population in the last decade. It is notable that these growing and diversifying suburban areas have also been targeted with the last round of redistricting by Republicans. Critics actively contesting this map in court claim that the redistricted map dilutes the collective impact of Black and Hispanic voters, and makes those growing districts less competitive to Democratic candidates. It seems the map, which is expected to stand during the midterms, may give the growing populations in urban and suburban areas of the Texas Triangle less power in elections.
However, Potter called attention to the fact that the demographics may be moving faster than the politics here. “So now we have migrants moving in and that’s gonna change the demographics of the current districts that they have,” he says. “If you look at Fort Bend County, which is just south and slightly west of Houston, you know that there has been a dramatic increase in the Asian population there. But you also are seeing a significant increase in the Latino population there as well. So that’s districts that are currently drawn to be Republican districts, safe districts. There’s turnover in terms of the housing units. And now turnover is likely to result in a more diverse population.” So while the maps may stay stagnant for now, the population will continue to change.
Potential Political Implications:
Over time, Texas politics have shifted more to the left. In 2012, Barack Obama lost Texas by sixteen points, in 2016 Hillary Clinton lost by nine points, and in 2020, Joe Biden lost by only six. While the push factors of high taxes and unaffordable homes in other states may have driven some people out of states like California, they may not have bargained for the extreme conservative politics. Policies such as the ban on transgender students participating in K-12 sports, and the “Heartbeat Bill” which effectively banned abortion in the state, may cause some to consider leaving Texas altogether. This population growth could also put pressure on the state to provide funding to improve the quality of public education, expand health care infrastructure, and increase job opportunities.
The political concerns of these potential new voters are nuanced. “I moved here for my job in software sales,” said Payton, who recently moved to Austin, Texas from Washington state. “I’m registered to vote but am not very engaged besides local level propositions.” Ashley, who also moved to Austin just this past year said she had not yet registered to vote in Texas and wasn’t sure what the process even was, questioning, “Do I not need a Texas driver’s license to do that?” Ashley also voiced feeling removed: “I don’t identify with Texas politically… but I don’t like Greg Abbott. The abortion issue is the one that stands out the most for me. I hate that Texas seems like it’s so extreme as opposed to finding any sort of solution or middle ground.”
According to an August poll from The Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, 45 percent of people favored Greg Abbott and 40 percent favored Beto O’Rourke for the gubernatorial race. Notably, 8 percent polled said they, “Haven’t thought about it enough to have an opinion.” This signifies a large chunk of the electorate who have not decided if they will vote or, if they do, who they would vote for. . We are thus left with more questions than answers due to the lacking data and ever-shifting demographics of the state. However, if this segment of the electorate truly is up for grabs, candidates (ahem– Beto O’Rourke) ought to target their messaging and activate this group of potential voters to register and turn out to vote— highlighting their attention to the bread and butter economic issues that these moderate voters care about. The November midterm elections may well be a test case for politics in a new Texas.