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Why Texas Democrats lost the 2020 voter turnout battle, even among Latinos

A new post-election report found that not canvassing in person because of pandemic restrictions was "really devastating," the state Democratic Party chair said.
Image: Laura Vasquez, Mariely Machado
Laura Vasquez holds her 1-year-old daughter, Mariely Machado, as she checks in to vote in Houston on Nov. 3.David J. Phillip / AP file

SAN ANTONIO — Texas Democrats conceded that Republicans won the state's turnout battle in the 2020 election by staying in the field despite the coronavirus pandemic, while the state's Democrats relied on digital and more unreliable telephone contact with voters.

According to a post-election report provided in advance to NBC News, the party lost its "most powerful and competitive advantage" when it didn't dispatch volunteers to canvass in person, following the directive of Joe Biden's campaign after the pandemic hit.

"Our inability to campaign was really devastating for us, especially with our main base. Our main base is Latino voters, and they do not take well to mail and texting contact," Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said.

The report, released Monday, found that even though Democrats turned out at higher rates than expected, so did Republican voters, who outperformed the higher Democratic turnout.

The party struggled to reach voters "for whom we did not have phone numbers, who are disproportionately young [and] rural," as well as people of color.

Despite early hopes that they could turn the state blue, Democrats didn't win any new congressional seats or flip the state House, and former President Donald Trump got higher vote shares than expected in heavily Hispanic counties.

Explaining Trump's Latino gains

The report did not find a Latino shift to Republicans and Trump; about two-thirds of the state's Hispanics continue to support Democrats.

"Many have interpreted this as 'Latinos voted for Trump,' but it's more accurate to say, 'Latinos who were already Republicans turned out more than Latino Democrats,'" said the report, assembled by Hudson Cavanaugh, the state party's director of data science.

Support for Trump increased significantly in mostly rural, majority Latino counties, accounting for an estimated 17,000 net votes, according to the report.

Latinos moved to Trump in the Rio Grande Valley and in some parts of the Texas Panhandle, although they also supported Democratic candidates lower on the ballot.

Republicans were able to make headway in the conservative state with rhetoric blasting the Democrats' progressive wing on police reform — reduced to "defunding the police" — and on moving away from fossil fuels, which the GOP emphasized could affect jobs in Texas.

Turnout was lower among Latinos than among other groups but higher than expected.

The Biden campaign was criticized for taking too long to ramp up its outreach to Latinos and for not making large investments in Texas, which hasn't backed a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976.

Democrats concluded that the party needs to develop better outreach and relationships in those rural counties.

The Democratic Party exceeded its statewide registration goal, turning out 13 million votes; it also increased its vote total by 1.2 million — the highest growth in Democratic vote share since 2012. It came within about 23,000 votes of flipping the state House.

But Democrats "did not anticipate this surge of Trump voters that we had not seen before," Hinojosa said.

"Republicans really thought they were going to lose, and Trumpers thought they might lose, and so they just went out and voted like they had never voted before," he said. "And because they were so afraid of losing, they pumped $30 million in the last 30 days into the campaign in Texas."

GOP won the registration race

The electorate remained disproportionately white relative to the state, and most of the unexpected voters were white, Democrats found.

While Asian American voters turned out significantly more than expected, Democrats underperformed in rural parts of the state among Black voters.

Notably, considering Biden's success among Black voters in other states, Republicans did a better job of turning out Black Republicans than Democrats did turning out their own voters, even though Black Texans overwhelmingly support Democrats.

The GOP outdid Democrats in the voter registration race, in part because of a Republican spending splurge in the election's final months, as well as its in-person canvassing during the pandemic.

Even though Democrats built a voter registration advantage over Republicans from 2018 through mid-2020, the Texas GOP's registration outpaced that of Democrats by so much that Republicans netted about 88,000 votes from the final three months of voter registration, Democrats said.

Image:  Texas Democratic Party Latino Graph
Texas Democrats said in a 2020 election "postmortem" report that Republicans turned out more Latino Republicans than Democrats turned out Democratic Latinos but that there wasn't a shift of Latinos voters to the GOP.Texas Democratic Party

Jason Villalba, chairman and president of the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation, pointed to a GOP super PAC of wealthy donors who focused on voter registration as a key for Republicans' increased registration.

Heading into the election cycle, the prevailing wisdom among Democratic groups was that Republicans had maxed out on their voters. Democrats set their targets based on that baseline and more than met them, Hinojosa said.

When it came to contacting voters, the Biden campaign and national Democratic-allied groups determined the targets for campaigning and calling, Hinojosa said.

"A lot of the targeting, I think, was very redundant. We were calling a lot of people who were low-hanging fruit and not calling a lot of people we needed that are a little more difficult," he said.

Virtual 'is not going to cut it'

Villalba said what happened in Texas is indicative of Trump's "cultlike" popularity, saying it's important to keep in mind that Democrats didn't lose ground in Texas, while trends are headed in the direction of the state's turning blue.

John Morán González, director of Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, pointed to Stacey Abrams' work in Georgia as an example of what is possible in Texas if state and national Democrats make such an investment.

"Doing it virtually is not going to cut it for the Latino community," he said.

Democrats said they have a clear idea what they need to do in the future: massively expand voter registration, meet voters where they are and improve how the party connects with Latino Texans, in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond.

"We estimate 51 percent of the voting population are Democrats, but Republicans are more likely to vote," the report states. "Democrats have to run a superior ground game to overcome this."

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