The memories sting a lot more when the decision to invest in a state late in the campaign looks foolish in hindsight. In late October of 2000 Bush campaigned in California, a strategic decision that has long been seen as one of the dumbest in presidential politics given that he ended up losing the state by almost 12 points, losing the popular vote, and only made it to the White House after the Supreme Court intervened to stop a recount in Florida. (The California visit was so misguided that Rove has apparently forgotten about it. “Don’t believe we did,” Rove told me when I asked whether the campaign sent Bush to California.)
The Romney campaign in 2012 thought blue Minnesota was competitive. “We dumped some money in there late when some polls indicated some tightening,” Kevin Madden, who was a senior adviser to Romney, said in a text. “And of course it didn’t materialize on Election Day. ☹️”
In 2016, Hillary Clinton looked toward the Southwest and neglected the Midwest. “She went to Arizona,” said a top member of Clinton’s 2016 braintrust, who didn’t want to be named. “That didn’t work out.”
The danger for Biden is hubris. Nobody on his campaign wants Texas to be what California was to Bush in 2000 or what Arizona was to Clinton in 2016. What if Biden spends one of the six remaining days of the campaign in Texas — then narrowly loses the race to Trump? The recriminations would be brutal: Instead of staying focused on winning 270 electoral votes, he got sucked into a state that Democrats haven’t won since 1976 in a vain attempt to run up the score.
But O’Rourke is persuasive. While it’s true that Democrats have been talking about Texas turning blue since the turn of the century, the trends are clear. In 2016, Hillary Clinton invested little here and she did better than every previous Democratic nominee since her husband in 1996. In 2018, O’Rourke famously came within 3 points of defeating Senator Ted Cruz. He was the first Democrat to win the state’s four big metro areas since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Democrats won 12 statehouse seats and O’Rourke helped usher in a diverse new group of elected officials, including seventeen African American women who won judgeships.
The 2020 data all points toward the trend continuing. Polls have shown a competitive race here all year between Biden and Trump. Harris County, which includes Houston, is the most populous in the state. O’Rourke flipped it blue in his race. The early vote numbers in Harris this year show that turnout has already exceeded the county’s total turnout in 2016, a phenomenon that is playing out in many of the state’s metro and collar counties. The numbers suggest Texas is experiencing a massive suburban revolt against Trump.
“It’s either that or all of those suburban women that Trump asked to love him are suddenly rushing to vote for him,” Rocha said.
Soft support among Latinos
Biden’s weakness in the state is among Latino voters, especially in the border counties of the Rio Grande Valley. While turnout in the metro areas is up by 50 to 60 percent, the increases are closer to 30 percent along the border. And while polls of Texas Latinos have been erratic, Biden’s support has remained soft.
“Latinos still don’t know Joe Biden,” said Rocha. “They know he was the vice president, but they don’t know him.” He said that Biden fares better once Latinos learn more about him, but earlier in the year, when Biden was broke coming out of the primary, Trump invested heavily in Spanish language media. “When Donald Trump went up with his first ads he wasn’t talking about how great he was, he was just talking about how much Joe Biden sucks.”
Biden eventually caught up and has now tripled Trump’s spending on Spanish-language TV and radio, but Rocha said he’s worried that one of his first rules of politics might be tough to overcome: “You only get one chance to make a first impression.”
A top organizer in the Latino community here echoed Rocha. “Let’s be honest,” she said, “people are not super thrilled about Biden. And Kamala, for all she did for the African American community, there’s not a connection with the Latino community.”
Rocha has often been at odds with O’Rourke on state issues and he’s refreshingly candid about why. “I worked in Texas for a quarter-century and would have loved to work for Beto in 2018 and I didn’t, so maybe it starts there.”
He’s not as confident as O’Rourke that a Biden visit would help. “I love Beto’s energy around the state,” he said.” We don’t always agree on tactics but he’s a great cheerleader for Texas. A Biden visit would help because a rally would get on the front-pages of the papers, but is it the end-all be-all? No. It’s kind of out of Biden’s hands now.”
Boosting turnout among working-class Latino voters along the border is time-consuming, resource-intensive work. Rep. Veronica Escobar, who now holds O’Rourke’s old seat, has for the last few years been focusing on what she refers to “zero of three voters,” people who haven’t turned out in the last three elections.
Campaigns tend to ignore them. They don’t get mail. They don’t receive phone calls. In some of the border areas they might live in news deserts where the local newspaper and TV station doesn’t cover local politics. She sometimes spends 20 minutes talking to a single voter. This week, Escobar talked to a Latina woman from a family of immigrants. She was in her 20s and was registered but had never voted before and wasn’t planning to do so this year. Escobar finally realized that the issue was that she didn’t know how to vote. She walked her through the mechanics, explaining the details of the ATM-like touchscreen she would encounter at the polling place.
“I’ve never done it because I didn’t know how and nobody ever explained it to me,” the young woman said.
“It made me almost cry,” Escobar told me.
‘It’s galling and offensive’
The results in Texas will be known on election night. Democrats, including senior members of the Biden campaign, fear that in close states, Trump will turn to the courts to stop late-arriving mail-in ballots from being counted or perhaps gin up some other legal argument that makes its way top a now very pro-Trump Supreme Court. A recent decision in a Wisconsin case about mail-in ballot deadlines made clear this is not a far-fetched fear. Justice Brett Kavanaugh argued that late ballots could “flip the results of an election.” While Justice Elena Kagan responded that “there are no results to ‘flip’ until all valid votes are counted,” the Kavanaugh view prevailed in a 5-3 decision that refused the state to allow a deadline extension for absentee ballots.
“The antidote to that is Texas,” O’Rourke said. “We did not expand mail-in voting. We will know election night totals by 7 p.m. Texas could make Biden president and avert any constitutional nightmare.”
But O’Rourke also frames the case for a late Biden visit as a social justice cause. A recent comprehensive study ranked Texas as having the most restrictive voting laws in the nation. Voter registration stops 30 days before the election. The number of polling places has sharply declined across the state, and according to the study, Texas “has the most restrictive pre-registration law in the country.” (States like California allow new voters to pre-register at age 16, but Texas requires waiting until two months before one’s 18th birthday.)
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott recently closed absentee drop-off locations across the state, “bolstering GOP efforts to restrict voting,” as the Texas Tribune put it. Ominously, on Monday the state national guard announced that 1,000 troops would head to major cities over the coming days for “guarding historical landmarks such as the Alamo and the State Capitol.”