A Path Forward For Texas Democrats, part 2

It’s up to Texas Democrats to do the work of organizing across the state, connecting issues to interests, and finding innovative ways to be heard in the ever-changing information currents. With a little luck, they may finally return to relevance in the Lone Star State sooner than they expect.

A Path Forward For Texas Democrats, part 2

How we got here:

If you missed the first half of “A Path Forward for Texas Democrats,” here’s a brief summary before we close out this mini-series. Ever since Democrats underperformed expectations in the 2020 election and barely held onto the House, there’s been a simmering debate (the likes of which we typically see after a party loses power) over what makes Democrats electable in the 2020s.

For Texas Democrats who’ve been stuck on the losing side of the electoral ledger since the days when the Dallas Cowboys earned the title “America’s Team,” this debate is less an academic exercise and more an existential imperative.

Data scientist David Shor offered up a seemingly simple prescription dubbed “popularism,” urging Democrats to center a common form of the median voter (a non-college-educated person over 50 years old who watches ~6 hours of TV a day) and hew to broadly popular issues. He argues a key ingredient of keeping that voter is pushing back on activist voices who shape the party’s brand perception.

Progressive commentators have offered their own theories of the case, focusing on nebulous ideas like “vibes” and the more concrete “deliverism,” elevating the importance of policy results that people can benefit from in their day-to-day lives.

Neither theory is a sure path to victory for Texas Democrats, who both lack the levers of power to deliver results and ran (unsuccessfully) on popularist issues in key 2020 U.S. House races. Which brings us to the second (and closing) part of this post. Which medium and long-term models can Texas Democrats emulate and what kind of actionable tactical solutions can they apply for the election ahead?

Learning from success:

Colorado and Georgia offer appealing models for Texas Democrats. Both states have rapidly diversifying populations with growing non-white communities and an influx of college-educated professionals seeking a better quality of life.  In Colorado, progressive donors formed a network of interlocking institutions that generated opposition research, disseminated favorable stories through allied media outlooks, and organized in disengaged neighborhoods. A colleague at A More Perfect Texas points to the book “The Blueprint” for the full story.

While Colorado is now regarded as a blue state, the state’s politics were fiercely contested for most of the 21st century. Democratic wins at the state legislative level in 2004 were considered a political breakthrough at the time, one that presaged Obama’s victory there four years later and Democrats’ flipping an open Senate seat. Since then, the Colorado donor table approach has been replicated across the country, though Texas remains underfunded due to the cost of reaching scale to activate millions of voters.

Georgia's political transformation -- catalyzed by Stacey Abrams, progressive organizing groups, and demographic shifts -- offers Texas Democrats hope by reminding them that success isn’t always a linear path. Often ignored in the glowing reports of the grassroots triumph of a blue Georgia in November 2020 and a blue Senate in January 2021 is the fact that Abrams’ first major foray into voter registration underperformed expectations.

A year before the 2014 midterms, Abrams’ New Georgia Project (NGP) vowed to register 120,000 new voters. By Election Day 2014, their voter registration efforts had failed to keep up with churn in the voter rolls, and the effort eventually registered only 46,000 new voters.

Over the course of the decade, groups like NGP continued to build community ties and scale approaches for developing community power through sustained engagement. Their organizers kept communicating with people who had just moved to Georgia, and people who had long ago given up on the political process. And during the pivotal January runoff, they knocked nearly 2 million doors, buoyed by legions of local volunteers. While demographic tailwinds provided a boost, persistent organizing played a critical role in empowering previously marginalized and/or uninvolved people to become habitual voters.

As NGP’s CEO Nsé Ufot puts it, “There wasn't an infrastructure for organizing despite the narrative that Atlanta and Georgia is a Black mecca and the cradle of the civil rights organizations. [...] Stacey [Abrams] and I sought to launch the New Georgia Project back in 2014 to professionalize organizing and define what it means to win. […] There's no path to victory without Black voters, without brown voters. There's no path to victory without the labor of Black women. We are a proper part of a progressive ecosystem that is going to carry us through from one election cycle to another.”

