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Obama's Texas Strategy: and the Generational Hispanic Campaign

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Listen up friends. If you're interested in the future of Democratic campaigns in this country, there's a name you need to know. It's James Aldrete of Austin, Texas.

Write it down. Stamp it. Earmark it, and commit it to memory.

If tracking polls hold, Barack Obama should clench the Democratic presidential nomination on Tuesday by carrying the popular vote in Texas. And if that happens, it's going to be largely due to the media campaign and placement strategy crafted for him by Aldrete, 41, the most talented political ad man of his generation in Texas.

I've spoke to Aldrete last week for the first time in more than a decade. I met him in 1996, when I was communications director for the Texas Democratic Party and was handling media for the Clinton-Gore/Texas Democratic Party coordinated campaign. He's a gentleman and a class act. He's also young enough -- at least at heart -- to be professionally hungry and ready to move to the really, really big leagues.

"It has taken everything that has happened to this point for him to be in this place," said Aldrete, characteristically humble when I suggested that his work could seal the nomination for Obama.

Aldrete offered the usual line about going after every vote, but there clearly was something prescient in the way he talked about a special block that could be the key to Obama's success and the rebirth of the Texas Democratic Party: young urban minority (black and Hispanic) voters.

"There's a lot of chicken bone analysis right now trying to figure out what group will be what percent of the vote," Aldrete said, acknowledging that Clinton has an "institutional advantage" with Hispanic voters who live in the border region that stretches from El Paso through Laredo into South Texas and the Rio Grade Valley.

Last week, in The Mauro Factor, I wrote that Clinton's chances in Texas depend largely on her ability to run-up large margins there. I also wrote that Obama's losses in California, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico make Texas a must-win state for him because Republicans have decided a nominee who hails form the Southwest moderate records on immigration and trade that could prove attractive to many Latinos.

Aldrete sees it differently.

He concedes the Clinton campaign is strong in South Texas, because a number of community leaders from that part of the state were tapped in the 1990s for positions in Bill Clinton's administration. But over generations, he said, Texas Hispanics have become a more complex voting block.

Families who settle in counties along the Mexican border have a tradition of sacrificing to educate their children, who then move inland for professional jobs in Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Dallas-Ft. Worth. Ironically, the younger generations aren't as closely tied to the political identities of their parents as consultants often assume.

It's that ethos -- bound in the American dream of creating a better life for the next generation -- that Aldrete's chosen as Obama's calling card to the young urban minorities he believes will help carry the state on Tuesday.

"He (Obama) is a lot like us in the family he came from," Aldrete said.

"Scholarships helped him find his way, and he's making sure that that American dream and pathway is available to everyone, just like it was to him."

The focus of that idea -- for now -- is the Texas primary and the 2008 Democratic nomination, but it also has all kinds of long-term implications for the Texas Democratic Party and thus the national, red-state/ blue-state electoral map.

Glenn Smith, a senior fellow at the progressive Rockridge Institute, has watched Texas politics for a quarter century, first as a political reporter for the Houston Chronicle and later as press spokesman for Ann Richards' 1990 gubernatorial campaign and as campaign manager for Tony Sanchez, the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial nominee.

Smith is one of many seasoned Texas politicos sky-high on Aldrete.

"James loves the strategic and creative things in campaigns," Smith said. "He always starts from scratch, and he doesn't treat people like they are a template. He creates every one of his campaigns like a new problem to be solved."

Texas Democrats have not won a statewide race since 1994, the campaign cycle I was communications director for the state party.

Smith says, and I agree, that a big part of that has been the result of a foolish strategy that focused too many resources on "swing voters" in counties that were trending Republican anyway, and too few resources on building loyalty and infrastructure among the growing demographics of the party's base in the state's urban areas.

That growing urban constituency helped elect and re-elect Ron Kirk and Lee Brown (both African-Americans and both Democrats) mayors of Dallas and Houston respectively a total of five times between 1995 and 2004.

And the urban areas of the state are where Aldrete, who notes that Harris County (Houston) has 1 million Hispanic residents, seems ready to make his stand.

Tracking polls released on Monday by the Houston Chronicle gave Obama a statewide lead within the margin of error (47-44 w/ 6 percent undecided). Internal numbers show Obama ahead 2-1 statewide with voters under 30, and with significant margins in Dallas and Houston.

That plays to an urban strategy, which Ross Ramsey, former capital bureau chief of the Dallas Times Herald and editor of Texas Weekly, the state's leading political newsletter, says is the wave of the future.

"The Hispanic population as a block has a lower average age than the rest of the population, somewhere in the high 20s," Ramsey said.

Ramsey noted that the last time anyone in Texas voted for a Clinton was 1996, and he believes the campaign models Democrats used successfully in the 1980s and early 1990s have played out.

"That's the arch bishop and the unions and all that rolled up into one this time, and that old s--- don't work any more," he said.

Let me be clear: This isn't meant to call the race for Obama. It simply is too close to call. But two months ago, Clinton had what seemed like an insurmountable advantage in statewide name identification and a campaign organization bolstered by three decades of loyal working friendships.

Those advantages are gone.

San Antonio is the gateway to South Texas; but it's a city, and it's at least 150 miles from the Mexican border. It's always the hardest place in Texas to predict in terms of how the electorate will vote. Sixty-one percent of its 1.3 million residents identify as Hispanic origin, but it also has one of the largest military -- and elderly retired military -- communities in the country.

Obama's coming to San Antonio for his final rally of the Texas-Ohio stint in this campaign; it's where he plans to speak to the country that night. If Aldrete's plan holds, it will be where he takes the mantle as ersatz nominee of the Democratic Party.