Popularism or Deliverism? Paths for Texas Democrats, part one

After more than two decades in the wilderness, Texas Democrats are still searching for the promised land. Between 2004 and 2016, Democrats gained more vote share in Texas than in any other state, yet after 2020 they were still shut out of statewide offices.

Popularism or Deliverism? Paths for Texas Democrats, part one

After more than two decades in the wilderness, Texas Democrats are still searching for the promised land. Between 2004 and 2016, Democrats gained more vote share in Texas than in any other state, yet after 2020 they were still shut out of statewide offices.

With Gov. Greg Abbott’s approval rating dipping, Beto O'Rourke revving up his grassroots fundraising machine, and growing discontent over the direction of the state, Democrats sense an opening. What they’re missing is a path to victory.

Source: New York Times

Political practitioners, activists, journalists, and pundits are vigorously debating solutions like popularism, a theory popularized by Democratic data whiz David Shor and elevated by the likes of Barack Obama and the Biden White House.

As Shor sums it up,  Democrats should talk about popular issues, and not talk about unpopular issues. In an interview with the New York Times’ Ezra Klein, Shor explained how: “polling is one of the only tools we have to step outside of ourselves and see what the median voter actually thinks.”

Several progressives countered with “deliverism” -- a theory that voters reward politicians based on what they accomplish, not what they promise. The legacy of FDR’s New Deal and the coalition it catalyzed still spurs Democrats longing to return to a virtuous cycle of policy results leading to electoral mandates that give way to more policy results.

A 2021 reality check

Democratic losses in Virginia and a near-defeat in the New Jersey gubernatorial election this November reminded us that neither popularism -- following the polls -- nor deliverism -- delivering for voters -- are political panaceas. Democrats who ran poll-tested messages focused on salient topics lost, while Gov. Phil Murphy barely held on despite accumulating a long list of progressive accomplishments.

Both popularism and deliverism contain major flaws. Popularism is hard to achieve in practice. The Democratic Party exists as a big tent full of “policy demanders,” loosely aligned under the same umbrella in a coalition of convenience. No one group holds the lead position or overriding moral authority to silence other coalition partners.

A Democratic candidate who calls out BLM activists broadly over “defund the police” could anger a vocal constituency and draw media attention to the party schism, perpetuating the perpetual “Democrats in disarray” meta-narrative. Worse, such a gesture could be seen as desperate and further feed right wing media narratives. Sen. Claire McCaskill’s 2018 radio ad claiming she’s not “one of those crazy Democrats” earned a rebuke from fellow Democrats, while her margins in rural counties still plummeted en route to a five point loss.

Deliverism resonates with our innate sense of how democracy should work. Voters reward governing parties that govern well and punish those who don’t. In David Dayen’s version, “deliverism means governing well and establishing a record that the electorate needed to win actually feels.”

Gov. Phil Murphy (D-NJ) delivered for core Democratic voters: a minimum wage hike, 40 hours of paid sick leave, a millionaires’ tax, legislation cracking down on environmental racism targeting disadvantaged communities, and marijuana decriminalization. Yet in 2021, Democrats faced a larger vote swing against them in Murphy’s reelection bid than in the hotly contested Virginia gubernatorial election.

In both cases, the national political atmosphere overwhelmed Democratic strategies. As the McAulliffe campaign’s post mortem noted, the voter sentiment began to sour in August: “This trend, with 65% of voters saying that the country was on the wrong track by late October, was ultimately a strong negative draw away from Democrats and depressed both Democratic enthusiasm and support from some later deciding voters.”

Considering the nationalization of American politics, Texas Democrats will need to develop ways to become viable no matter the vagaries of national trends. Since Democrats haven’t had access to the levers of state power in Texas, we can instead examine popularism in the Texas context.

Popularism vs. Nationalization

Texas Democrats have consistently struggled to compete in statewide elections in part due to insufficient resources. Reaching voters across 20 media markets is prohibitively expensive, as is hiring enough organizers to mobilize and register millions of less active and non-voters. Yet when Democrats have had the resources to run viable campaigns, the popularist approach simply hasn’t worked.

We can start with seven highly competitive U.S. House races in Texas last year.

The DCCC, the national party committee dedicated to House elections, started the 2020 cycle targeted seven districts in Texas and opened a campaign office in Austin in early 2019. Yet the party won none of its targeted races and barely held onto TX-07.

To test whether popularism has been a successful strategy in the past, we can start with data that Way to Win compiled from Daily Kos Elections and AdImpact in the ten most closely contested Texas U.S. House races in 2020. Using a content analysis of the ads tracked by AdImpact, I identified the share of spend on “popularist” issues like “protecting coverage for pre-existing conditions” and “allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices.”

In TX-24, a district Democrats lost by only 1%, just over 80% of the paid media by the Democratic candidate and allied groups focused on health care, in particular the popular pieces of the Affordable Care Act. The pattern repeats itself from sprawling borderlands of TX-23 to the gerrymandered Austin exurbs to San Antonio TX-21 seat contested by Wendy Davis. Texas Democrats in the competitive U.S. House races spent >60% of their paid media touting views on health care.

Why did Texas Democrats in such different districts focus on the same core issues? Because they were likely following the advice of pollsters applying a popularist model. One Democratic data analyst described the process: “The messaging from most campaign ads is driven by the pollster (who is not 20-something). How does the pollster derive their recommendations? From testing what messages appeal most to swing voters. Yes, that process is often flawed and could be improved, but I'd estimate that the overwhelming majority of Dem campaigns believe they are using popular messages already.”

Shor identified lower prescription costs as one of the highest performing issues he tested in 2021. Texas Democratic House candidates were evidently seeing similar data in 2020 as they focused their ad budgets on spots like this one from Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher in TX-07.

Unlike the eight Democrats running against Republican incumbents, Fletcher survived her campaign. But when we compare her vote share to Biden’s percentage at the top of the ticket, we see that Fletcher ran 5.2% behind the top of the ticket en route to a narrow 3% victory.

No matter the candidate profile in terms of gender, age, or district competitiveness, every Texas Congressional Democrat candidate in a targeted race ran behind Biden. The candidate who focused the most on popularist issues ran the furthest behind Biden; the least popularist candidate also underperformed fellow Democrats relative to Biden.

The overall relationship between popularism and down-ballot performance was slightly negative in 2020 Texas U.S. House races. In sum, the more Democratic candidates tried to focus on popular messages, the worse they did.  With elections increasingly nationalized, House Democratic candidates across Texas struggled to define the choice on their own terms even when running on high popularity issues.

Telling voters that Democratic candidates agreed with them in popular issue areas couldn’t overcome an environment defined by a referendum on Trump and Trumpism and a global pandemic. If popularism and deliverism aren’t easy answers, what can Democrats do to become competitive in Texas? Stay tuned for a possible path forward in next week’s piece.