An Alternative Strategy for Democratic Success: Growing a New Electorate

We often hear that the problem Democrats are facing is that they not only lost the presidency in 2016, but are getting trounced at the state and local level. Much has been written about that challenge, but we rarely dive into the weeds about solutions or shine a spotlight on successes.

What if I was to tell you about a county in a red state where Democrats won almost every slot on the ballot in 2016 (some for the first time in decades) and Clinton won by over 160,000 votes, after Obama’s margin was less than a thousand in 2012? That is exactly the story Andrew Cockburn tells us about Harris County Texas (Houston and the surrounding suburbs).

Cockburn credits the work of three women for those results: Michelle Tremolo, Ginny Goldman and Crystal Zermeno—two of whom met while working for the now-defunct organization ACORN. They created an organization called the Texas Organizing Project (TOP). Given that Texas has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country, the first order of business for TOP was to find out who was not voting.

Digging deep into voter files and other databases, Zermeno confirmed that Texas contained a “wealth of non-voting people of color.” Most of them were registered, but seldom (if ever) turned up at the polls. The problem, she noted, was especially acute with Latinos, only 15 percent of whom were regular voters. In her detailed report, she calculated precisely how many extra voters needed to turn out to elect someone who would represent the interests of all Texans: a minimum of 1.1 million. Fortuitously, these reluctant voters were concentrated in just nine big urban counties, led by Harris.

The next step was one that is too often skipped. TOP wanted to learn why 4 million registered voters of color (likely Democrats) in Texas don’t show up at the polls. They conducted a series of focus groups and, armed with the results, began organizing them to have an impact on local concerns, predominantly criminal justice issues. Starting with the 2012 election, they began mobilizing both volunteers and paid staff to work in their own neighborhoods with relentless efforts to get out the vote. As a result, in that year Latino turnout in Harris County increased by 5%. In 2016, the success wasn’t limited to Harris County.

East Dallas County, a band of suburbs to the east and south of Dallas, comprises House District 107 in the state legislature. Despite a Latino and African-American majority, Republicans have been carrying the district for years, albeit with narrow margins. This time, however, thanks to an intense registration and organizing drive by TOP and other groups, including labor unions, Victoria Neave, the Democratic candidate, ousted her Republican opponent by 836 votes.

Much of the effort to understand what happened in the 2016 election has rightfully focused on how Democrats can win back white voters in the so-called “Rust-Belt” states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Those are important questions to answer going forward. But what might be effective in those states isn’t necessarily a formula for the rest of the country.

It is worth noting that Trump’s margin of victory in Ohio was about the same size as his margin in Texas (both around 8%). That is on the heels of Romney winning Texas by almost 16 points in 2012. As TOP learned, they need about 1.1 million of the 4 million registered non-voters of color in that state to produce a majority and turn Texas blue. The same dynamics are true in states like Arizona and Georgia. If those three states were to vote Democratic, they would provide about the same number of electoral votes (65) as would be captured by Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

As TOP organizers are quick to point out, demographics isn’t destiny. But in some states like Texas, there is a “shadow electorate” to be mobilized. Here is the formula that drove their efforts:

By relentlessly appealing to that shadow electorate, and gradually turning them into habitual voters, TOP could whittle down and eliminate the Republican advantage in elections for statewide offices such as governor and lieutenant governor, not to mention the state’s thirty-eight votes in the presidential Electoral College. In other words, since the existing Texas electorate was never going to generate a satisfactory result, TOP was going to have to grow a new one.

In summary, the formula for Democratic victories in some states is to win back voters the party has lost. In other states, it’s all about growing a new electorate.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.