The tireless organizing work paid off in 2020, when Georgia saw the largest increase in Black turnout of any major swing state, as shown in this chart from the indispensable Catalist analysis of the 2020 election.

What can we do for 2022?

The Colorado and Georgia models each took time, patience, and real-world learnings to achieve eventual gains. For Texas Democrats hoping to achieve a political turnaround next year, they would be well-advised to consider some immediate-term solutions.

The rest of this post will dig into more tactical options for Texas Democrats by first returning to a question connected to the popularism debate -- do issues really matter to voters?

As with most things in overdetermined outcomes like elections, the answer is a mix of yes and it depends.

Issues that connect to identity:

Consider the impact of trade policy in the 1990s. Abstract economic arguments about “dislocation effects” from trade hit home for Midwestern factory workers whose jobs were offshored to China. Research in regions affected by job losses from NAFTA shows significant Republican gains from 1992 (pre-NAFTA) to 2000. When Bill Clinton embraced NAFTA, Midwestern Democrats abandoned their traditional support of the Democratic party.  

The change was concentrated among voters who already leaned Republican on cultural issues like abortion. Once protectionism was less associated with the Democratic brand, culturally conservative Democrats who prioritized trade were more inclined to vote on their cultural allegiances and back Republicans. Removing protectionism as a voting issue for Democrats shifted the balance of voting considerations in favor of Republicans, a trend that accelerated in Midwestern factory towns in the 2010s.

Cross-pressuring issues can also help Democrats. Informing Kentucky Republicans that the Republican candidate for Governor opposed Kynect, the state exchange created as part of the Affordable Care Act, led to higher rates of abstention. When deciding between party loyalty and personal welfare, some Republican voters simply chose to stay home, depressing overall Republican turnout.

During the 2018 Montana Senate race, Senator Jon Tester’s campaign tested a simple informative digital ad that highlighted their opponent’s vote against expanding health coverage for children with autism. The ad gained organic traction among parents who were affected by the issue and generated outsized interest for a small media buy.

In Texas, Democrats can locally target ads and grassroots voter contact in cities where voters support vaccine mandates that were superseded by Governor Abbott’s vaccine mandate ban order.

Identifying pockets of college-educated Republican voters in suburbs who may be concerned about COVID-19 could serve as a target universe. If the Kentucky research is any guide, this could reduce Abbott’s margins by abstention if not persuasion.

Pollster Kevin Collins argues that we should focus on a foundational question: “Does candidate X care about people like me?” In all of the examples above, the issue is directly connected to a person’s personal identity and welfare or that of people they love. A candidate’s position on those issues is both salient in terms of personal impact and signaling which side they’re on.

How can Texas Democrats turn issues into winning messages?

With social media platforms optimized for engaging in enranging ways, local newspapers disappearing across Texas, and local TV barely covering policy issues, many voters live in issue information deserts.

Facts before spin: Texas Democrats and progressives can begin to make inroads by delivering “just the facts” information on top of mind issues to friends and family networks. Instead of blasting out partisan talking points, progressive groups in Texas could empower relational contact by providing activists with information from credible sources like reputable think tanks packaged as shareable posts or content for peer-to-peer messaging.

Imagine an email and/or text alert from the Texas Democratic Party sent to progressive activists when a Republican legislator takes an unpopular vote on an issue of local significance. Activists could review the information first before distributing to friends and neighbors if they find it relevant to their neighborhood or community of interest (like history teachers concerned about the Texas legislature’s laws involvement in history).

Starting a conversation with a shared interest and then segueing to “did you know that our Rep. Y did X to harm our group” could bypass the motivated reasoning partisan blinders that rise up when an issue immediately is coded as red or blue. With Facebook Groups and NextDoor now displacing local newspapers as voter information sources, these messages could fill gaps and reach voters when the issue is still fresh, instead of in a mail piece a month before the election.

The success of League of Women Voters-style issue comparison grid mailings -- adding 1.15 votes for every 100 voters reached -- suggests that relevant information can matter on the margins where close elections are decided.

