Beto O’Rourke’s voter-enthusiasm sales pitch isn’t as strong as he thinks

by Philip Bump

Beto O’Rourke at a meet-and-greet Sunday in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke’s still-young campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has so far been defined by two things — a predilection for standing on tables and an energetic base of support.

While the genesis of the former isn’t clear, that of the latter is. O’Rourke ran a competitive race for Senate in Texas last year, narrowly losing to incumbent Ted Cruz (R). After O’Rourke announced his candidacy for the presidency this month, contributions flowed in, allowing him to narrowly edge the $6 million haul Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) brought in during the first 24 hours of his campaign.

At a town hall meeting Wednesday in Conway, N.H., O’Rourke said that while he had “come up a little short” in the Senate race last year, the organizing and outreach his campaign had done was a model for what Democrats could achieve.

“We got to be part of something absolutely transformational for our state, for me personally, for everyone who got a chance to be part of our democracy,” O’Rourke said. “Young-voter turnout in Texas in 2018, up 500 percent from the last midterm. Turnout in the state approaching presidential-year turnout.”

That’s central to O’Rourke’s pitch: He’s the candidate who can get uninterested Democrats, including young people, into the game.

By his own metrics, though, he’s not the only one who can do so.

Data provided to The Washington Post by the political firm TargetSmart shows that turnout among younger voters was indeed up in Texas last year over the 2014 midterms — and up substantially.

(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)


That impressive 500 percent increase, though, came from an analysis about a week before Election Day looking at the early vote. According to TargetSmart’s data, the actual increase was 200 percent — still good, but more modest. The increase among younger voters was substantially higher than among other age groups in Texas.

(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

While the scale of that young-voter surge was bigger in Texas than nationally, the pattern of higher turnout from younger voters relative to 2014 was similar.

(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

That makes sense. The 2018 midterm was a strong election for the Democrats, while 2014 wasn’t. One reason for that, clearly, is that more young voters — who tend to vote more heavily Democratic — actually bothered to vote.

So how does the O’Rourke surge in Texas compare with other states? Not bad — but not exceptional.

(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

In Nevada (where there was a contested Senate race) and California (where there really wasn’t), the number of votes cast by people under the age of 30 increased more substantially relative to 2014 than in Texas. (The smaller increase in Florida, where Democrats narrowly lost a Senate race and a gubernatorial race, is worth noting.)

In fact, the turnout rate among young voters in Texas was actually lower than the national rate, according to TargetSmart.

(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

So what about O’Rourke’s other claim, that turnout approached that of a presidential election year?

It did. Total turnout in Texas was 93 percent of the total in 2016, higher than the national percentage of about 85 percent. But here again, Texas wasn’t alone: In Georgia, turnout was equal to about 95 percent of 2016.

(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

O’Rourke’s 2018 campaign did indeed almost bring him to the Senate. It did indeed benefit from heavier turnout among younger voters. But how much of that was a function of his having a competitive election in a strong Democratic year and how much of it was a function of him as a candidate is hard to determine.

The data above suggests that the former played a larger role than O’Rourke might suggest.

David Weigel in New Hampshire contributed to this post.

Philip Bump is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in New York.  @pbump




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