What Biden, Sanders and other presidential campaigns learned in Texas

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It’s hard to believe that only two months have passed since Super Tuesday, the day more than a dozen states, including Texas, held primary elections to deliver a delegate lead to former Vice President Joe Biden that proved insurmountable to competitors. 

Today, the rest of the primary process carries on under the shadow of a 100-year pandemic. For many, intra-party politics has understandably taken a backseat to survival. But countless down-ballot races go on, serving as a microcosm of the debate seen during the presidential primaries, taking shape in smaller, virtual venues.

For the dozens of states that have yet to vote in their primaries, it certainly feels as if the pandemic cut short an interesting conversation that had been bubbling within the Democratic Party since 2016. That debate, about the identity of the Democratic Party, goes far beyond what ideological lanes should be occupied or what policies should be pushed. It deals with how Democrats win, what winning coalitions look like, and how states like Texas, trending more and more to Democrats, can break out of Republican control.

Not only did Texas hold the second-largest delegate haul on Super Tuesday, but two of its native sons found themselves facing off on debate stages across the country. While neither Beto O’Rourke or Julián Castro made it to Super Tuesday, O’Rourke and Texas would provide one of the primary’s final moments: O’Rourke arriving on stage in Dallas to deliver an 11th hour endorsement of Biden, immediately followed by a trip to Whataburger with the former vice president.

It was no coincidence that Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Mayor Pete Buttigieg dropped out of the race to join Biden and O’Rourke in Dallas, one of the state’s most contested battlegrounds regions. In a cycle where Donald Trump’s approval ratings have tested new lows in the state, Democrats and Republicans alike are again vexed by the big question of how Democrats can flip Texas.

If you ask Jane Hamilton, the Dallas-based Democratic strategist who led the Biden campaign in Texas during the primaries, the former vice president’s victory in the state is powerful proof that careful messaging in Texas is the biggest lesson to be learned for future campaigns seeking to mobilize Democrats in the Lone Star State.

“The numbers and the support here in Texans show that Texans are more aligned with him as a candidate,” Hamilton said of Biden describing him as moderate. 

When the dust settled on Super Tuesday, Biden won 34.5 percent of the vote, Sanders won 30 percent, and Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren received under 15 percent of the vote, the state’s threshold for awarding delegates.

Hamilton said the mistake made most often by federal campaigns and national organizations were that they overestimated how progressive or liberal Texas really was, skewing their messaging closer to what voters in states like California might appreciate. 

As examples, Hamilton cited the Affordable Care Act, which she said remains immensely popular with Democrats in the state, and talking points about climate change, where friction exists with the state’s major oil & gas sector and climate action policies like the Green New Deal.

“We are a state where voters understand that the way we implement change and the way we fight to get change looks different from other states,” Hamilton said. “We may not get the entire kit and caboodle on the first mile, but incrementally, we continue to work to get there.”  

That certainly seemed to be the case in Texas polling, where Biden scored as the top candidate for most of the race, as well as the eventual result on Super Tuesday. But Sanders’ competitiveness in the state and polling showing him as the preferred candidate in the race in the weeks leading up to Super Tuesday, throws a wrench in the easy notion that Texas voters are more moderate or conservative simply because Republicans are in power. 

True or not, it’s clear the Sanders campaign thought as much. It was one of the last campaigns to break ground in Texas.

“Initially, Texas was seen as an unwinnable state,” Chris Chu de León, Bernie Sanders’ former state director in Texas, said of the feelings of the national campaign. “I think it was largely seen as a place we could compete in and do well in and pick up a large number of delegates.”

He said the national campaign invested more in smaller, early states they thought Sanders would (and did) perform well in.

“Actually, one of the reasons why we expanded our staff, is because the Senator himself expressed interest, a particular interest, in ensuring that we did well in Texas,” Chu de León said.

In early January, polls showed Biden ahead of Sanders by 20 percentage points among Texas Democratic voters. A few weeks later, Sanders halved the lead, causing the campaign to hire five new regional field directors and become the third campaign, after Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, to make an ad buy in the state. In February, polls showed Sanders several points behind Biden, and the campaign once again responded by opening up five new offices around the state.

“We were on a course to win Texas based on the coalition that we were building, based on the momentum we had, and based on the sheer number of volunteers who were active in Texas,” Chu de León said. “I thought our ability to coalesce young people, black and brown folks, which constitutes the majority of not only the state but the Democratic Party — I thought we were going to be able to win.”

Chu de León said that if he would have done things differently again with more time and resources, he would have invested more into reaching out to the Black community and faith community. He said Biden’s momentum following his victory in South Carolina and the sudden thinning of the race before Super Tuesday ultimately contributed the most to Biden’s swing victory in the state. Even so, with a little more cash and time, Chu de León believes the Joe-mentum could have been rebuffed on March 3.

As proof, he pointed to early vote totals in Texas showing Sanders leading Biden by several percentage points — cast around the time when Sanders was winning early states. The lead in early votes evaporated on election day, with exit polls showing a significant chunk of voters only recently making up their minds.

