Texas Counties: Comparing the 2020 Presidential Election to 2016

In 2016, Republican Donald Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in the election for president of the United States. While Clinton received more popular votes than Trump, Trump won more Electoral College votes and, therefore, won the election. In 2020, Democrat Joe Biden defeated Trump for re-election. Texas voted for Trump in both elections. This article compares the way Texans voted for president in 2020 compared with the way they voted in 2016.

The Nationwide Popular Vote, 2016 and 2020

Before looking at the way Texas voted, it is useful to first take a look at the national context. The nationwide popular votes in 2016 and 2020 were as follows:

2016 2020 Change
Republican 63.0 million 46.5% 74.2 million 46.9% +11.2 million +0.4%
Democrat 65.9 million 48.6% 81.3 million 51.3% +15.4 million +2.7%
Other 6.7 million 4.9% 2.9 million 1.8% -3.8 million -3.1%
Total 135.5 million 100% 158.4 million 100% +22.9 million 16.9%
Table 1. The nationwide popular vote for U.S. president in 2016 and 2020.

As the above table shows, overall turnout was up sharply in 2020 compared to 2016. As a result, both Donald Trump and Joe Biden received many more votes in 2020 than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. Furthermore, Trump's share of the popular vote increased from 46.5 percent to 46.9 percent, while the Democrat's share rose from Clinton's 48.6 percent to Biden's 51.3 percent, giving him an actual majority. On the other hand, despite the sharp increase in total votes cast, third-party and independent candidates received a combined 3.8 million votes fewer in 2020 than in 2016, and their share of the vote dwindled from 4.9 percent to 1.8 percent.

To restate, the key points from this data are:

  • Turnout was up by over 15 percent in 2020 compared to 2016.
  • Both major-party candidates increased not only their total votes received, but also their share of the popular vote.
  • "Other" candidates (third parties and independents) received fewer votes and a much lower vote share, despite the large increase in turnout.
  • Biden received a majority of the popular vote in 2020, which Clinton did not do in 2016.

The Vote in Texas, 2016 and 2020

Table 2, below, shows the 2016 and 2020 presidential election results in Texas:

2016 2020 Change
Republican 4,681,590 52.4% 5,860,096 52.2% +1,178,506 -0.3%
Democrat 3,867,816 43.3% 5,211,406 46.4% +1,343,590 +3.1%
Other 380,056 4.3% 160,297 1.4% -219,759 -2.8%
Total 8,929,462 100% 11,231,799 100% +2,302,337 +25.8%
Table 2. The popular vote in Texas for U.S. president in 2016 and 2020.

Texas has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1980, and the Republican candidate always does better in the share of the popular vote in Texas when compared to the nation as a whole. In 2016, Donald Trump had a 9.1 percent margin over Hillary Clinton, which was 9.5 points above his national average. In 2020, Trump's margin in Texas was 5.8 percent, which was 11.6 points above his national average. Note that Trump's performance in Texas compared to the nation as a whole actually improved from 2016 to 2020. When compared with other states, Texas was just as much of a right-leaning state in 2020 as in 2016, but the nation as a whole leaned more left, which brought Texas closer to the center.

Texas followed the nation in most other respects. Turnout was up sharply - more than 25 percent. Both Trump and Biden significantly increased their popular vote numbers, while third-party and independent candidates lost votes. The one way that Texas differed from the nation when comparing Table 1 to Table 2 is that Trump's share of the popular vote in Texas diminished slightly, down from 52.4 percent to 52.2 percent. The bottom line is that the higher voter turnout that helped Biden nationwide helped him even more in Texas, where the increase in turnout was even greater.

To restate, the key points from this data are:

  • Turnout was up in Texas by 25.8 percent in 2020 compared to 2016 and compared to 15.2 percent nationwide.
  • Trump received many more votes than in 2016, but he did not quite maintain the same share of the vote.
  • Biden received many more votes than Clinton and also substantially increased his share of the vote.
  • Reflecting the national average, "other" candidates received fewer votes even in this high-turnout election, so their share of the vote was cut substantially.

