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Election Plight

In which Joshua Treviño and Harold Cook swap emails (and opinions) about the 2012 election, political trends, and what happens next in Texas.

By November 2012Comments

Joshua Treviño is the Vice President for External Relations at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a co-founder of RedState.com, and possibly worse than you’ve heard. You can follow him @jstrevino.

Harold Cook, a Texas progressive who’s been in a bad mood for years, provides both humorous political satire and serious analysis to private clients, television audiences, and readers of his blog, LettersFromTexas.com. You can follow him @HCookAustin.

••••• 

From: Joshua Treviño
To: Harold Cook
Date: November 7, 2012, 11:33 a.m.

Dear Harold,

In the immortal words of Ron Burgundy, “Boy, that escalated quickly! I mean, that really got out of hand fast!” The President’s reelection victory was, to me, in the bag by around 7 pm yesterday, when it became clear that Romney’s path required a three- or four-state turnaround. He might get one or two of them, I thought, but not enough to get over the top. Sadly, my keen nose for electoral disaster, honed by having partaken of it in ample measure in the past, proved accurate.

And what a disaster it was: at this writing, 303 electoral votes for the President versus 206 for Romney; a 2-point popular-vote victory; and retention of Virginia and Florida from his 2008 win. This election, to my mind, is more historic than the 2008 blowout. There was always a suspicion—and not just on my side!—that what happened then was a unique and irreproducible moment, born of a global economic crisis, war weariness, a remarkably inept GOP campaign, and media swoon over the candidate that San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford dubbed “the Lightworker”. Surely the cold light of economic misery and policy failure over the past four years would right the ship. Well, now we know: it wasn’t and it didn’t.

That’s the big takeaway in my book, and it’s why I’m calling 2012 the liberals’ 1980. This is the moment when a coalition emerged that will likely be with us for the next generation: minorities, women, youth, and whites at the upper- and lower-income extremes. The Democrats have been trying to assemble this coalition, more or less, since 1972, in no small part because they haven’t won the white vote in a Presidential election since 1964, and finally the demographics made it work. The Romney campaign rolled the dice on the chance that Republicans had one more cycle with the old model, and consequently won whites by a margin of, I believe, about 20%. The results speak for themselves.

If you’re thinking, at this point, “Hey, this is hugely applicable to Texas, with its impending Hispanic plurality,” congratulations. (I know you are, Harold, but I understand these emails are being leaked to local press.) We should be wary of assuming national electoral coalitions are reproduced in toto at the state level, but it’s fair to say that when and if Texas Hispanics vote in proportion to their numbers, they’ll be strongly Democratic. This changes things in ways that doubtless make a Democratic consultant’s heart soar.

I focus on Hispanics partly because they’re so significant in Texas, and also because nationally, they’re a major group with whom the Republicans can plausibly make inroads, which would challenge the new Obama coalition. (The other major group is women, who I think are less monolithic than presented—but that’s another discussion.) Romney yesterday ceded a whopping 71% of the Hispanic vote to the President. That’s extraordinary, and speaks to an important point that I look forward to deploying rather often in the forthcoming intra-movement debates: any of the other major GOP-primary contenders—Governor Perry, Senator Santorum, Speaker Gingrich—would (ceteris paribus!) likely have done just as well among whites yesterday, and significantly better among Hispanics. And that just might have made the difference.

Harold, you speak from the side of the victor today. I look forward to your pronouncements on the new order. May we agree on one point from the start? That is this: the 2016 field on both sides is going to be amazing.

Yours in defeat,
Joshua Treviño

++++++

From: Harold Cook
To: Joshua Treviño
Date: Wednesday, November 7, 2012, 2:29 p.m.

Dear Josh,

I am not without my sympathies. As a Texas Democrat, I’ve been there. Hell, as a Texas Democrat, I live there.

