Get-out-the-vote efforts hampered by the coronavirus pandemic and an 11th-hour voter registration surge for well-funded Republicans thwarted ambitions of a blue wave in Texas during the 2020 election, according to a new postmortem that state Democrats shared with the Guardian.
“The majority of Texans, if they were in the ballot box, would vote for Democrats. The problem is that Republicans have a higher likelihood of turning out,” said Hudson Cavanagh, the Texas Democratic party’s data science director who authored the post-election report.
Texas generated outsized buzz last year, as a spike in early voting made much of the nation wonder whether its 38 electoral college votes were finally up for grabs. Yet former president Donald Trump still triumphed by more than a five-point margin – a much closer presidential contest than any other in recent years, but one that reinforced Republicans as the state’s dominant party.
Now, Democrats are blaming last fall’s defeat mostly on programmatic difficulties, which allowed Republicans to best them in get-out-the-vote operations. “Texas is still the next frontier,” said Abhi Rahman, the communications director for Texas Democrats.
Despite record turnout in 2020, Texas ranked 44th out of 50 states in terms of ballots counted as a proportion of the total voting-eligible population, according to the United States Elections Project. High Asian voter participation marked “a major shift”, but still, “the electorate was whiter than projected”, Cavanagh noted in his analysis.
Latinos – who are considered a key demographic to move Texas to the left – also eclipsed turnout projections. But Latino Republicans voted at a higher rate than Latino Democrats, and that differential turnout created a largely false impression that Democrats were losing ground with one of their most crucial blocs, too often lumped together as a monolith.
One exception was the Rio Grande Valley, a typically Democratic stronghold where Latinos did in fact gravitate more toward Trump at the top of the ticket.
While “Latino voters continue to strongly support Democrats,” the party needs “to empower Latino voices at the ballot box”, Cavanagh wrote in his report.
On top of Texas’s reputation as a voter suppression state – based on voter ID requirements, a difficult registration process, restrictions on mail ballots and other barriers – Covid-19 added yet another obstacle for Texas voters in 2020. Polling locations closed because of infected workers, while long lines of constituents who weren’t required to wear masks threatened exposure to the virus.
“It took a lot of bravery for a lot of these Democrats who understood the risk that, you know, they were putting themselves in to go vote,” Cavanagh told the Guardian. “I’m incredibly proud of the folks that did, frankly.”
Amid the public health crisis, Texas Democrats decided against knocking on doors for face-to-face voter engagement, because “even one life lost is too many”, Cavanagh said. Republicans, on the other hand, connected with eligible voters in-person, a clear advantage in one of the few states where residents still cannot register to vote online.
In the last months leading up to the election, a gargantuan push by Republicans to register new voters wiped out the gradual advantage Democrats had been honing for years, especially given that almost all of those new Republican registrations turned into net votes.
“Their willingness to put people at risk to win the election, you know, made it really hard for us to keep up,” Cavanagh said.
As Democrats turned to virtual registration drives and phone banking, they spent too much time speaking with reliable party members who would have voted regardless. Likewise, a dearth of contact information for young and rural Texans – as well as people of color – and the inability to canvas made it difficult to connect with voters who were less likely to turn out.
Estimates indicate that there are still more than 2 million solidly Democratic unregistered voters in the state, and Cavanagh said the party needs to focus on registering them, then actually building relationships so they make it to the polls.
“We know that that’s how Democrats win across this country,” he said. “We look people in the eyes, we tell them our values, we tell them what we believe in, and that’s how we get people to turn out.”