As Joe Biden prepares to square off with President Donald Trump in the first of three presidential debates tonight in Cleveland, it’s hard to reflect on the path that brought Biden to this moment and not remember that the truly seminal moment for his campaign didn’t come on a primary debate stage, nor the Iowa caucus or New Hampshire primary, where he placed fourth and fifth respectively in the popular vote. And that moment didn’t come on the final Saturday before Super Tuesday, when Biden was able to rise above the rest of the field and capture the only convincing victory of the primary calendar to that point.
The moment where Biden truly calmed the tides of the bruising primary came on March 2nd, when on the eve of Super Tuesday, the single day that the largest tranche of delegates was up for grabs in the 2020 primary, the former Vice President touched down in Dallas, Texas. Rumors were swirling that one of his vanquished rivals, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigeig, was on a private jet bound for Dallas to throw his support and organization behind Biden. Another, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, had already endorsed and was slated to introduce Biden that night in Dallas.
And then there was the tall guy, another former candidate who formed a bond with Biden while passing shoulder to shoulder in diners across Iowa and pre-debate green rooms around the country. Would Beto O’Rourke bless the stage in Dallas that night, harness the energy of his most frenzied supporters and channel it to a Biden victory?
Not only would O’Rourke stride purposefully onto the stage and give a stemwinder of a speech, gripping the mic tightly as the North Texas crowd gazed on, enraptured, but he also boldly pronounced that he and his wife would treat the Bidens to a world class meal before leading them to a nearby Whataburger.
It was over. The moment, the momentum, the nomination, was all for Biden’s taking. He would steamroll the opposition across the country on Super Tuesday, propelled by a powerful surge of support among voters who cast their ballot on election day. It kicked off a route on his way to the Democratic nomination. On that night in March, all roads inextricably led to Texas, and they carried Biden home to victory.
As gears shifted to the general election and the Covid-19 pandemic continued to roil our nation, Biden has carried the momentum from the primary over to the general, where he has consistently led Trump by as much as 10 points in recent national polling. Biden has also gotten the better of Trump in a majority of swing state polling, though things have tightened on the state level since Labor Day.
One swing state that the Trump campaign has consistently struggled to get their arms around is the new kid on the block, and the largest potential prize among all the swing states, displacing Florida as the crown jewel of the electoral battleground. This time it’s Texas, with its 38 electoral votes and public polling that has, in survey after survey, Biden neck and neck with his rival.
Throughout 2019, Texas Republicans threw as much cold water on the notion that Trump could lose Texas, but as his approval has continued to crater and the massive defections of suburban voters (women in particular) from Trump and Republicans helped propel Democrats to their largest gains in decades in 2018. With the Democrats now just 9 seats away from recapturing a majority in the State House, even the down ballot polling spells doom for Trump, with Democrats in striking distance of victory in over a dozen legislative districts.
This is the moment for Biden and national Democrats to go all in on Texas. Every path to victory you could map for Trump requires him capturing the Lone Star state, and while Joe Biden has more pathways to 270 than Trump does, flipping Texas would make him almost assuredly unstoppable in the electoral college.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton captured 232 electoral votes. If nothing changed from the 2016 map except for a blue Texas, Democrats would capture 270 electoral votes, the exact number needed to clinch the presidency.
It’s certainly easier said than done, but in the aftermath of Beto O’Rourke ripping the electoral map in Texas up in 2018 and nearly toppling Ted Cruz, Democrats are closer than ever to claiming victory in Texas. That was the case before recording shattering turnout in the Democratic primary and runoff.
All signs point up for Joe Biden and Texas Democrats. Here are five things he can do to turn the state blue in the closing weeks of the campaign.
It’s all about turnout.
If you’ve followed more than one election cycle you’ve probably heard dozens of talking heads say some variation of “it all comes down to turnout,” which is one of the most readily apparent statements of all time. Of course it’s all about turnout. You need more of your supporters to show up than your opponent. That’s how you win.
In this respect, Biden is in a unique position. Turnout has been trending upward in the largest counties in Texas for years, and statewide, Texas Democrats have captured a larger proportion of the vote cycle after cycle, with Republicans actually trending down.
That makes juicing up turnout in three counties incredibly important: Dallas, Travis and Harris.
Travis County is easy enough to understand: it’s the bluest county in the state and its population has only continued to grow over the last four years. The county Democratic party and community stakeholders have a decades long commitment to voter registration, and if they’re able to drive out more Democratic votes in Austin it could not only help boost Biden into office, but could help deliver victories to Wendy Davis, Julie Oliver and Mike Siegel in their congressional races.