“I think if we had more staff on the ground to coordinate and direct volunteers in all parts of the state, if we had more media, more time to build some of those relationships with community leaders and their followers and just with everyday people, I really do think we could have been able to build in that buffer to have still won Texas by a very narrow margin,” Chu de León said.

Due to the size of Texas, campaigns who arrived later struggled to find equal footing. 

“We launched in January,  which made us the fourth presidential campaign to launch in Texas,” Omar El-Halwagi, Tom Steyer’s Texas director, told the Signal. “It was like a non-stop sprint for those two months.”

Even campaigns with a natural foothold in Texas, like that of O’Rourke, were faced the challenge of how to scale their existing activist base in the state, no small task. For Delilah Agho-Otoghile, the Texas state director for Beto O’Rourke’s presidential bid, that challenge was particularly acute in the aftermath of his 2018 US Senate campaign.

“Texas is a vast state and truly connecting with and mobilizing different communities throughout the state requires some nuance,” Agho-Otoghile would tell us. O’Rourke’s national strategy closely resembled the organizing strategies deployed to great effect in his Senate race, which leaned heavily on a distributed organizing model that focused on volunteer development rather than trying to saturate the state with staff.

“Any campaign should always value their volunteers. They truly are the backbone of all campaigns,” Agho-Otoghile said of the passionate infrastructure O’Rourke still cultivated in the state, which would endure up until his exit from the race. “There were droves of volunteers who were committed to helping in any way they could. It became really clear very early on that I’d have to lean on these volunteers and ensure they felt as much ownership and inclusion in the presidential campaign as they did in the senate campaign.”

Other campaigns who arrived in Texas earlier and more forcefully, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bloomberg would later benefit from the endorsements of elected officials. Both candidates received a respectable amount of support from state lawmakers, city council members and most notably Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who backed Warren, and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who supported Bloomberg. 

The Warren Campaign was also one of the first non-Texan presidential campaigns of the cycle to invest seriously in its own infrastructure. San Antonio political organizer and former Warren Campaign Texas state director Jenn Longoria said by October, the campaign was looking to hire 25 organizers statewide with that number eventually growing to 45 paid statewide organizers by the end of the campaign. By comparison, the Sanders campaign in Texas had 13 people on its paid staff by Super Tuesday.

Aside from seeking endorsements and building relationships with elected officials, Warren’s campaign also made a strong effort to collaborate with other candidates seeking office, like Rep. Henry Cuellar’s progressive opponent, Jessica Cisneros, whom she endorsed months before the Sanders campaign.

The well-funded campaign and head start proved unable to deliver delegates to Warren in Texas, where she came in fourth place following a string of similar losses in early states. 

Likewise, Bloomberg’s early and cash-rich campaign in the state — a part of his broader strategy to forgo early voting states and dominate on Super Tuesday — fell short. The billionaire former Mayor of New York City spent lavishly on staff and paid media in Texas, building an operation that counted greater than 15 field offices and 120 staffers across the state.

That level of investment seemed to be potent enough to vault Bloomberg into viability in the state, and sources close to the campaign said their internal polling and analytics showed Bloomberg cloistered in a three way race for first place with Sanders and Biden. 

Despite the deluge of spending, Bloomberg would ultimately hit a wall in Texas after his much-maligned Nevada debate performance, and despite strong showings during the early voting period in some of the most populous counties in the state, Bloomberg would fail to top the 15 percent of the vote he needed.

“I would’ve spent even more time finding high-quality staff,” said former Bloomberg Texas state director Ashlea Turner, advising that Democrats offer a Texas-based resume bank for campaign talent. “There were several positions where we had to give the only candidate the job because no one else had applied or showed interest in the role.”

The challenges of building out a staff large enough to truly organize Texas, with its 254 counties and dozen media markets, was something each state director noted was a struggle. When asked what they would have done differently with more resources, Agho-Otoghile was succinct.

“I would’ve hired more staff to support building a large-scale organizing program that was invested in empowering local communities,” she told us. “The goal being to not only mobilize the thousands of supporters but also engage the amazing volunteer network on the ground.”

Going one step further, Agho-Otoghile also placed a particular emphasis on the need to cultivate home grown talent to speak the unique challenges we face in Texas. “I would encourage future campaigns to really try to understand Texas and place emphasis on hiring individuals who’ve done work here.”

“I would also urge future campaigns to localize their approach. What motivates voters in west Texas may not motivate voters in east Texas and so on,” she said.

That emphasis on local knowledge and experience was widely viewed as difficult to find, but essential to success. Jenn Longoria told us it was a point of particular emphasis for the Warren team’s hiring strategy, saying “I knew from the beginning that we wanted our staffers to be from the communities they’d be working in. That opened up so many opportunities but also posed challenges.”

Graves-Turner, who ran perhaps the best-resourced campaign Texas had ever seen for Bloomberg, echoed these concerns. “You can’t run a big, battleground state like Texas without hundreds of people and the right resources. (You need to) open field offices in the large metro areas, the suburbs, and key rural areas.”

