What, exactly, just happened?

by | Nov 4, 2020 | 2020 Elections, Politics

It was fitting that, for the first several hours of Election Night 2020, all eyes were on Texas. The state had produced some of the most dramatic and decisive moments of the cycle, from the Democratic primary debate in Houston to the night Democrats closed ranks behind Joe Biden to give him a final boost in the Texas primary on Super Tuesday. 

And there we were, in tranche after tranche of early returns, running building a surprising lead. 

Biden was up 10.

Biden was up 8.

Biden was up 6.

Biden was up 1.

For those uninitiated in the life of a swing state voter, it was an almost nauseating tug of war for the 38 electoral votes Texas had on offer. Hillary Clinton fell exactly 38 electoral votes shy of beating Donald Trump in 2016. If Biden could capture Texas, that was the ball game. 

Trump took the lead.

Trump was up 1.

Trump was up 3.

We feverishly searched the down ballot races for signs of life for the blue wave. In state house race after state house race, we couldn’t find it. 

Democrats made a historic play for 10 congressional seats, and led in a slew of races after the early returns came in. The tide faded late. Democrats were shut out in all of their takeover attempts.

Trump was up 4.

Trump was up 5.

It didn’t make much sense. In the face of historic turnout, the math should have favored the Democrats. But Trump and Texas Republicans cleaned up on the election day vote.

Handicappers had given the Democrats a better than 50 percent chance of capturing their first Statehouse majority in a generation. Candidates were competitive or winning all over the state. 

As the dust settled Wednesday morning, the Democrats had captured only one district, knocking off Sarah Davis in Houston. Even that most unlikely pickup couldn’t be savored. Elsewhere in Houston, Gina Calani lost. The House majority hadn’t shifted at all.

Trump won by six. Our blue mirage disappeared behind the red wall.

We know this feeling too well. But despite the obvious setbacks, Texas Democrats had achieved the unthinkable. How did we come so tantalizingly close to reclaiming the state, only to see it slip away on election day?

We have more questions than answers this morning, but luckily for us we’re in the asking questions business. We are as angry as we are inspired about the direction our state is moving, and over the next three weeks will be taking a deep dive to put together the pieces and tell the story of what happened in Texas in 2020.

For many of our questions, there aren’t easy answers. In fact, we’re going to have to ask some hard questions and face some difficult truths if we’re going to unpack what happened in 2020 and put Democrats on a path to success in 2022 and 2024.

Among the thorniest questions we need to ask is what exactly happened in South Texas, where Biden managed to overperform with Latino voters, but Trump rode a wave of rural support to eat into Biden’s margin.

How could polling in races that ranged from the president to Statehouse have been so wrong? How did Democrats chart a course to capture over a dozen house seats only to break even on our gains from 2018?

There are some answers that are glaringly obvious, and we’ll start our journey there:

For the last decade, Texas Democrats have rebuilt a party that gained just 38 percent of the vote in the 2004 Presidential election. You only need to look at the trajectory Texas Republicans have been on these past 16 years to see the pattern, and the future, of Texas:

In 2004, the margin was nearly 23 points. In 2008, Barack Obama cut that margin down to 12, before sliding back to 16 in 2008.

In 2016, Donald Trump registered the worst performance for a Republican in modern memory. He won only by 9. 

In 2020, that margin came down to 6, but the dramatic difference in raw votes is striking. Joe Biden got more votes than any Democrat in Texas history with over 5.1 million votes. In 2004, John Kerry managed a little more than half of that number.

Texas Democrats are on the ascent, and 2022 could prove to be another pivotal cycle for Texas Democrats. What the results from 2020 have proven isn’t that Texas isn’t worth trying to win. It’s that national Democrats simply didn’t try hard enough.

While Joe Biden’s campaign spent more on staff and media than any modern Democratic campaign, the type of investments Texas Democrats argued could pay dividends always seemed to be unfulfilled by the national party and progressive groups. 

More than $200 million flowed to Florida this election cycle. Florida and Ohio have voted Republican by convincing margins in the last two presidential elections. They are no longer swing states. That money was better spent in South Texas, in Houston and Dallas and the suburbs that surround them, than it ever was in the Sunshine State.

What Texas Democrats have accomplished is nothing short of miraculous. Through sheer hard work and force of will, they dragged the biggest non-voting state in the nation into permanent swing state status, building the type of infrastructure necessary for success.

If the Democratic Party wants to compete and succeed in Texas and across the country, they have important lessons to learn. The most important lessons they’ll learn will be taught by the Texas Democrats who could have finally reached the mountaintop, if only they’d been listened to sooner.

This is part one of a series. Stay tuned.

Photo: Mark Felix for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Senior Advisor | + posts

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.

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