Does the change in the Republican margin of victory in Texas from 15.8 percent in 2012, to 9.1 percent in 2016, to 5.8 percent in 2020 indicate a trend towards a less Republican-leaning electorate? It may. The key factor is whether more previously Republican-leaning voters are starting to vote Democrat, or whether a larger percentage of new and first-time voters are voting Democrat than Republican. The data from 2016 and 2020 suggests that it is the latter. In other words, there is no evidence that the Republican Party is losing support from returning voters, but there is evidence that most new Texas voters are more likely to vote Democrat. Whether this is becoming a trend that will play out in future elections would seem to depend on whether the recent increases in voter turnout will continue, or whether turnout will taper off.

One might also suppose that Biden did better than Trump in winning votes from people who voted independent or third-party in 2016. This hypothesis requires more data in order to make an analysis. Either way, the "other" vote in 2020 was so low that there is not much more room for Democrat gains to be made from it in future elections.

It should also be remembered that in 1992 and 1996, the Republican margins of victory were only 3.5 percent and 5.0 percent, respectively. The 2020 presidential election was the closest out of the last six, but whether the pendulum is still on the downswing or whether it is approaching the height of its leftward arc is yet to be seen.

Breaking Down the Texas Vote

A simple breakdown of the presidential vote in Texas in 2012 and 2016 reveals more about Texans and the way they voted. Tables 3 and 4, below, show the statewide information presented in Table 2 broken down by population. Table 3 shows the aggregate data for the state's ten most populous counties: Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar, Travis, El Paso, Collin, Hidalgo, Denton, and Fort Bend. Table 4 shows data for the other 244 counties.

2016 2020 Change
Republican 2,109,376 41.6% 2,674,170 41.4% +564,794 -0.2%
Democrat 2,727,543 53.8% 3,693,177 57.2% +965,634 +3.4%
Other 229,919 4.5% 94,843 1.5% -165,076 -3.0%
Total 5,066,838 100% 6,462,190 100% +1,395,352 +27.5%
Table 3. The popular vote for U.S. president in 2016 and 2020 in Texas' ten most populous counties.

2016 2020 Change
Republican 2,572,214 66.6% 3,185,926 66.8% +613,712 +0.2%
Democrat 1,140,273 29.5% 1,518,229 31.8% +377,956 +2.3%
Other 150,137 3.9% 65,454 1.4% -84,683 -2.5%
Total 3,862,624 100% 4,769,609 100% 906,985 +23.5%
Table 4. The popular vote for U.S. president in 2016 and 2020 in Texas' 244 least populous counties.

The first thing we note about this breakdown is that the statewide changes in the vote between 2016 and 2020 were seen in both groups of counties. That is, both groups had a much higher number of total votes cast, and both the Republican and Democrat candidates received many more votes in 2020 compared to 2016. Donald Trump's share of the popular vote remained nearly the same in both groups of counties, while Biden's share of the vote increased over Clinton's in both groups. Independent and third-party candidates fared more poorly in both groups. Still, there is a moderate but noticeable difference in both turnout and the increase in the Democrat's share of the vote: these changes exist in both groups but are more prominent in the group of large counties. This is consistent with our theory that the gain in Democrat vote share in 2020 was due more to Biden getting a greater share of the new and first-time voters than to Trump losing some of his 2016 voters to Biden.

The above tables show that there are two different Texas electorates: the center to Democratic-leaning voters in the large cities, and the solidly Republican voters of the suburbs, small-to-medium-sized towns, and rural areas. This fact becomes even more apparent when further breaking down the ten counties represented in Table 3. In 2012, Obama won Dallas County handily, but Republican Mitt Romney won neighboring Tarrant, Collin, and Denton Counties by even larger margins, making the four counties Republican when lumped together. In 2016, Clinton made gains in all four counties, and while Tarrant, Collin, and Denton Counties remained Republican, the group of four was slightly Democratic in 2016. In 2020, Biden won Tarrant County by 427 votes, and Trump's margin in Denton and Collin Counties was reduced to 8.1 and 4.6 percent, respectively.

A similar situation existed in the Houston area. In 2012, Obama and Romney virtually tied in Harris County, but Romney won Fort Bend County. In 2016, both counties went for Clinton, with Harris County more solidly Democratic than Democratic-leaning Fort Bend County. Houston's other suburban counties - Montgomery, Galveston, and Brazoria - all stayed Republican in 2016, but Clinton gained ground in each of them. Biden gained further ground in Brazoria County in 2020.

