The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Texas Democrats issue report on 2020 elections

Republicans bested Democrats with their turnout operation in the Lone Star State

Kamala Harris, then a Democratic vice-presidential candidate, makes a campaign stop at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg, Tex., on Oct. 30. (Julia Robinson for The Washington Post)

The Texas Democratic Party, whose entreaties for more spending in the state by the Biden campaign were denied in the final stretch of the 2020 election, is already making its case for future resources in a report to be released on Monday.

The “2020 Retrospective obtained by The Washington Post optimistically concludes that with a beefed-up voter registration program capable of registering 100,000 to 150,0000 more Democrats than Republicans per cycle, Democrats can turn the state blue by 2024.

“We need to massively expand our voter registration ambitions,” according to the review conducted and written by Hudson Cavanagh, the Texas Democrats’ director of data science. “From 2018 to 2020, we lost ground in terms of voter registration, losing about 26,000 net votes. However, there are more than enough potential registrants to flip the state if we invest in and execute effective programs at scale.”

Read the Texas Democrats’ report

“Republicans did better in activating their base in Texas among high-propensity voters, low-propensity voters and everyone in between. Republicans had a better turnout operation than we did,” the report states.

The seven political states of Texas

The Democratic dream of turning Texas blue failed to materialize in November. But Joe Biden came closest to flipping the Lone Star State than any other Democrat in the past 25 years, losing the state to Donald Trump by 631,221 votes.

The last Democratic presidential candidate to win the state was Jimmy Carter in 1976, though recent demographic changes since the 2016 election bode well for the left. At least 2 million moved to the state from California, New York and Florida — many of them Democrats — and an estimated 800,000 young Latino Americans turned 18.

Texas Democrats decided to undertake a review of their 2020 performance after falling short of high expectations. They thought they could not only beat Trump, but also be competitive in the Senate race to topple GOP Sen. John Cornyn and flip the state house and several U.S. House seats. But Cornyn handily won reelection against MJ Hegar, and Texas Republicans largely held Democrats off.

The report concludes their losses were largely due to three things: limited spending in the state, sub-par outreach to and mobilization of Latino voters, and the suspension of in-person voter contact that hindered efforts to turn out low-propensity voters.

The report cites modeling projecting at least 2.17 million “solidly Democratic unregistered voters in Texas,” based on figures from the 2010 Census. In turn, Texas Democrats want the national party to make major investments to turn the state “sustainably blue,” according to the report.

Democrats’ turnout efforts were severely hampered by suspension of in-person voter contact because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the report’s findings, along with “inefficient targeting” of low-to-moderate-propensity voters. That, wrote Cavanaugh, was “partially a symptom of our inability to do in-person canvassing because we were not able to effectively reach large portions of our base for whom we lacked quality contact information.”

“The pandemic prevented us from getting the most out of our most powerful competitive advantage: our volunteers. We struggled to reach voters for whom we did not have phone numbers, who were disproportionately young, rural and folks of color,” the report concludes.

Door knocking and in-person campaigning were largely paused at the behest of the Biden campaign and national Democrats. Republicans from the top to bottom of the ballot, on the other hand, resumed in-person campaigning and door knocking several months after the pandemic roiled the country. By the fall, Republicans were touting their robust ground game operation as a leg up over Democrats; the GOP managed to out-register Democrats across some battleground states.

Democrats eventually resumed limited door-knocking efforts. And Biden’s campaign manager downplayed the impact that the moratorium on in-person contact had on boosting turnout.

“While you might hear our opponent spend a lot of time talking about the millions of door knocks or attempts that they’re making week to week, those metrics actually don’t have any impact on reaching voters,” Biden’s campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, told reporters in a call in September. “Our metric of success, the numbers we look at and use, are conversations.”

Texas Democrats, however, have firmly concluded the suspension of in-person voter contact meant losing their “most powerful tool in flipping the state — especially in a place like Texas,” Cavanagh told The Post in an interview, referencing Texas’s rural population.

Abhi Rahman, the spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party, stated the party was simply “unwilling to put staff and volunteers at risk” by undertaking contact operations. He said going forward, they’ve devised “safe ways to do things in person.”

“We were doing what the national Democratic Party wanted us to do, and at the end of the day, you can talk about should we have done it or not done it, but if someone had gotten sick, it would have been far worse for us,” Rahman said.

He also noted that Republicans diverted significant resources to Texas that “overwhelmed our registration efforts.”

Rahman did not put a dollar amount on resources required to flip the state but noted that a staggering amount of money was spent by Democrats in Florida and Biden still lost the state by a little over 370,000 votes.

“I feel for my allies and friends in Texas that we didn’t do better,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, the CEO of Fair Fight Action, Stacey Abrams’s organization advocating against voter suppression that’s been credited with helping turn Georgia blue. “Monday morning quarterbacks want to criticize any decisions, but at the end of the day, they made the right call, and today we have a Senate majority.”

Justin Nelson, the honorary co-chair of the Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee, notes the state didn’t lose any seats picked up by Democrats in the 2018 midterms. Overall, there’s been an 11-point swing in favor of Democrats over the past eight years since Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama in Texas, and “a heck of a lot of investment across the board here,” Nelson said.

“Look, it’s obviously better to win than to lose, but let’s also keep in sight what actually happened, which is the Biden campaign won the election and Joe Biden is president of the United States by using the same strategies across the board and winning historically red states like Arizona and Georgia,” Nelson added.

The report also zoomed in on the party’s failure to turn out Latinos in rural Texas. The report found a significant increase in rural Latino counties for Trump and concludes there was a “pronounced differential turnout effect among Latino voters in Texas that hurt Democratic candidates up and down the ballot,” Cavanagh writes.

“In this case, voters already projected to be Republicans voted at higher rates than usual, while projected Democrats did not increase their turnout by the same percentage.”

The Biden campaign was sharply criticized by top Latino Democrats for a lackluster Latino outreach program. “You need to build trust, because you can’t just show up in the last month and think you’re going to talk a bunch of Latinos into voting for Democrats,” Chuck Rocha, the head of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) Latino outreach program, told Texas Monthly after the election.

Texas’s Latino voters did not abandon Democrats entirely, but “Latino voters did move toward Trump in the Rio Grande Valley and some predominantly Latino portions of the Panhandle,” according to the report.

“Many have interpreted this as ‘Latinos voted for Trump,’ but it’s more accurate to say, ‘Latinos who were already Republicans turned out more than Latino Democrats,’” Cavanagh said. “Roughly two-thirds of Latinos continue to support Democrats, but Republican Latino voters turned out at a higher rate than Democratic Latino voters in the 2020 cycle, relative to expectations.”