Your points on coalition-building are well-taken. Put differently, or perhaps extended: the Republican Party simply cannot ignore—or worse, pick on, scapegoat, or otherwise rhetorically molest—entire swathes of the electorate all year, and then expect them to have collective amnesia, forgive all that, jump in the car and show up on election night, just because Republicans texted.

In politics, as in life, if you’re making enemies faster than you’re making friends, you’re doing it wrong. In the face of undeniable demographic and voting behavior shifts that have added to the clout of women and amplified the influence of minorities, too many Republican nominees said and did too many stupid things. They were richly punished for it.

It’s not hard to understand how it could happen. Republican candidates have understandably, over the past several election cycles, developed an absolute terror of their own primary voters. As Mr. Romney himself learned, the things you must say to win a Republican primary these days are nothing short of amazing. And the only thing worse than a candidate like Romney, who was faking it, are the Tea Party-fueled candidates—like Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana—who weren’t.

We Texans are used to this sort of thing. Since Democrats haven’t won a statewide election since 1994, when this year’s college freshmen were born, statewide Republicans well understand that all one must do to win public office around here is win their primary. And so, not irrationally, the only voters Republican candidates in Texas have effectively communicated with in recent years are their own primary voters. Too often they’ve done so by appealing to the worst instincts of the party faithful. The scapegoats in that narrative have included women, students, minorities, gay Americans, and disaffected Anglos. Sure, it’s been more than enough to win statewide elections. But it doesn’t grow a political party. Over time, in fact, it shrinks one.

“But what about our prize Latino, Ted Cruz?!” Republicans screech. Mighty good spin, but not only was Mr. Cruz not elected by Latino voters, last night’s results show that he didn’t even appeal to Latino voters in the slightest. Cruz was effectively elected by a tiny slice of the most right-wing, and Anglo, Texans: those who vote in Republican primary runoff elections. And in last night’s general, Cruz got pounded in many of the counties controlled by Latino voters. Mr. Cruz was elected last night for only one reason: he wasn’t the Democrat in the race. That’s not exactly hero material, nor is it a path forward for a political party attracting fewer and fewer voters among the fastest-growing demographic in the state.

Wendy Davis’ win in the state senate race in Fort Worth represents another case in which Republicans are holding themselves back. Even though the federal courts had little trouble wrapping their heads around the intentional discrimination, as courts termed it, in the Republican-drawn redistricting maps, Republicans have been unwilling to acknowledge it. To be sure, Senator Davis is a great candidate, and she undoubtedly gets her fair share of independent voters. But minorities control the outcome of elections in that district, and this is the second election in which Davis has proved it by attracting virtually all of their votes, and winning. Yet best I can tell, Republicans made little effort, and no headway, in attracting minority support there.

It would be one thing if electoral results like these had been engineered by a Democratic Party so brilliant that they successfully attracted the coalition of women, minorities, working families, and disaffected Anglos with whom they won nationally last night. But I bluntly doubt we’re that brilliant. My strong suspicion is that Democrats won based on a coalition of voters that Republicans effectively offended and forced out. Let me say that again, because Republicans should ponder it: Democrats didn’t create the coalition you describe, as much as Republicans repelled the coalition with which Democrats won.

And therein also lies Texas Democrats’ greatest challenge looking forward. It’s not as if we’ve been doing a bang-up job statewide of working to attract those voters; underfunding in recent years has prevented the Democratic Party from doing so, to say nothing of the poor choices of various better-funded statewide Democrats. And it’s not as if any group anywhere is genetically predisposed to vote Democratic, or to not vote Republican. Rather, it has mainly been the Republican Party’s focus on communicating only with its own primary voters which has alienated women and minority voters in the state and, at best, prevented Republicans from making inroads with them.

While Democrats benefitted from it last night—even in Texas—they’d be well-advised to learn how to stand on their own two feet with those voters, before Republicans crack the code.

My best wishes for a sane holiday season, before what promises to be an insane legislative session,
Harold

••••••

From: Joshua Treviño
To: Harold Cook
Date: November 5, 2012, 10:38 p.m.

