And as Collin County goes, so will go the State of Texas
Rachel Bitecofer burst onto the political forecaster scene in early 2020 with a radical concept: “There are no swing voters.” Bitecofer, a professor at Christopher Newport University in Virginia, developed a theory that “swing voters,” people who align to one party but can be convinced to vote for another, are rare enough that they don’t have a significant impact on elections. Therefore, parties go to elections with the base of voters that they have, because they are not likely to convince voters of the other party to switch sides. The claim is the party that wins elections is the party that gets out their base to vote, and there is little that political consultants, pollsters, and reporters can do to sway an election. Bold progressives, like former Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, energize the base, and get them to the polls. This is what CD3 needs, right now.
According to Bitecofer, the key to winning elections is to identify your voters, and then work to get them activated and get them to the polls. The side that does that best will win. She even says that the term “base,” which I used above, isn’t that accurate; it is better to define loose coalitions, with the Democratic coalition being people of color, younger people, union households, college-educated whites, and people in metropolitan areas, while the Republican coalition is mostly non-college whites, along with religious-minded voters, financiers and people in business, in largely rural and exurban counties.
Congressional District 3 has been held by a Republican since 1968; in some election years, Democrats didn’t even field a candidate, which happened as recently as 2014. But demographic changes in Collin County, where CD3 is located, are favorable to Democratic candidates finally starting to win elections, not just for CD3 but for other races as well. In 2018, CD3 was open for the first time since 1991, when the long-time incumbent Sam Johnson opted for retirement. Meanwhile, Republican Pete Sessions was running for his 9th term in CD32, facing former NFL player and political rookie Democrat Colin Allred.
CD32 was considered more flippable than CD3 based on 2016, when Hillary Clinton, who lost Texas by 9 points, won CD32 by 2 points. Clinton lost CD3 by 17 points overall, although she did win some specific precincts. Allred organized a long-shot campaign, and in a major upset, ended up defeating Sessions by 6.5 points. Lorie Burch, the Democratic candidate for CD3, lost to Republican Van Taylor, then the incumbent State Senator for District 8, by 10 points.
This was actually surprising, given Bitecofer’s theory of “No swing voters,” even given Clinton’s 2016 loss in CD3. The demographics were there for a Democratic shift, even more so than in CD32.
CD3 has more younger people than CD32, with younger voters growing faster than older voters. Per data.census.gov:
CD3 also has more educated voters than CD32. Again, per data.census.gov:
CD3 has significantly more residents with a Bachelor’s degree or more compared to CD32, and a more educated younger population as well.
Part of these stats can be explained away due to the fact that CD3 actually has a larger population than CD32, with nearly 900,000 people in 2018, compared to about 760,000 for CD32. But the growth in Democratic-leaning voters is dramatic. In 2018, when Lorie Burch lost to Van Taylor for CD3, 31,900 CD3 residents voted in the Democratic primary, compared to 58,547 who voted in the Republican primary. Two years later, practically the same number of residents, 58,676, voted in the 2020 Republican primary, an increase of barely 0.2%. But over 77,000 people voted in the 2020 Democratic primary, a 58% increase over 2018! This massive increase in Democratic turn-out, compared to flat Republican turn-out, is indicative of a motivated Democratic base and bodes well for Democratic candidates.
The growth of the Democratic base, as evidenced by primary voting behavior, is precisely what Bitecofer writes about pertaining to an energized base. Democratic voters hate Trump, and are uniformly unhappy with Republican elected officials who are linked to Trump, including Van Taylor, the CD3 incumbent, who voted with Trump over 95% of the time in his first term.
The key question is, given the demographic changes, why didn’t CD3 flip in 2018, when CD32 did? I think the primary voting chart is indicative of part of the reason; the Republican base was more energized in 2018, and voted in greater numbers, than Democratic voters. Why was this? 2018 had a specific phenomenon named Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic candidate for US Senate, who energized the entire state and very nearly won his race against the incumbent Senator. As much as he got out the Democratic voters, he also energized Republican voters, and that certainly had an impact on overall turnout. But why didn’t Beto’s turnout help other Democratic candidates in Collin County, including CD3? All of them also lost their elections, and all the elected positions remained in Republican hands, including HD66 (lost by less than 400 votes), HD67 (lost by 2.5 points), HD89, and HD70, and Senate District 8. Bottom line: Republicans did a better job of getting their base to turn out.
The good news is, the 2020 Democratic candidates have been fundraising in quantities unseen in decades. If the 2018 Democrats were able to lose by very small margins on shoestring budgets compared to their Republican opponents, the Republicans are in for a rude awakening in 2020. For example, the two Democratic candidates in the run-off for CD3 have already raised more than double what the 2018 candidate raised through the entire election cycle.
In 2020, Democrats have an even better opportunity to flip seats. Given all that is happening in the country and the state, including the very poor and unpopular response by Republican leaders from the President, to the Governor, to the Collin County government to the COVID-19 pandemic, Democratic outrage and energy for change is at an all-time high. This is the “negative partisanship” that Bitecofer writes about. Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are going to vote for Democratic candidates in large numbers because they are angry about Republican’s terrible record of governance, and will turn out in large numbers to vote for Democratic candidates.
Democrats need to lean into this trend and not worry about appealing to the mythical “cross-over” voter. The conventional wisdom has been that Democratic candidates in Collin County should try to present as “moderate” and appeal to cross-over voters, typically so-called “moderate” Republicans. But negative partisanship means that most Republicans are unlikely to vote for Democratic candidates, so Democrats should focus on energizing their base and getting as many to the ballot as possible by presenting candidates that reflect Democratic policy priorities, not candidates with “Republican-lite” priorities. Support for Medicare for All, an assault-style weapons bans, pushing a green energy conversion by 2035, immigration reform including citizenship for Dreamers, and pushing for real police and criminal justice reform to address police brutality are priorities that Democratic voters generally agree on. Our CD3 candidate should focus on these and other Democratic policy priorities, and let the Republican incumbent worry about appealing to his voters. We don’t need those voters to win, we just need to get our base out to vote.
Collin County Democrats have a historic opportunity to flip seats throughout the county that have been held by Republicans for years, in some cases decades, in particular a Congressional District in Republican hands since the late 1960s, Texas Congressional District 3. We have the demographics, we have the highly-motivated and activated base. We need to continue to support fundraising and GOTV activity. Democrats cannot take anything for granted! But with hard work, we have a chance for a historic change this coming November.