Another fact worth noting about the large counties is that Biden did not outperform Clinton in all of them. In El Paso and Hidalgo Counties, where a large majority of the population is Hispanic, Trump gained ground. While both of these counties voted for Biden in 2020, his margin in El Paso County was 34.5 percent, compared to Clinton's 43.2 percent. In Hidalgo County, Biden's margin fell to 17.1 percent, way down from Clinton's 40.5 percent.

Of the medium-sized and small counties represented in Table 4, only two outside of the Hispanic belt along the Rio Grande voted for Biden. Those were Williamson and Hays Counties, home to Austin's northern and southern suburbs, respectively. Austin's Travis County is now the most heavily-Democratic county in Texas.

Trump's 2020 gains with voters in predominately-Hispanic counties is shown in Table 5, below. This table uses data from the 23 Texas counties having the highest percentage of Hispanic population, all of which are on or in the vicinity of the Rio Grande in south or west Texas. From west to east, they are: El Paso, Hudspeth, Culberson, Presidio, Reeves, Val Verde, Maverick, Zavala, Dimmit, Webb, Zapata, Frio, La Salle, Starr, Jim Hogg, Duval, Hidalgo, Brooks, Jim Wells, Kleberg, Kenedy, Willacy, and Cameron.

2016 2020 Change
Republican 177,850 28.3% 301,826 39.2% +123,976 +10.9%
Democrat 426,981 67.9% 459,441 59.7% +32,460 -8.2%
Other 23,611 3.8% 8,848 1.2% -14,783 -2.6%
Total 628,442 100% 770,115 100% +141,673 +22.5%
Table 5. The popular vote for U.S. president in 2016 and 2020 in Texas' 23 most predominately-Hispanic counties.

Trump carried only Hudspeth County out of this group in 2016, but in 2020, he picked up eight more: Frio, Jim Wells, Kenedy, Kleberg, La Salle, Reeves, Val Verde, and Zapata. His improvement with Hispanic voters was most strikingly illustrated in Starr County, which was the most heavily-Democratic county in Texas in the 2016 election, with a 60.1 percent margin of victory for Clinton. Biden won Starr County by only 5.0 percent. Unlike with the nationwide and statewide results, where both candidates and parties received more votes due to increased turnout, the Democrat vote was little changed or actually down in many of these counties. For example, in Maverick County, where turnout was up by 12.9 percent, Biden received 2,073 fewer votes than Clinton, while Trump got 4,065 more votes than in 2016. Thus, it appears that a significant proportion of Hispanic Texans who voted for Clinton in 2016 switched their votes to Trump in 2020.

The areas of the state not discussed above - the rural, Anglo-majority areas of the Panhandle, west Texas, north Texas, and east Texas - saw no significant shift and remain Republican strongholds.

To restate, the key points from this data are:

  • The top ten most populous counties in Texas, as a group, vote down the center or lean Democratic, while the remaining 244 counties are, as a group, solidly Republican.
  • Turnout was higher throughout the state in 2020, somewhat more so in the large, urban counties than in the medium-sized and smaller ones. Overall, Biden benefitted more from the increased turnout: the greater the increase in turnout, the better he did.
  • In both groups of counties, Trump maintained his share of the vote, while Biden increased the Democrat share of the vote at the expense of the independent and third-party candidates.
  • Biden won three urban and inner-suburban counties that Trump carried in 2016: Tarrant, Williamson, and Hays.
  • In the predominately-Hispanic counties of south and west Texas that are in the vicinity of the Rio Grande, Biden received only a few more votes than Clinton and had a much lower share of the vote, indicating that many voters in these counties probably changed their vote from Democrat in 2016 to Republican in 2020. This happened in rural and urban counties alike. Trump won eight counties that voted for Clinton in 2016: Kenedy, Reeves, La Salle, Jim Wells, Val Verde, Frio, Zapata, and Kleberg.
  • Voting patterns changed little in the Anglo-majority small-town and rural counties across the state, even with the higher turnout.

To see the exact vote in each county in Texas in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, along with a map, please use the following links:

By David Carson
Page last updated: November 23, 2020