Dear Harold,

Our long national nightmare is ending, by which I mean the agony of watching a few hundred million fellow Americans try to decide who will head the executive branch of the federal government. And by “agony,” I mean “surpassing democratic majesty.” In the great debate between Federalists and Jeffersonians of the 1790s—in which the former condemned mass democracy as unworkably problematic and the latter celebrated it as glorious and true—the wonder is that both sides turned out to be quite right.

I sense that our Texas Monthly betters would like to see a prediction from one or both of us on what’s happening this evening. As my employer, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, is resolutely nonpartisan, I can assure you that what follows is solely a sober assessment of the merits: the only sure thing is lots of drinking—which, Harold, I believe you’ve covered aptly on your own blog. Whether the drinking is in celebration or commiseration depends on the fortunes of the respective candidates.

And what will they be? Well, folks on the GOP side are plenty fired up, and you can find lots of smart people—from Michael Barone to George Will to Ben Domenech—who make convincing cases for a Romney win. In their defense, I don’t think anyone can deny that the President’s campaign is badly underperforming. The reelect effort obviously agrees with quite a bit of the critique of their candidate’s record, and so we’ve spent most of the past several months on manufactured distractions from Sandra Fluke to Big Bird. That character has worn its welcome thin, as has the Muppet, but both served their purpose: to fire up a base in what has become a base election. Goodbye, transformative candidate of 2008. The campaign that came into office promising to slow the rise of the oceans has ended with the oceans coursing through Staten Island neighborhoods.

On the other hand, there are the numbers, and they don’t look like a Romney smash this evening. I am not of the Paul Krugman school that holds disputation of Nate Silver to be a crime against math and science on par with the conviction of Galileo. Modern polling is quite good, if necessarily inexact, and it’s showing the President racking up narrow leads where he needs them: Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, etc.

With this in mind, I am haunted by Business Insider‘s Joe Weisenthal, who observed on Monday morning that “it’s the losing side that spends most of the time parsing the data. The winning side looks at the headline of polls.”

That’s true! I know because long ago, I was a California Republican, and we honed poll-based self-deception into a fine art. I’ll never forget the 2010 US Senate primary there, in which (present-day Romney advisor) Justin Hart and I went through an exercise trying to discern how a twenty-point gap between our guy, current TPPF VP for Communications Chuck DeVore, and the eventual nominee, Carly Fiorina, could close up on its own. The way we figured it, if a series of megastorms hit the coastal regions, Los Angeles was attacked by Godzilla, and seventy percent of voters had a personal crisis of conscience in the voting booth, we could just eke it out. As an alternative, delaying the election until the middle of 2017 would intersect our trend lines with hers. (Spoiler: We lost.)

Harold, I’m sure y’all in the Texas Democrats have similar stories. Lots and lots of similar stories. Bottom line is that a Romney win, in my book, is plausible—but it depends upon phenomena that are essentially un-trackable now. The fog of war descends.

As for what this election means for Texas, I think I’ll leave that to the next round of this correspondence, but let me preview the issues at stake. The President has campaigned on the strength of the fracking revolution, while his EPA has spent the past several years trying to quash it in the Lone Star State. Medicaid threatens to overwhelm the next biennial state budget. Dodd-Frank is depressing business credit in places that need it, such as the Rio Grande Valley, and Obamacare is going to drag down entrepreneurial activity from Beaumont to El Paso. The presidency isn’t the sole determinant of federal policy, but it’s arguably the single most important one—and with Texas doing more than its share to prop up the national economy over the past few years, it matters to us more than most.

But that’s for next time. Harold, I yield the floor, and close in the fashion of the Duke of Wellington, who once ended a letter to a detested foe with:

Your obedient servant,
(which you know damned well I am not)

Though as you are not a detested foe, I will modify to merely:

Your disobedient servant,
Joshua Treviño

++++++ 

From: Harold Cook
To: Joshua Treviño
Date: November 6, 2012, 9:30 a.m.