Dallas, the second largest county in the state, has been a reliable Democratic stronghold for a decade and a half, and increased turnout here will bode well for Biden and down ballot candidates. Dallas Democrats have been particularly aggressive in recruiting voters to complete the entire ballot for the Democratic ticket, and voters in the suburbs that line Dallas have left the GOP in droves in recent years. Just today, Texas GOP Chairman and Florida Man Allen West practically begged for Trump to come to North Texas to rally support before election day.
Harris, home to Houston, is the true key. The Harris County Democratic Party ran one of the strongest countywide programs in recent memory in 2018, and the diverse coalition of candidates and organizations that have toiled for years to make Harris County as reliably blue as Travis have seen serious gains. The County Clerk, Chris Hollins, has fought to increase access to voting for everyone in Harris County, and that commitment has led to several 24 hour voting locations being established for early voting.
As the largest county in Texas, if Democrats are able to win a statewide office it will likely be due in no small part to what happens in Harris County. Every vote that Biden carries Harris County by will help erase the margin from the 2018 U.S. Senate race, and with a slew of competitive state house and congressional races also working to drive up Democratic turnout, Harris County might bring their vaunted blue wave from 2018 to the rest of Texas.
Who Wins Tarrant County?
In 2018, Beto O’Rourke became the first Democrat to win Tarrant County in a statewide race in a generation. If Joe Biden is able to replicate that performance in the county home to Fort Worth, the implications would be huge for Biden half a dozen state house races that reach into Tarrant County.
Biden is exactly the type of mainstream nominee voters in Tarrant County have long felt could help power down ballot candidates in the county next door to Dallas, and with the slate of State House candidates running the strongest campaigns locals have seen in decades, the bottom-up effect could end up being as helpful to Biden as he is for State House candidates. Democrats continue to leave no stone unturned in their quest to turn Tarrant blue.
It’s the suburbs, stupid.
Donald Trump’s historically poor performance for a Republican in Texas in 2016 had a number of factors working against it. One of the largest was the defection of suburban women who fled Trump and the Texas GOP in both 2016 and 2018, helping O’Rourke nearly knock Ted Cruz off and leading to a record number of Democratic statehouse victories.
The suburbs are poised to be decisive, both in the Presidential race and for Democrats’ hopes of netting key seats for Congress and the Statehouse.
The suburban counties we’ll be watching over the home stretch are Williamson County, north of Austin, Collin County in the Dallas suburbs, and Fort Bend County outside of Houston. If Democrats continue making gains in those counties, and Biden is able to either win them or come close, it could pad the margin for Democrats and help get Democrats over the finish line.
BIPOC voters need to hear our message
The key to turning Texas blue in many ways rests with our ability to win communities of color. With Biden leading among Black and Hispanic Texans, there is still room to grow, and every one of those votes could be decisive in a close race.
It is critical that no matter how hard we play for the suburbs or work to drive turnout in the largest cities that we also remain committed to communicating with voters of color and creating space for them in our campaigns. The upside is everything: Beto O’Rourke slightly underperformed Hillary Clinton in South Texas. If he had met her vote share, he very well may have ended up beating Cruz.
If the Biden team and Texas Democrats make smart investments in engaging these communities, it could pay huge dividends for Biden. For all intents and purposes, we are likely locked in a two-point race for president. Every vote matters, and we need every single one to flip the state.
Keep calm and come and take it
The most important thing for Biden to do down the homestretch of this election is to be Biden. This has already been a wildly negative campaign, but Biden has been able to persevere on the strength of his character. With new revelations about Trump’s taxes and his continued assaults on the rule of law, the most important thing Biden can do to provide a contrast is to remain decent.
Trump is rooting that chaos will be beneficial to his campaign and help deliver a divided victory. Texans, this can’t be emphasized enough, do not want chaos. They don’t want impulsivity, and they don’t want anyone who doesn’t pass muster in their support for our Armed Forces serving as Commander in Chief. If Biden can remain the steady hand and cool head in this race, he can help ease the hearts and minds of a deeply troubled nation.
And, this also can’t be emphasized enough, he can win Texas.
Joe brings over a decade of experience as a political operative and creative strategist to Texas Signal, where he serves as our Senior Advisor and does everything from writing a regular column, Musings, to mentoring our staff and freelancers. Joe was campaign manager for Lina Hidalgo's historic 2018 victory for Harris County Judge and is a passionate sneakerhead.