Despite setbacks, Democrats say their margin “quickly becomes surmountable” once in-person campaigning returns and resources are spent on voter infrastructure.
Hampered by the pandemic, Texas Democrats were beaten in the voter registration and turnout battle by the GOP in last November’s elections, according to an election post-mortem published by party officials.
“Despite record turnout, our collective Get Out The Vote (”GOTV”) turnout operation did not activate Democratic voters to the same extent Republicans were able to activate their base,” according to the 29-page document authored by Hudson Crawford, director of data science for the Texas Democratic Party.
The memorandum comes at a pivotal time for Texas Democrats. Top party brass boasted they would win the Texas House in 2020 and turn the state blue, only to be routed up and down the ballot and essentially hold their numbers in the Legislature’s lower chamber.
After the elections, executive director Manny Garcia and deputy executive director Cliff Walker stepped down following complaints by some within the party that they had failed to provide a winning strategy.
The memo lays bare the party’s challenges during last year’s elections: the absence of in-person campaigning, a lack of reliable contact information for target voters, and a sluggish voter registration and turnout infrastructure across the state.
But it also pushes back on some of the narratives about the election’s results, namely that Latinos abandoned Democrats and shifted to Republicans.
“Leaked Republican exit polls suggest a massive shift (+12) towards Republicans among Latino voters,” the memo reads. “Our evidence does NOT support this finding.”
While Latino voters moved toward President Donald Trump in the Rio Grande Valley and other predominantly Latino portions of the Panhandle, Crawford wrote, many of those voters continued to support down-ballot Democratic candidates and Latinos in most of the state supported Democrats roughly as much as in 2016.
Turnout among Latinos who already identified as Republican increased while turnout for Latino Democrats did not keep pace. That difference led to an overall drop in Latino support for Democrats across the state, the memo says.
Democrats said these phenomena should not be confused for voting trends across the state because Latinos in urban areas continued to vote Democrat. Still, they said the party should improve its outreach to rural Latino voters.
Jason Villalba, a former Republican state lawmaker who runs the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation, said Democrats should be careful not to oversimplify the issue as rural Latinos voting for Trump. More attention should be paid to regional differences in Latino voters across Texas.
“A Hispanic from Laredo is probably different from a Hispanic from Tyler and a Hispanic from El Paso,” he said. “You cannot any longer ignore those differences if you expect to reach Hispanics across the state. We saw that in stark relief in this most recent election cycle.”
Villalba said issues like “defunding the police” and attacks on the oil and gas industry affected Latinos in regions like the Rio Grande Valley where residents are supportive of law enforcement, including the Border Patrol, and areas of the state where many people are employed by the energy sector.
Democrats faced a similar issue with Black voters. While Black Texans continued to support Democrats overwhelmingly, Republicans did a better job of getting their Black voters to the polls than Democrats.
The lack of door knocking because of COVID-19 concerns canceled out one of the party’s main strengths: on-the-ground campaign volunteers.
That added to the Democrats’ inability to contact undecided voters. Those voters were disproportionately young, rural and people of color, which the party needs to make elections competitive.
“We need to invest heavily in direct voter contact as much as possible, especially to newer voters or those with inconsistent voting history,” the memo reads. “As soon as it is safe, we need to begin knocking doors across the state.”
Without in-person canvassing, Democrats focused their campaigning on reaching people by phone, but often struggled with incorrect phone numbers for voters. Some campaigns also over-relied on high-propensity voters instead of focusing on low- and moderate-propensity voters who could have swung elections.
“In future cycles, we need to prioritize our voter contact more efficiently, away from reliable Democratic voters and more towards our Turnout targets,” the memo reads.
Some of those targets were in rural Texas, where Democrats underperformed because they could not turn out those voters.
David Thomason, a political scientist at St. Edward’s University who studies the rural-urban divide in the state, said that underperformance shows how Democrats have struggled to get their message to rural Texans on important issues like guns, abortion, health care and the creation of jobs in their communities.
“If they’re going to be competitive, they’re going to need to get with rural voters,” he said.
Among the memo’s most damning findings is the Republican dominance on voter registration and turnout. Democrats made registration a key issue of their campaign to flip the state, but the memo says a late push by the GOP wiped out their registration lead and netted Republicans 87,900 new voters just from the final three months of voter registration.
Democrats attribute those losses to a money advantage in which Republicans spent 10 to 20 times more on voter turnout efforts, according to the memo. A Republican willingness to campaign in person also played a role.
“There is no way that Democrats can underperform relative to Republicans in turnout and still win Texas, given current Republican advantage in the state,” the memo said. “Democrats have to run a superior ground game to overcome this.”
What went right
Despite setbacks, Democrats remain optimistic. If they can maximize their field efforts for the 2022 cycle, the memo reads, their 2020 margin “quickly becomes surmountable.”
“There’s a lot of potential here in Texas,” Crawford said in an interview. “The majority of Texans would vote for Democrats if they voted. We are working to translate what the people actually think into the ballot box, and that is not always easy work.”
Among the hopeful signs are Democratic gains at the top of the ticket. In 2004, the party’s presidential nominee John Kerry lost to President George W. Bush by a 23% margin. But last year, President Joe Biden lost by a 5.5% margin to Trump, while the party increased its votes at the top of the ticket by 1.3 million since 2016.
Texas is the state with the second most growth in Democratic voter share since 2012, when President Barack Obama lost the state to Republican Mitt Romney by 16% points. The first is Utah.
But to make the state competitive, Democrats will need a mixture of internal and external changes to go their way. Externally, partisanship levels need to remain relatively consistent for both parties. That — mixed with a decline in older Republican voters, continued immigration to Texas by Democratic-leaning voters and the rise of young voters — could lead to a more competitive playing field.
Internally, Democrats have to pour resources into their voting infrastructure to reach new voters and get them to cast ballots. That will require the registration of between 100,000 and 150,000 new Democrats each year, the memo said.
Abhi Rahman, communications director for the party, said those efforts will require financial resources, which national party leaders have said will come in the lead-up to presidential elections in 2024.
James Barragán covers Texas politics for The Dallas Morning News. He has covered immigration, public safety and voting rights and has traveled on assignment to the U.S. Supreme Court and Houston during Hurricane Harvey. Before joining The News in 2017, he worked for the Austin American-Statesman and The Los Angeles Times.