This week, Texas Democrats released a detailed analysis of their performance in 2020, a post-mortem report of sorts requested by party officials after suffering losses in November that saw Democrats gain few statehouse seats and no congressional districts.
The 29-page report dives deep into data about voter registration, turnout, voter targeting, and offers a by-the-numbers look at how Democrats can flip the state.
For the most part, the report reinforces much of the coverage and analysis that arrived in the days and weeks after election day; that the pandemic stifled Democrat organizing, that rural majority Latino counties shifted toward Trump, and that better ground game would be needed in future elections. But the report also fills in the gap for those broad brush strokes and puts forward a valuable and sobering look at the work that remains for the party.
Here are some of its biggest takeaways:
Republicans still have room for growth
The conventional argument for why Texas would flip in 2020 is that while turnout among Republicans was still considerably ahead of Democrats, it had also been relatively stagnant for quite some time.
In 2002, after Republicans captured the Texas House from Democrats (the last lever of power Democrats were ousted from) Republican turnout in presidential election years stabilized in Texas.
Between 2004 and 2012, GOP turnout was practically motionless, remaining around 4.5 million until the 2016 election, which saw Republicans gain 130,000 votes. When 2018 proved to be another energizing high-turnout election for Democrats and a historically weak showing by Republicans, flipping the state in the next presidential election appeared feasible.
The post-mortem report found that while both parties enjoyed higher turnout in 2020, Republicans had a higher turnout among their base than Democrats.
“Republicans did better in activating their base in Texas among high propensity voters, low propensity voters, and everyone in between,” read the report. “Republicans had a better turnout operation than we did.”
In other words, Republicans were better at reaching their most devoted voters as well as Republican voters who only occasionally visited the polls.
Trump reached almost 5.9 million votes in 2020, a new unexpected ceiling for Republican turnout that Democrats were 631,221 votes short of. One contributing factor to Republican success in 2020 was the unique appeal of Donald Trump to a certain segment of the conservative electorate. In practice, this group was smaller than you would think, accounting for only 2-3 percent of the Republican vote total, but Trump was also uniquely helpful in turning out Republican voters with spottier turnout history.
“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 report noted. “We estimate 51 percent of the voting population are Democrats, but Republicans are more likely to vote. Democrats have to run a superior ground game to overcome this.”
The report said Republicans had a superior ground game because Democrats were unable to do in-person canvassing and because they had inefficient voter contact targeting.
Avoiding the voter echo chamber
Democrats and campaigns nationwide depend on a massive and growing database of voters to coordinate their outreach efforts. With limited labor and resources, the idea is to hone in on voters that will be swayed or motivated by that outreach.
One would think that reaching out to voters who have a strong history of voting for their team would offer the best return on investment, but in reality, they are some of the least valuable voters to devote time and money to when it comes to canvassing.
That’s because a high propensity voter (a fancy way of saying a very likely voter) who is a committed Democrat and who has voted reliably blue for the past decade will probably do so again, regardless of whether they get a phone call, text message or visit from an excited volunteer.
“Talking to somebody with 35 percent turnout likelihood is approximately five times as valuable as a person with 80 percent turnout likelihood,” read the report. “Unfortunately, statewide Democratic contact attempts were clustered around high turnout propensity voters who were likely to vote whether or not we talked to them.”
That inefficient voter targeting, the report said, was because not all campaigns adopted the practice of focusing on these low turnout Democrats, and because the inability to do in-person canvassing compounded the problem altogether, making it even more difficult to reach out to low turnout Democrats.
“We need to invest heavily in direct voter contact as much as possible, especially to newer voters or those with inconsistent voting history,” the report recommended. “As soon as it is safe, we need to begin knocking doors across the state.”
Trump mobilized conservative Latinos
The robust get-out-to-vote operation of Texas Republicans also found success in energizing their base among Latino voters, especially in the Rio Grande Valley and South Texas where Democrats have performed traditionally well.
Much has been made of the Democratic underperformance in South Texas and the RGV among Latino voters, particularly speculation about Latino voters abandoning Democrats.
In truth, Democrats also made gains, with Joe Biden consistently winning the counties that he should have. Where Democrats ran into trouble was the margin. Republican turnout increased significantly, and while Democratic turnout did as well, the Republicans were able to wipe out the traditional margin of victory that Democrats enjoyed due to their energized base.
“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,’” the report argued. “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.
There’s plenty of good news
Despite Joe Biden losing the state by more than 5 points and down-ballot statewide candidates faring a little worse than that, Texas Democrats were only 23,000 votes away from flipping the majority in the Texas House for the first time in decades, a difference of just a couple thousand votes per targeted district.
That’s great news for Democrats who felt they were within striking distance after a 2018 cycle that saw Beto O’Rourke win a dozen districts that remained in Republican hands, and bodes well for Democrats in the 2022 cycle, provided we don’t end up with a wildly different state house map.
Unfortunately, with redistricting on the docket for the legislature this session that is an unlikely outcome, but Democrats still feel good about the gains they’re making in suburban and exurban counties and districts.
Statewide, Democrats in Texas expanded their electorate by 34 percent, adding 1.3 million votes to their totals from 2016.
It’s almost an unheard of explosion of turnout and would have been enough to get Democrats over the finish line — had Republicans also not enjoyed explosive turnout in 2020.
The path to statewide victory is steep but on track
To flip Texas in the next presidential election, the report estimates that Democrats will need to register between 100,000 and 150,000 more voters per cycle than Republicans.
That may prove difficult considering Republican voter registration outpaced that of Democrats in 2020, namely thanks to a last-minute surge in voter registration powered by massive GOP investments that comparatively wiped out gains in voter registration Democrats had been making since 2018.
The good news is that Democrats appear to have a deeper well to draw from, and with better voter targeting and turnout, the party believes it could see a statewide victory in 2024.
The bottom line, while 2020 was no boon for Democrats, it was a continuation of a decade-long trend in the state that has seen Republican margins slowly widdle away.
In 2004, John Kerry lost the state by a massive 23 point margin. Barack Obama brought that margin down to 12 points in 2008 before losing Texas by 16 points in 2012, and Hillary Clinton came within 9 points of beating Donald Trump here in 2016, which at the time was the worst performance for a Republican presidential candidate in Texas in a generation.
Joe Biden’s margin in 2020 was just 5.5 points, cementing Texas’ position as a battleground state and putting Democrats on a similar trend to newly-blue state Georgia, which voted for Biden in November and delivered twin wins in U.S. Senate runoffs in January to the Democrats.
Photo: SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images