Dear Josh,

I love commiserating with folks on “the other side.” It completely freaks out all the other folks on the first side. I especially like going to lunch with well-known conservatives, deliberately settling on a restaurant sure to be full of legislators, lobbyists, political activists, journalists, and other such scoundrels. I can see the deep suspicion in their eyes. It must be similar to what a philanderer goes through when he realizes, to his horror, that his spouse regularly compares notes with his mistress.

Fact is, folks like us usually agree on more fundamentals than most expect. You’re exactly right on the oddities of American presidential elections. We joyously celebrate an event which saturates and consumes the entire nation for months, knowing all along that the outcome will be one which makes almost exactly half of us feel completely miserable.

The President, whether underperforming or not, will almost certainly win his reelection today. And while, as you noted, a lot of smart Republicans who get paid by the networks would beg to differ, I frankly believe that is mainly because so many of them have spent the past year at cocktail parties, explaining to wealthy attendees that if they’d just write that million-dollar check to their favorite Republican superPAC, the White House and the Senate majority would be theirs to plunder.

Thank goodness, they must now be thinking, for Hurricane Sandy. Every good political narrative requires both a hero and a villain. And conservative pundits stuck insisting that the polling is indeed skewed, and that Romney will win, fully intend on maintaining their hero status, or at least achieving victim status, after they’re proven dead wrong tonight. To maintain that facade, their villain will be a storm clearly not under their control—without which, they will claim, their brilliant predictions would have come true.

And thank goodness, as those who side with my electoral predictions presumably agree, for Nate Silver. Because while I have not accepted Nate as my personal savior per se, I have admittedly, through reading his stuff all year, developed a strong relationship with him, although we’re still seeing other people. And just like those Republican pundits intend to blame Sandy when they’re proven wrong, I fully intend to blame Silver in the event I’m wrong. Like I said, every political narrative requires both a hero and a villain. If he’s right, I’ll buy his next book. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

Assuming I’m right and the President wins, it will not be because Obama’s campaign manufactured distractions like those you describe. Rather, it will be in part because the President’s team successfully capitalized on the distractions Mr. Romney so dependably provided. Fact is, Republicans were duped. You were robbed. You’ve been scammed. After the many excruciating months of your nominating process, Mr. Romney victoriously exited from the clown car by promising that if you would nominate him, he would invest the rest of the year in making the election a referendum on the economic policies of the President. But after you nominated him, he never quite got around to it. 

Sure, he tried from time to time, but the Republicans got so caught up in the tactical gotcha-of-the-day, veering off toward the next shiny object, that they largely succeeded in making the election about Mr. Romney’s own distractions. Yes, Republicans must be frustrated with the pounding Democrats waged on Big Bird, but it was Mr. Romney, not Democrats, who brought up the Muppet in the first place. And it was the the words and actions of Republicans, not Democrats, that made Sandra Fluke a household name. When Romney supporters complain about the distractions of this election, they need look no further than their own nominee and his team to place the blame.

So here we are on election day, watching Team Romney explain why all the numbers are wrong, even as they desperately try to avoid thinking about what almost always happens to campaigns that explain why all the numbers are wrong. Tonight will feel like a big win to the nation’s progressives, and in a sense it will be—the threat will have been quelled. 

But speaking authoritatively, as a Texas progressive, we’ve been losing so long we don’t even know how to win right. If the results are as I predict, this will at its heart be nothing more than a national status quo-election. We’ll have the same President. The US Senate will still have the same narrow Democratic majority. The US House will still have its Republican majority. That doesn’t seem like a huge step forward to me. At least it’s not a step backward.

And speaking of Texas, while Romney may be looking somewhat hapless nationally, polling would indicate that he still has plenty of hap to spare around these parts. What do you think the Romney effect will be on the Texas ballot?

Somewhat sincerely,
HC

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