Why Texas Democrats lost, and how they can win

Wendy Davis
Wendy Davis

By Alan Bean

Why were Democrats so thoroughly humiliated in the 2014 election?  Analysts have been warning for months that this would be a tough year for the Blue team, but few expected the carnage to be this bad (or good, depending on your perspective).

The question is particularly pressing in Texas where Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor, lost by twenty points despite prodigious fund-raising success and massive GOTV support from groups like Battleground Texas.

Few expected Davis to win; but twenty points?

By the numbers, Davis lost because more 80% of key demographic groups voted for Republican Greg Abbott: white males, white evangelical Christians, voters who believe government is too big and that abortion should be illegal.

But Davis also lost because voters who normally help Democrats stayed home.

Davis didn’t do well with younger voters and did really badly with older voters.  Only 6% of the electorate was between 18 and 24 and Greg Abbott received 59% of the votes of Texans between 25-29, 45% in the 30-39 category, 57% in the 40-49 group, and close to 70% support from voters 50 and older.

Only 61% of Latino woman supported Davis while Latino men actually favored Abbot, albeit by a single percentage point.  Over all, Davis got only 25% of the white vote, 92% of the black vote and 55% of the Latino vote.

Latino support for Leticia Van de Putte, candidate for Lieutenant Governor, was also embarrassingly weak. While Latino women favored Leticia 58%-40%, Latino men backed Dan Patrick, an outspoken opponent of immigration reform, 53% to 46%.  These results are particularly mystifying when you realize that Van de Putte is a Latina who switches effortlessly between English and Spanish.

If Democrats were shredded from sea to shining sea, the results in Texas were particularly depressing for a party boasting its intention to “turn Texas blue.”

So, why did it happen.

The big story is that only 28.5% of eligible Texas voters showed up at the polls.  Texas has always been a low-voting state, but 28.5% suggests an alarming level of disengagement.  White evangelicals showed up in droves, comprising 30% of the Texas electorate (according to exit polls), and 84% of them voted for the Republican.

Even if every single evangelical voter had stayed home, Davis would have eked out a narrow victory.

When you can’t win 30% of the white vote, it doesn’t matter how well you do with young people and Latinos.

Election results make it clear that Latinos who care about immigration and young people generally stayed home.

It is tempting for Democrats to castigate their supporters for sitting this one out, but that’s precisely the wrong approach.  What did Democrats do, in Texas or nationwide, to give young people and non-white voters a reason to vote?

As things presently stand, the Democrats are a party without a message,  And no, “the Tea Party is crazy and we’re not” doesn’t count.

When Obamacare survived a horrendous roll-out and registered a series of smashing successes, Republicans doubled down on their criticism.  When Democrats failed to defend their leader’s signature policy success, the only story in town came from Republican politicians and pundits: “Obamacare is horribly, shockingly, disgustingly awful!!!!”

Democrats begged Obama to avoid action on immigration until after the election.  The result: low turnout from frustrated Latino electorate and the loss of a hot campaign issue.  Sure, immigration is controversial, but the majority of American support both the Affordable Care Act and immigration reform.

A party without a message can’t compete with a party sporting simple talking points and a high degree of message discipline.  It doesn’t matter if most Republican positions are demonstrably wrong–if no one beats the drum for the alternative, Democrats will stay home and Republicans will score lopsided wins.

Texas Democrats won’t win 40% of the white evangelical vote in the foreseeable future, but if they can’t do better than 16%, the Republican hegemony could extend into the second half of the twentieth century.

White evangelicals see Democrats as the party of secularism, and if we restrict our attention to white Democrats a case can be made for this proposition.  But the anti-God label is hilariously off-target if Latino and African American voters are taken into account.

Show up at a Black or Latino church and you will realize that Republicans have no corner on spirituality; but too many white Democrats, in my experience, have come to see religion as the enemy.  That needs to change.

Wendy Davis was doomed form the outset because abortion rights, in Texas, is a political loser.  Greg Abbott’s position on abortion is surprisingly moderate, but the “abortion Barbie” label killed Davis in the heartland.

Unfortunately, much of the political money that flooded Texas came from people determined to make the abortion issue front and center.  The only way to protect women’s access to health care, long term, is to vote moderate candidates into positions of power.  In the end, Davis was forced to run away from abortion rights, gun control, immigration reform and virtually every other progressive issue.  She was a candidate without a message and her plight presented an egregious example of what ails Democrats across the nation.

Here’s the bottom line: democrats will become competitive in Texas the minute they give young people and Latinos a reason to vote.  That didn’t happen in 2014 and it won’t happen in 2016 unless we see dramatic change.

2 thoughts on “Why Texas Democrats lost, and how they can win

  1. A good analysis Alan!

    The Democrats who matter such as the Clintons and the Obamas are wistfully eyeing off those quality voters who currently vote Republican. Their hope is that if they visibly can ditch all those inconvenient working and middle class voters they can attract enough of the better class away from the Republicans to win. See this Salon article.

  2. There are some good points in this article but I find the analysis somewhat simplistic. Democrats did have a message. Really more of a message than the Republicans. The biggest difference was the Democratic party was headed by two senators, neither of whom had run state wide campaigns previously and had to develop the contacts and infrastructure for their first statewide race. They challenged a GOP candidate who has won statewide races consistently for the past couple of decades and who had a war chest of $38 million dollars. Abbott had several donors who gave over $1.5 million to his campaign. With funding of that magnitude and a statewide organization already in place, he was able to capitalize on the advancements in micro targeting and finance it without reliance on party data mining infrastructure. He had sufficient financing to field the largest team of paid staffers ever in the history of this state. Many of his team were seasoned with experience in other successful campaigns. Most of the Democratic recruits were first-timers and because there has been many fewer wins for Democrats in Texas, there are many fewer experienced staffers to train and supervise on the Democratic side.

    One of the most telling differences is Abbott’s campaign setting a 250 verified Abbott voter goal per staffer. It has been reported that if they missed the 250 a week goal twice, they were out the door. Even with about a 300% turnover, they had 90 who consistently met their goals and stayed the entire campaign!

    I think that message has less to do with the outcome of this election as the resources which were available to build on an already successful infrastructure.

    In the past 4 years the tools available for microtargeting have advanced incredibly. It takes money to access them. The Texas Van was a “start” but these GOP campaigns with war chests which exceed the budgets of small cities, have moved the arrow far beyond the capabilities of the Texas VAN. Note: The Republican Party does not have a VAN. They have campaigns with levels of funding that allows them to tap into the best data crunching/mobilization resources available.

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