Beating a Dead Horse
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
— Julius Caesar Act 1 Sc. 2
I understand why TDP felt the need to prepare its recently released 2020 Texas Election Retrospective. After a result like we had, and the ensuing internal unrest, they had to. From a rural Democrat’s point of view I find little in it of worth and am not optimistic it will change anything. I’ve been around long enough and have seen this pattern before — a disaster at the polls followed by much hand wringing, resignations, study of the reasons for the disaster, issuing reports that place most of the blame on factors outside our control, and concluding the obvious — we need more voters. When the hue and cry dies down, we go back to doing the same things and making the same mistakes again and again. That has been the pattern in my 25+ years of involvement in politics.
I am not a data scientist, nor do I understand how to read and interpret data. This leaves me at somewhat of a disadvantage. So I will leave that discussion to the specialists. The data heavy nature of the report, in my opinion is emblematic of a larger problem. It is the report’s first and most fundamental flaw. One does not need a detailed data analysis to tell us what we already know — to win an election more people have to vote for your candidate than the other candidate. Any old Tammany or Chicago ward boss with a second grade education would have told you that.
The report is a data report for data people and is filled with charts that most Democrats (me being one) cannot understand without someone explaining it to them, and having to take their word for it about what it means. In the 21st century people are no longer satisfied to take an experts word for it. They want to understand it for themselves. The report spends most of its time being impressed with its data analysis, and trying to explain where we lost, that it never gets around to answering the most important question — why. Any county or precinct chair in rural Texas can answer that question better than any deep dive, post-mortem election report prepared by statisticians. The only conclusion I can draw is that the reason TDP never asks the right question is because it does not want to know the answer.
There does not seem to have been any attempt to incorporate observations and comments of County Chairs, candidates or the volunteers in the report. The conclusion that we lost because of the party’s decision to not campaign in person during the pandemic is not supported by any statistical evidence I could find in the report. If I am wrong, someone please direct me to the evidence. My observations during the campaign were that there were hundreds of candidates up and down the ballot who took the pandemic seriously, but who were in the field, knocking on doors, going to events and reaching out to as many voters as possible. The idea that we all just sat at home and didn’t do anything is a cop out to avoid responsibility for forcing us to try and sell a product very few people in rural Texas want to buy.
Placing the blame on the Biden Campaign and DNC ordering us to not campaign in person is a poor excuse. This is an attempt to lay the blame on Joe Biden — we were just following orders. That is the sort of myopic mindset I expect of many Republicans and National Democrats. Texas Democrats and that Texas Democratic Party should not take orders from the national party about how to campaign in Texas. If we want to talk about why we lose elections it is this — we are acting like we are just the Texas franchise of the national party. We must be the Texas Democratic Party — true to our huge, complicated and diverse home. The message that will sell in Houston won’t necessarily work in Fort Stockton. What makes us think a message from Delaware, California or Rhode Island will?
The report does not even attempt to wrestle with the question of why. Why are there more Republicans than Democrats in Texas? Why do more independents choose to vote Republican than Democrat? I submit the primary reason is because we increasingly use a left-leaning national message and think it will work in state politics from Amarillo to Brownsville and Orange to El Paso. Right or wrong, the issues that drive elections in rural Texas are oil and gas production, abortion and guns. We might prefer it were otherwise, but politics is not in the business of ideals. Politics is the art of the possible and dealing in reality is its stock and trade. Regardless of what Democrats may say about healthcare, infrastructure, immigration or other issues of the day, if the Democratic Party cannot adapt and modify its positions on these three issues, no Democrat will be elected Governor here for a long time to come. The failure of the report to address this topic is its next biggest flaw. In fact, it ignores it altogether.
The report also draws the conclusion that Democrats are not losing Hispanic voters. I disagree. We have not lost them yet, but based on what I see in majority Hispanic rural counties in West Texas, we are beginning to lose them. Reeves County is a primary example. Hillary Clinton, one of the Republicans most reviled Democratic candidates, won Reeves County. Joe Biden lost it. To chalk this, and Democratic loses across the state among Hispanics, up as an anomaly is dangerous. Again, messaging has a lot to do with this on those three primary issues, oil and gas, abortion and guns.
Although the report mentions the importance of rural areas several times, the tone deaf nature of the report is what screams the loudest to rural Democrats. Telling us we lost the turnout battle in rural Texas brings out a sort of, “no shit Sherlock” reaction from country Democrats. Registering more voters is not by itself the answer. As was proven in 2020, the Republicans are just as, if not more, adept at registering large numbers of voters and turning them out. Registering voters without addressing the larger issues of political infrastructure, and a long term strategy and modified messaging will largely be a wasted effort in predominantly red, rural counties. Before we start pouring money into random voter registration we should have something to offer them, to give them a reason to want to register and to want to vote for Democratic candidates.
When you beat a dead horse all you get is tired. You still have a dead horse when what you need is a new mount.
Jon Mark Hogg is a lawyer in San Angelo, Texas a former Democratic County Chair and Democratic Candidate for Congress.