In Biden World, things were stretched much more thin. The campaign reportedly spent less than $100,000 in Texas compared to Sanders’ $3.7 million, according to NPR

“Look, really, we didn’t have any money,” Jane Hamilton said. “We had no money.”

Hamilton said the Texas campaign had a total of three paid people on staff, including herself.

“This was not a situation where we had some huge field operation in terms of paid field people, we didn’t have that,” Hamilton said. “And so we really had to use a strong volunteer base and the support of our endorsers.”

Hamilton said the endorsements from state lawmakers and members of Texas’ congressional delegation (which Biden won head and shoulders above others), as well as the network of volunteers and supporters that came with them, were critical.

“These are the people on the front lines in many cases that have to fight the policies of the right,” Hamilton said. “They’re the ones on the front lines in really representing their district.” 

She said Biden’s lengthy and visible record as vice president helped lawmakers and voters in the state trust him.

Biden would eventually go on to win three major metro areas — Fort Worth, Dallas and Houston, their suburbs — and most of the state. Sanders performed well throughout West and South Texas, San Antonio and the Austin area, and college towns like San Marcos and Denton.

All of the state directors we spoke to emphasized the importance of spending more time in the Rio Grande Valley, with Longoria telling us “I would have doubled down on the number of staff we had along the border sooner. As a Rio Grande Valley native, I know how important those communities are to our economy and culture, so having a chance to hear from those residents shaped many of the Senator’s policies.”

What do we make of the Texas primary? 

With the fanfare that came along with the mountain of states that went to Biden in March, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the Texas primary was not a winner-take-all contest. The delegates awarded were evenly split, with 111 delegates going to Biden and 102 going to Sanders. 

It was one of the tightest contests on Super Tuesday, and the results were at odds with all other southern states that enthusiastically went for Biden. Only Maine, where Biden defeated Sanders by a single point, was closer (conversely, the 2016 Texas primary was a blowout for Hillary Clinton, with Sanders receiving 36 less delegates from the state).

What the Texas primary lacked in decisiveness for ending the party’s presidential primary, it made up for in understanding more about the state’s highly-coveted voters that must be mobilized in extreme numbers to not just continue the party’s gains, but genuinely see an end to Republican Texas.

Texas has historically been used as a cash machine for Democrat dollars, and it’s only until recently with sufficient proof that national organizations and campaigns have begun to understand the complexity of the state and just how much raw, untapped swing potential there is in an overwhelmingly urban and suburban state with 29 million inhabitants. 

The most easily understood evidence for why Texas is trending away from Republicans, aside from dwindling margins in successive presidential elections, is O’Rourke’s oft-talked about 2018 Senate run. The former El Paso Congressman lost to Sen. Ted Cruz by less than three percentage points, a little more than 200,000 votes.

With a state as large as Texas where parties have a deep well to draw from, 200,000 votes is easy to find, especially with money flowing into the state. 

Through a combination of registering new voters and increasing turnout among registered voters, there’s hundreds of thousands of votes to be found in areas where Democrats are already performing well in and where margins of victories for Republicans are slim — communities of color, in urban and suburban counties, and as O’Rourke showed, some small gains to be made in rural Texas too.

The Texas primary is particularly interesting because it revealed the makeup of these voters and what might animate them to turn out in different areas of the state.

Across multiple exit polls in the state that mirrored results nationally, Biden handily won self-described moderate or conservative voters while Sanders won self-described liberal voters. For voters who wanted to nominate a candidate to beat Trump, a plurality supported Biden; for voters who wanted to nominate a candidate because of issues they supported, most backed Sanders. Biden won the support of Black voters and older voters, while Sanders won with younger, Latino and Asian voters. Biden’s coalition was bigger on election day, and voted more reliably.

A good sign for Democrats going into the general election is Biden’s strength with Black voters, disaffected Republicans, and voters in Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston, the areas where urban-suburban elections have powered a majority of gains for Texas Democrats in Congress and the Texas House. Already, polling in the Lone Star State shows Biden and Trump evenly matched for November.

But there’s something to be said of the issue-focused young, Latino and Asian voters overwhelmingly won by Sanders — voters Democrats and progressive groups have long acknowledged are critical to pushing the needle in statewide elections, now and especially in the coming years.

While it’s true that Biden’s coalition are likely the same boots on the ground who have largely delivered Democratic wins in Texas and threaten GOP-held districts this cycle, it’s worth remembering: Republicans have spent roughly two decades with near complete supremacy in the state, wreaking havoc on the state’s social safety net, inflaming inequality, militarizing, privatizing, and generally making conditions ripe for the type of political revolution Sanders or progressive politics Warren championed across Texas, one of the only truly competitive elections in the nation on Super Tuesday.

Perhaps the biggest secret about Texas and what’s most misunderstood by those just tuning in, is that because it’s home to so many people, and because turnout is so dismal among everyone, parties — and candidates, as the Texas primary demonstrated — can pick their voters. The idea that Texas is doomed to be a GOP stronghold because of an infinite army of GOP voters is an illusion, but so is the idea that only moderate, incremental gain can inspire action in a state as damaged by Republicans as Texas.

Photo: Daniel Carde/Getty Images

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