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Joe Biden Should Not Mess with Texas

Texas is fool's gold for Democrats. There's a smarter way to hunt after a landslide victory.
July 14, 2020
Joe Biden Should Not Mess with Texas
(Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

News broke over the weekend that Democrats are pushing the Biden campaign to expand their map of target states to include Texas and Georgia. Per Jonathan Martin in the New York Times:

In a series of phone calls, Democratic lawmakers and party officials have lobbied Mr. Biden and his top aides to seize what they believe could be a singular opportunity not only to defeat Mr. Trump but to rout him and discredit what they believe is his dangerous style of racial demagogy.

This election, the officials argue, offers the provocative possibility of a new path to the presidency through fast-changing states like Georgia and Texas, and a chance to install a generation of lawmakers who can cement Democratic control of Congress and help redraw legislative maps following this year’s census.

The Biden campaign trying to make a strong play in Texas is a bad idea for a bunch of reasons.

A parable: Texas is the football. Lucy is the Republicans. And Dems are Charlie Brown thinking that this time, things will be different.

We went through this exercise with Beto O’Rourke and the Senate race in 2018. Beto out-raised Ted Cruz an unthinkable $70 million to $33 million and Cruz still won by more than 2 percentage points. And it’s not like Cruz is popular in the state. Cruz’s approval rating in June of 2018 was a dismal 39 percent.

So with more than twice the money, against an unpopular incumbent, a popular Democrat with a national following who got all of the earned media in the world still couldn’t pull of a win in Texas.

Do you know why?

Because it’s Texas.

Here’s another thing about Texas. It’s enormous. It has 30 million people. That’s more than the combined populations of the three states that handed Trump the presidency by 77,000 votes in 2016, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Playing seriously in a state that large means spending a vast amount of resources. And while Joe Biden’s fundraising has picked up over the past couple of months, he’s still far behind Trump in terms of overall cash on hand.

Looking at total fundraising for the campaigns and the largest outside groups, Politifact reported on July 8 that Biden had raised $491 million to Trump’s $726 million. Biden is sitting with the small stack, which means that he needs to play his hand accordingly. There’s no reason for him to push that many chips into the center of the table to take a run at a state that Trump won by 9 points and where a Democrat presidential candidate hasn’t won since 1976.

That’s just a bad bet, pure and simple.

The good news for the Biden campaign is that Trump’s position is so precarious that he’s going to have to spend money just playing defense in Georgia, Ohio, and Texas—all states that he should be able to take 100 percent for granted. And while Trump has a money advantage, his resources are still finite. Every dollar he spends trying to shore up Texas is a dollar that can’t be spent in Pennsylvania.

The real calculation for Democrats is this: Are they playing to a win, or gambling for a chance at a realigning election?

Because going into Texas would be a gamble unless Democratic donors can find an additional $300 million in the couch cushions in July. Because that’s the kind of financial juice it would take for Dems to try and push the boundaries on the electoral map without sacrificing their chances in swing states where they hold real, but small, leads.

Pushing into Texas would mean that Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are all sewn up with no chance of flipping back. Anyone who sees the race that way must have an awfully short memory.

Those states were Hillary Clinton’s “blue wall.” And while Biden’s polling currently looks stronger in those states than Clinton’s was, there is still a lot of time on the clock.

This weekend Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin—who flipped a house seat in 2018 in a district that Trump won by 7 points—talked with Tim Alberta and warned her fellow Democrats about being confident in the current polls:

“I don’t believe it,” Slotkin says matter of factly. “Listen, if anyone tells me they can accurately predict what major events are coming in the remainder of 2020, I’ll give them a thousand dollars. I mean, this has been the year of black swans…I don’t for one minute think this [presidential] race is safe in anyone’s column. I’ve been literally begging people to ignore those polls. They are a snapshot in time. And if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we have no idea what’s coming next.”

Speaking of not believing polling, there was a Dallas Morning News/UT Tyler poll this weekend that showed Biden leading Trump by 5 points in Texas. Well, that polling outfit gets a B/C rating from FiveThirtyEight. Recent results from more highly rated pollsters, such as Fox News, show a much tighter race with Biden up by only 1 point. Which is to say: Biden isn’t leading at all. He’s just within the margin of error.

Is it crazy that the Democrat is within the margin of error against an incumbent Republican president in Texas? Yes it is. Is it possible Biden could win the state if Trump continues his death spiral? Yes. And the Biden campaign should be pleased, because it’s a sign of how strong his position is nationally.

But you play to win the game.

And in this case, winning the game means getting to 270 Electoral College votes first. And if the blue wave is strong enough to flip Texas on its own, then great.

But you don’t get any extra electors for style points.

This isn’t to say Democrats should focus only on the three key Great Lakes states or decline to press their advantage against a historically unpopular president. But they ought to be smart about it.

Why put all of your chips on one number, where it’s winner-take-all, instead of spreading out your bets across the table? Biden has a bunch of pick up opportunities in states that are more realistic for Democrats, such as Arizona, Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida. Every one of those states is, as a baseline, more favorable ground for Democrats than Texas is. And by putting chips into each of them, they get four chances to win electoral votes, even if the pots are smaller.

And the truth is, while Texas has been the Democrats’ white whale for a generation, the real opportunity to break Trump’s back is in Florida where the pandemic is raging, seniors are frightened, and Biden is leading Trump by 9 points according to a Fox News poll from late June.

Florida is a big prize. Because while Biden has multiple pathways to 270, even without Florida, Trump simply cannot win without it. If Democrats want to bet big on realignment, then Florida is where they should do it.

And if Democratic donors do somehow find that extra $300 million in July, there are still smarter places to invest it than Texas. Like Georgia. Because Georgia is not only theoretically gettable for Biden, but it has two competitive Senate races, too. Dramatic over-performance by Biden could help help flip two Senate seats, making a Democratic takeover of the upper chamber very much within reach. (Democrats would then only need to flip two seats from Arizona, Maine, and Colorado.)

Meanwhile in Texas, most of the good polling still has Republican Senator John Cornyn up by double digits over his potential Democratic challenger (even if he is looking more wobbly this cycle).


Because it’s Texas!

Democrats have their eye on a potential landslide victory, a reality most Republican operatives now understand is a genuine possibility.

But there are smart ways to go hunting for a big win. And there are risky ways.

Don’t mess with Texas.

Sarah Longwell

Sarah Longwell is publisher of The Bulwark.