Several days after Democrats failed, despite everlasting hype, to win Texas in a presidential election, a top Democrat in the state had a stark message for liberals otherwise triumphant about Joe Biden’s overall victory: a lack of in-person canvassing cost Democrats dearly.
“It’s very hard to do effective campaigning with Latinos unless you’re talking to them in person,” Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, told the Huffington Post. “We didn’t do this. Nobody did this.”
The Biden campaign drastically scaled back on door knockers, ceding ground to Republicans in crucial states. Throughout the summer and fall, Biden staffers and their allies argued the risk of contracting COVID-19 and spreading it to others outweighed whatever gains in-person canvassers could make on the ground. While there was little evidence canvassers, properly masked, were in harm’s way — Census workers went door-to-door throughout the year without apparent incident — Democrats largely allowed local Republicans to knock doors uncontested.
Biden, with universal name recognition and a massive budget for television and digital advertisements, survived. But down-ballot Democrats were annihilated.
Hinojosa is right to blame shortsighted and counterproductive tactics.
The numbers speak for themselves. In Starr County, an overwhelmingly Latino area in Texas that borders Mexico, Trump won 47 percent of the vote after scrounging out only 21 percent four years ago. Trump flipped Zapata County, which Clinton had won easily in 2016. Overall, in the Rio Grande Valley, Republicans increased their vote share dramatically in once reliably Democratic strongholds.
The story was the same elsewhere. Though Biden captured the swing states he needed, the down-ballot races were a disaster for Democrats. Instead of gaining House seats in a wave election year, Democrats came dangerously close to losing their majority.
The state houses were arguably worse: from the Sun Belt to the Rust Belt and beyond, Democratic state legislative candidates were defeated, allowing the GOP to retain their ironclad grip on a majority of state capitals.
Democrats didn’t flip a single statehouse. They remained locked out of the majority in large states like North Carolina, Florida, and Texas. For the second decade in a row, local Republicans will control the redistricting process in many states, gerrymandering districts to their benefit. Many ballyhooed attempts to stave off another disaster like the Tea Party wave, when Republicans stormed to victory under President Barack Obama and locked in their gains for the 2010s, went nowhere.
Can all of this be blamed on the Democrats forsaking their ground game? Elections are complicated. Various local party organizations attempted different tactics and messages; candidates, of course, vary, too. There will be many months to dissect a decidedly mixed outcome.
But there is no substitute for in-person campaigning — not text messages, phone calls, or Zoom hangouts. Voters can much more easily blow off a text than a conversation. And canvassing, though expensive for campaigns if done well, can pay dividends in future cycles, as voters develop relationships with a political party, encountering trained emissaries at their doors.
In poorer, less educated communities where Democrats are bleeding support, door knocking becomes even more crucial. Voters there are not engaging regularly with politics. They are working long hours at service-sector or manual labor jobs, not spending their waking moments fretting about incipient fascism on Twitter. If a Republican organizer meets them first, they are that much more likely to vote Republican.
What should disturb Democrats most about 2020 was that they were thoroughly outorganized by a reactionary party with a far less popular political agenda. Even the most right-wing voters tend to reject austerity, preferring that their social security and health care benefits are protected. Support continues to grow for Democrat-backed measures like minimum wage hikes and universal health care. Still, Trump grew his margins with almost every conceivable demographic group. Liberals can only blame Facebook disinformation and Fox News lies for so long.
Either elite Democrats will decide to recommit to organizing in counties they’ve long taken for granted or they can remain hopelessly shut out of power, allowing the Right to chart the destinies of American states for years to come.