The brand is(n’t) strong:

“The brand is strong,” a favored catchphrase of the Bronx talk show duo Desus and Mero, is aspirational for today’s Democratic Party. The realignment across Western democracies away from a class-oriented politics towards one aligned on an axis of cultural conflict has strained the brand identity of a party forged around the New Deal.

For the remaining Democrats in deeply red states, brand differentiation hasn’t been enough, as evidenced by the decline of the centrist-to-conservative Blue Dogs since the 2009-2010 Congress. A current bête noire of the online left -- Sen. Joe Manchin -- provides the clearest example of visceral brand separation in his infamous TV ad that helped turn around his 2010 Senate race.

Manchin taking dead aim at the national Democratic brand

While the nationalization of politics makes candidate-level branding increasingly difficult, candidates in state-level races have some maneuvering room. Virginia’s next Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin understood this as a businessman. His campaign manager explained in a post-election podcast interview that the campaign prioritized going up on TV early in the cycle with soft visuals that defined Youngkin as a friendly suburban everyman (albeit one who previously co-led one of the world’s largest hedge funds).

As the campaign advanced, Youngkin shifted to co-opting Democratic issue turf, running on issues like ending the grocery tax that Democrats had supported in the 1990s, as well as raising education funding, a perennial Democratic selling point.

Texas Democratic candidates can transcend their party brand by moving into Republican-owned issue domains that are salient to voters concerned about the economy. One example is touting plans to reform licensing regulations to make it easier for working-class people to start their own businesses.

Texas Democrats should also find credible ways to call out their own. A recent political science experiment demonstrated that people join political parties for reasons beyond socialization or group affiliation. We define allegiances not just by who we like, but who we don’t like.

The researchers found that associating a fictitious outgroup with abhorrent views with the Democratic or Republican Party weakened party loyalty even among co-partisans and led to an 11 point drop in the targeted party's favorability among independent voters.

Texas Democratic candidates are frequently tied to the much more left views of their peers on the “Squad.” Being able to show distance in some way is essential for keeping a brand in line with the viewpoints of voters.  

During the 2021 VA elections, Democratic House of Delegates candidate Michelle Maldonado rejected the endorsement of the Virginia NARAL chapter over their support for defunding the police. Unlike Claire McCaskill’s desperate attack on “crazy Democrats,” Maldonado’s messaging was couched in her own experience with law enforcement and caveated by her support for abortion rights.

On Election Day 2021, as Virginia Democrats were being swept out of power, Michelle Maldonado prevailed in an open Democratic-held House of Delegates seat. She won by an even larger margin than her Democratic Socialist predecessor Lee Carter did in the more favorable political environment of 2019.

The messenger matters:

The marketing frenzy around influencers underscores the value of trusted messengers at a time of low trust in institutions. Texas Democrats can harness relational contact -- emulating a method pioneered by Sri Kulkarni’s 2018 Congressional campaign – to share relevant issue messages within affinity communities.

The value of friend and family contact in tight-knit immigrant communities where English is often not the first language spoken paid political dividends in Georgia earlier this year, as AAPI organizers mobilized relatives and pushed back on misinformation. This is already bubbling up in grassroots yard signs like “MAGA: Mothers Against Greg Abbott.”

Just as moms may be more inclined to listen to other moms, voters are looking for candidates who share not only their group affiliation but a clear interest in their needs. A recent national study of persuadable voters found that small business owners, a group associated with mom and pop shops like bakeries, appealed to swing voters.

Running the right candidates (the subject of an upcoming post) is also critical. Candidates who are respected in local communities and can communicate progressive messages in a way that resonates locally can move the persuadable voters who often decide their votes on personalistic factors.

But clever messages and charismatic candidates aren’t sufficient to victory. The eminent political scientist V.O. Key once observed that “many citizens . . . pay too little attention to public affairs to be able to respond critically to the political communications they encounter; rather, they are blown about by whatever current of information manages to develop the greatest intensity.”

It’s up to Texas Democrats to do the work of organizing across the state, connecting issues to interests, and finding innovative ways to be heard in the ever-changing information currents. With a little luck, they may finally return to relevance in the Lone Star State sooner than they expect.