Politics

In Leaked Report, Texas Democrats Blame COVID-19 For Weak Performance in 2020

An internal report finds a decision to forgo door-to-door canvassing hampered voter registration and turnout compared to Republicans.

An election poll worker stands among voting machines Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Houston.

 

Democrats in Texas are blaming their failure to flip the state and the Texas House of Representatives on an inability to campaign during the pandemic, according to a new report obtained by Houston Public Media.

In an examination of how the Texas Democratic Party came up short in the election, the report puts much of the blame on how the party campaigned during the pandemic, finding that Democrats lost the get-out-the-vote battle to Republicans largely because they would not put their volunteers at risk for COVID-19 to canvass in person.

"By not being able to knock doors and other sort of logistical impacts of the pandemic...we think that definitely hurt us in 2020," said Hudson Cavanagh, director of data science for the Texas Democratic Party and author of the report. "Republicans really all cycle were knocking doors, were doing in-person voter registration, were really less concerned about putting people in harm's way than we were on our side."

That made it harder for Democrats to register voters, Cavanagh said.

"In the last three months…Republicans really outregistered us, and they did a good job of turning out those voters that they had recently registered, and that actually cost us a lot of net votes in terms of the final vote share," Cavanagh said.

Cavanagh said Democrats also struggled to reach young voters, rural voters and people of color because they didn’t have phone numbers for roughly 17 percent of the state.

Luke Warford, the Texas Democrats' chief strategy officer, said the lack of in-person contact hampered the party's ability to get its message across to people who were on the fence about whom to support or whether to vote at all.

"From the most basic standpoint, talking to voters in person is one of the most effective ways to convince them to go vote or to understand who they're going to vote for, and we weren't willing to do that, and the Republicans were," Warford said.

Mustafa Tameez, CEO of Outreach Strategists, said Democrats nationwide largely avoided in-person canvassing due to a greater concern than Republicans about the health of their volunteers in the pandemic.

"If you look at our past elections," Tameez said, "We (Democrats) did a lot of canvassing, and in this election cycle, we did very little if any. And Republicans increased their canvassing. So, it wasn't just that Democrats did less or few. It was an environment where Republicans really stepped up the canvassing efforts. So, it yielded them more votes, although it was the wrong thing to do at that time."

Texas Democrats have been criticized since the election for their inability to galvanize voters. Beto O’Rourke, who ran unsuccesfully against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 and later ran and lost in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, listed a lack of door knocking as a reson Democrats lost winnable seats around the country.

“Nothing beats meeting your voters eyeball to eyeball,” O’Rourke said. “We should always find a way to canvass directly at the voter's door. There is a safe way to do this, even in a pandemic.”

The Texas Democrats’ report also acknowledged that Republicans did better than expected among Latino voters, particularly in the Rio Grande Valley and Latino areas of the Panhandle.

The report stressed that Latino voters turned out for Democrats in roughly the same numbers as in 2016, but that Republicans did a better job of activating their base, including Latino Republicans. But the report also rejected the suggestion that the GOP was winning over Latino voters.

"It is simply not true that there is this massive persuasion effect from Democrats toward Republicans among Latino voters," Cavanagh said.

Analyst Mustafa Tameez said these two facets of the report have to be taken together to understand why the Democrats fell short of their expectations in 2020.

"I think that because we were so concerned with COVID — because there was no canvass campaign — there was not a robust door-to-door conversation, there was more relying on polls and assumptions that just more turnout means better results,” Tameez said. “In reality, if we were canvassing, we would have heard the kind of things from voters, especially Latino voters in the Valley, that would have made the difference for us to readjust and mobilize voters in a better way."

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

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