At long last, the conventions are behind us. If you watched them both, my condolences. The Democrats’ virtual gathering was alternately grim and corny, in the party’s traditional style. One moment Michelle Obama warned the audience that the United States is about six months away from the Thunderdome. Then the program cut to an incredibly goofy music video of a sixties protest song sung by Billy Porter in long, flowing robes, edited like a segment from the sketch comedy Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job.
The Republican convention, meanwhile, featured a series of speakers in front of a massive classical edifice decorated with about four hundred American flags, in the traditional Republican style. With no one present, the room seemed to exist outside of time and space. On the first night, Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former Fox News star turned adviser to Donald Trump, and girlfriend of Donald Jr., shouted and gesticulated like Mussolini’s granddaughter, warning that Democrats would bring “discarded heroin needles” to America’s parks. “Don’t let them step on you,” she said, “don’t let them destroy your family, your lives, and your future!” To borrow from Molly Ivins, the speech doubtless sounded better in the original Italian. On the convention’s final night, Trump droned on for seventy minutes in the sing-songy style he often adopts when reading from a teleprompter. He was followed by a sweaty Italian tenor belting out songs from the White House balcony, including Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which is, quite famously, about feeling horny and sad.
But we have cause for rejoicing! With the conventions behind us, the nominees are set and general election season is here. In two months, we can put this fever dream of an election behind us. For now, everyone keeps saying Texas, where early voting commences in 43 days, is a swing state. Indeed, Texas Democrats have the best shot this year they’ve had since at least 2008 to win a measure of power in Austin, and Texas Republicans are fighting like hell to stop it. There’s also a handful of high-profile congressional races drawing big money from out of state. But neither of the presidential campaigns are, as of yet, treating Texas as a true battleground. And the conventions themselves served as confirmation that they’re probably not going to.
Thanks for reading Texas Monthly
Texas Democratic party chair Gilberto Hinojosa and former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro objected loudly to the fact that the Democratic convention featured few Texans and few Hispanic speakers to appeal to the voters who are key to flipping the state. Although it’s fair to wonder if Castro’s real objection is that he wasn’t asked to speak, both were right: Texas played a very minor role at the convention. State representative Victoria Neave of Dallas was rewarded for her early support of Biden with a small speaking slot, and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo read part of the preamble to the Constitution one night. North Dallas congressman Colin Allred got a turn to speak briefly as one of seventeen “rising stars” in the party. Beto O’Rourke popped up too, in a roundtable of former candidates discussing Biden, but you could easily have missed him.
By contrast, look at who filled the headlining speaking slots: high-profile, popular politicians from Midwestern states. Former governor John Kasich of Ohio, governors Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Tony Evers of Wisconsin, and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Add to that list many other members of Congress from the Rust Belt who also had speaking slots. And of course, the convention itself was held in Milwaukee.
This approach makes perfect sense. Biden, the kid from Scranton, is playing it safe. Hillary Clinton’s campaign earned eternal infamy by underinvesting in the so-called Democratic firewall states, and lost because they flipped red for the first time in decades. Biden’s going to these actual swing states and looking for swing voters—Democrats who didn’t show up in 2016 and those who pulled the lever for Obama and then for Trump. (That he’s looking for these voters is perhaps another reason why Castro—whose campaign was most famous for his substantively meritorious but politically dangerous stand in favor of decriminalizing border crossings—was nowhere to be seen.)
The Biden campaign is aware that Texas isn’t likely to be a tipping point state. If Texas flips blue, that’ll mean the former vice president has probably won many other crucial states already. But if Texas stays red after Biden invests time and money here, while he also loses Wisconsin and Michigan, he’s sunk. Sure, Biden’s set up a proper campaign organization in the state with some respectable figures in charge. And sure, as Clinton did, he’s bought some ads here. When the Democratic presidential candidate makes a tiny media buy in Texas, it precipitates a lot of headlines about how Texas is in play—and Democrats would love to scare Republicans into spending money to defend Texas. But pending a dramatic change in strategy, a big push by the Biden campaign in Texas is not forthcoming.
By that same token, if Trump loses Texas, he’s probably lost across the country in a landslide, which ought to become obvious about the time polls close in Pennsylvania and Florida. So he also doesn’t have much incentive to focus his attention here beyond the bare minimum. Trump’s banking on Republican base turnout in Texas to carry the state for him, because he couldn’t win back independent voters here even if he wanted: over the last two years, his approval rating among self-identified independents in Texas has dropped from 55 percent to 36 percent, while his disapproval rating has jumped from 35 percent to 50 percent.
That helps explain why there were exceedingly few Texans in the Republican convention lineup. Congressman Dan Crenshaw gave a very brief speech from the deck of the battleship Texas, but he was the only elected Texan to speak. (The 2012 and 2016 conventions featured three elected officials from Texas each.) Viewers might have wondered if Ted Cruz would make a surprise appearance, redeeming himself for his disastrous 2016 convention speech, in which he did not endorse Trump. He had exactly the speech to do so prepared this year. But he wasn’t asked to give it—so he delivered it to a reporter instead.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, for his part, said the lack of focus on Texas at the convention was a “very positive sign” that Trump’s campaign feels its has the state on lockdown. Dallas businessman Roy Bailey, who serves as a national cochair of the Trump campaign, echoed that sentiment, telling a Dallas TV station that anyone who considered Texas up for grabs “is just full of malarkey.” When pressed on whether Trump would spend money in Texas, Bailey replied, “I hope he doesn’t.”
The fun of living in a battleground state is that presidential candidates are supposed to be desperate for your support and ready to cater to your interests. Independent voters in Ohio and New Hampshire ruled America circa 2000. Candidates came to your living room and begged you on hands and knees to call your undecided aunt in Cincy or Manchester and win them over. That’s not Texas this year. There’s too much else going on.
Don’t fret, though. Some six weeks before Biden’s campaign in Texas started staffing up, four Democratic strategists worth watching—including the field director for Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign and the cofounder of the Texas Organizing Project—formed a new political action committee: Beat Abbott PAC. Maybe it’s 2022, not 2020, that bears watching.