In the fall of 2020, nine weeks ahead of an election that Beto O’Rourke had dubbed a “defining moment of truth for this country,” the former El Paso congressman and failed presidential candidate took to Twitter to rally Texas Democrats. “Texas isn’t a red state,” he declared, announcing a phone-banking effort. “It’s a non-voting state.” On the latter point, O’Rourke was right: Texas has historically had lower voter turnout than most states. But his implication was that if Democrats could get large numbers of nonvoters to the polls, they’d win—not such a sure thing. 

That November, millions of new voters did go to the polls. More Texans voted than ever before, in fact, with the highest percentage turning out since 1992. But Republicans won just about everything up and down the ballot, taking every statewide race and dashing Democrats’ hopes of capturing numerous GOP-held seats in Congress and the Texas House. 

No matter: Democrats were still convinced that turning out the nonvoters could lead them to victory. Last November, O’Rourke announced a run for governor in another election whose importance his backers spoke about in existential terms—“everything’s at stake,” according to a robocall from Barack Obama. Outlining his path to victory in a state that had not elected a Democratic statewide candidate in 28 years, O’Rourke recycled an old line. “Texas is not a red state,” his campaign boasted on its “Plan to Win” web page. “It’s a non-voting state. The key to winning this election is increasing voter turnout.”

History didn’t repeat itself, but it rhymed. Republicans won every statewide race by at least nine percentage points, making Texas a national outlier in an election that went surprisingly well for Democrats. But unlike in 2020, a majority of eligible Texas voters stayed home during early voting and on Election Day or declined to send in ballots by mail. Slightly more than 8 million Texans cast ballots; around 11 million who were eligible did not. 

The second half of O’Rourke’s repeated aphorism is undeniably true: Texas is a nonvoting state. But Democrats have been saying this for at least a decade, and they have never demonstrated an ability to change that fact. The central question for Democrats, once again looking for answers after an election, is clear: why aren’t the nonvoters supporting them?

O’Rourke—along with other state Democratic leaders—has long invoked a politically convenient explanation: voter turnout in Texas is low, they argue, because the state is one of the most difficult to vote in. And they have a point: Texas is one of the hardest states in the country in which to register to vote—and once someone is registered, it’s one of the hardest to cast a ballot in. But voter suppression alone doesn’t explain what happened here in 2022. Around 9.6 million Texans who were registered to vote did not cast ballots—including nearly 2.5 million folks who had voted in one of the previous two midterm elections, according to Texas political consultant and data guru Derek Ryan. 

What else can explain this year’s low turnout? In the wake of the election, the chairman of the Texas Democratic party, Gilberto Hinojosa, pointed the finger at poor GOTV (get out the vote) efforts targeting Texans who rarely vote. “We did not spend enough time trying to get low-propensity voters out,” Hinojosa told the Texas Tribune. “We know that’s the solution but we have to spend the money to get it done.”

Indeed, turnout in the bluest areas of the state was dismal. When I was reporting a story on nonvoters before the election, former Democratic statewide candidates told me that incumbent members of Congress knew they’d win thanks to the state’s 2021 gerrymandering, so they didn’t even try to juice turnout in their districts, even though it would help the statewide Democratic slate. That certainly seemed to be borne out by this year’s results. Of Texas’s 38 congressional districts—at least 35 of which were gerrymandered to be solid Republican or Democratic holds—only 8 had turnout above 50 percent, and seven of those seats were GOP holds. (Democratic congressman Lloyd Doggett’s Austin-based district was the lone exception.) Of the 15 districts where turnout failed to reach 40 percent, 10 were Democratic wins (all of which had also been won by Democrats in 2020). 

When I set out to find out why so many Texans, particularly those in the state’s bluest areas, don’t vote, I traveled to El Paso—the lowest-turnout major city in Texas and a Democratic stronghold—and found likely nonvoters at convenience stores, grocery emporiums, and bars. Their reasons for abstaining were eclectic, but one common reply I heard—especially from former Democratic voters—is that they felt nothing ever changed even if their preferred candidates won. 

Outside a Dollar General one Saturday morning, I met Mario, a 27-year-old man the O’Rourke campaign and the state Democratic party would almost certainly have modeled as a low-propensity voter worth targeting. He was a young Latino living in O’Rourke’s reliably blue home county. And he was a government employee—part of a group more likely to vote than those in other professions—who had voted for a Democrat in the past (Obama in 2012, the first election in which he was eligible to vote). But Mario assured me he had no interest in casting a ballot this year, despite whatever Democratic candidates like O’Rourke were promising. “I just believe that none of the candidates offer anything and actually go through with it,” he told me. 

Many local and statewide Democratic leaders told me they believed the party’s slate was running on issues that would appeal to infrequent voters such as Mario. By definition, low-propensity voters don’t vote often, but when they do, they are highly motivated in response to short-term political forces, according to Daron Shaw, a political scientist at the University of Texas. And across the state, Democratic county chairs told me they had one such force: they were convinced that the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, which overturned Roe v. Wade and nullified the constitutional right to abortion, was inspiring nonvoters to register and support Democrats, who favored expanding abortion access. 

That wasn’t borne out by the election results. According to Ryan’s data, fewer Texans registered after the Dobbs decision, issued on June 24, than the number that did for the 2018 midterm election after the same date. And only 47.7 percent of those who registered after Dobbs actually voted, compared with 67.3 percent of those who registered during the same time period four years ago. 

We’ll never know how the election would have gone without the Supreme Court ruling; perhaps Texas Democrats would have lost by even greater margins. But there’s reason to believe nonvoters in the state just aren’t as liberal—or as motivated by liberal issues—as Democrats assume. Operatives and pollsters in both parties, using data including prior voting records and consumer habits (for instance, does a prospective voter shop at Whole Foods or Cabela’s?), largely agree on their estimates of the partisan allegiances of nonvoters: around 55 percent of Texas’s nonvoters lean Democratic, they say, against 45 percent who lean Republican. 

Even if Texas Democrats did a far better job of reaching nonvoters who lean their way, they would have a difficult time overcoming the Republicans’ success at turning out Texans who favor them. According to Ryan’s data, Republicans won the 2022 turnout battle in every cross section of their base: Texans who’d voted in four GOP primaries were more likely to have voted this year than four-time Democratic primary voters, three-time GOP primary voters turned out at higher rates than three-time Democratic primary voters, and so on. Three-quarters of a million Texans who’d voted in a Democratic primary—as good a sign someone is a Democrat as you’ll find in a state without registration by party—failed to turn out this November. O’Rourke would have needed to win 60 percent of voters without any primary-voting history to win this year. Instead, Abbott captured a slim majority of those former nonvoters, on his way to winning by 12 percentage points overall. 

The state Democratic party, and the O’Rourke campaign, poured resources into trying to run up the margin with Texans less likely to vote, believing that registering and turning out historical nonvoters would be a crucial part of the path to victory. Before the election, many campaigns asserted that nonvoters were set to be an ace in the hole for Democrats—not only this year, but in elections to come. “The raw math suggests that there are enough of these low-investment voters to win Texas,” Jason Lee, the Beto for Texas deputy campaign manager, told me in September. “We like to say we can never run out of those targets, we can never get to them all, because there’s so many of them.” 

Indeed, there are so many of them. Unfortunately for Democrats, the party still hasn’t found a formula for getting a substantial number—let alone all of them—to turn out.