What will it take for the Democratic Party to be competitive in Texas?
After a grueling 2020 presidential campaign and days of uncertainty about who won, Democrats could finally breathe a sigh of relief when Joe Biden was announced winner last November.
But that relief was especially short-lived for Democrats who followed election outcomes in Texas. Higher-than-expected numbers of voters in traditionally Democratic Texas border counties voted for Donald Trump. That outcome surprised some Democrats, and dampened their post-election glee.
Then the questions began to fly: Should Democrats have done more on-the-ground campaigning? Should Biden have visited South Texas? Were the votes of people of color being taken for granted?
Now, almost a year later, the question is, what does the Democratic Party need to do to be competitive in Texas? In a recent article in The New York Times, columnist Ezra Klein looked into data scientist David Shor's theory that "Democrats are on the edge of an electoral abyss."
Two experts joined Texas Standard to dig deeper into this big political conversation, and what it might mean for Texas elections. Melanye Price teaches political science at Prairie View A&M University, and is the author of "The Race Whisperer: Barack Obama and the Political Uses of Race." Victoria DeFrancesco Soto is a dean at the University of Texas at Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs. Listen to the interview with them in the audio player above, or read the interview transcript below.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: This article has been generating a lot of talk for suggesting that Democrats are in danger in upcoming elections because young, mostly white Democratic Party staffers are trapped in a Twitter-fueled echo chamber that's out of touch with swing voters in places like Texas. How much should Democrats be concerned about this?
Melanye Price: I think they should be very concerned, but I don't know that they should be concerned for Klein's explanation. They should be very concerned because for more than a decade, Republicans have controlled statehouses. That means they control the ability to gerrymander. They have instituted strict voter suppression laws. Those things, I think, are much better explanation for why they stay in control than most of what Ezra Klein and David Shor propose.
Was South Texas in 2020 a kind of harbinger for changes in assumptions about which party benefits from changing demographics? How much can Democrats really count on what's traditionally been their base?
Victoria DeFrancesco Soto: I think that when we're talking about the Hispanic electorate nationally, and especially here in Texas and in states like Florida and Arizona that tend to be swingy, is to remind ourselves that Latinos are one of the last true wild cards when it comes to elections. Latinos voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 election, and they voted for Barack Obama. But there was a time in the early 2000s where the substantial segments of the Latino electorate would vote for a Republican. The fact that they have been trending Democratic, but then we saw back up toward the Republican Party [in 2020] reminds us that Latinos at their core are swingy.
They are a little bit more conservative, both on religious grounds and on social grounds. And when we're looking at some of these pockets in the Rio Grande Valley along the border, I think we also need to factor in the rural piece of it, right? So let's not assume that all communities of color are automatically going to vote Democratic. Yes, a majority of them do. But the devil is in the details, and I think this is what Shor and others have been getting at is looking at that nuance of the voters of color in our different regions.
One of the arguments that's central to this theory is that for Democrats to maintain control, they need to win over swing states. And the only way to do that, at least according to Shor, is for Democrats to do a lot of polling to figure out which of their positions are popular and which aren't. And then they should talk about the popular stuff and get quiet about the unpopular stuff. Are there risks in this strategy?
Price: I don't know that it has a lot of risk, actually. I mean, you can go all the way back to Clinton, and this reliance on extensive polling to understand what it is you should be saying. I don't disagree with Shor's statistics. What I think needs to be more nuanced is sort of the conclusions that he's drawing and how he's making these kinds of analyses. Essentially, what he's done is added math to the same argument that some centrist Democrats have been making for the last 30 years, which is in order to win over reluctant white voters, we have to push towards the right. That means we can't listen to progressives. That means we can't push on civil rights. That means we can't talk about things that make people uncomfortable like abortion bans.
It's actually sort of a rehashed argument with fancy math behind it. And that's the thing that I find sort of most uninteresting about it. That's the thing that I find sort of most disturbing about it is that it somehow seems like he's presenting a new thing. But what he's actually suggesting is something that moderate and centrist Democrats have been suggesting since Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council in the early '90s.
Shor also contends that the fault lines are no longer race or income, but education. Is that accurate?
Price: I think the thing that people often miss when they make class and education arguments is the ways in which class and education and race are intertwined. And so that means that even the Black middle class is much more fragile than the white middle class. And so that means that their ability to stay in the middle class might be one check away. And so that means that they're much more tied to, sort of, what we would call the "lower incomes" in a way that maybe Shor isn't taking into effect.
But I also think in the state of Texas, there was a large support for George Bush because of social conservatism related to religion. And so there is always this chance that you can bring in, potentially, people who might be able to exploit those commonalities with the Republican Party.
DeFrancesco Soto: I definitely think that that is one piece of it. But another piece I want to bring up, and one that was not discussed in the article is that outreach is key, and the Democrats in 2020 were not able to seal the deal because of the pandemic. Democrats made a conscientious decision not to do that person-to-person contact, relying on phone, on text, on Zoom, whereas Republicans aggressively went in there and did person-to-person contact. You know, I will leave it up to the listeners to decide whether that was a good idea or not. But outreach was really key – quality of outreach – and the genuineness of it as well because if you have folks going into a community in the RGV [Rio Grande Valley] who are not from that community, who are not trusted stakeholders, that is not going to seal the deal.
Price: The answer to that is not necessarily what you need to do is then push to the right. The answer to that is not what you need to do is move towards the center. The answer is the Democratic Party should, once and for all, try what southern activists in the state of Texas in places like Arizona and Georgia have been saying, which is invest more in the ground game; invest more in outreach. Not say, well, that means these people aren't going to vote, so we need to move towards swing voters; we need to move towards people who are in the center; we need to abandon liberal and progressive policies.
What other factors are we overlooking in this conversation?
Price: I think that the most important thing that's overlooked in this process is the ways in which we reward Republicans often for their ability to stay in office, like they're doing something that is so strategically important in terms of democracy. But in many places, the way they have managed to stay in power is through things like voter suppression, gerrymandering and appealing to sort of the most negative aspects of white fears about people of color – that is, on immigration and crime. And so how does Shor take that part into account?
Defrancesco Soto: Shor talks about the echo Chamber of staffers and consultants in D.C., in New York. What I want to see is a massive investment on the ground in the localized organizations and communities, even though politics has become nationalized, because we've become so hyperpartisan. At the end of the day, where you touch people and where you have impact is in that local level, and I think that's where a massive investment needs to happen.
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