McALLEN, Texas ― Between Danny Diaz and the voters he wants to reach, there stands a fence.
Usually, it’s a chain-linked fence, sometimes topped with barbed wire. There are picket fences, cinder-block fences and fences with metal railings capped with three-point tips. One of the grandest houses in the neighborhood where Diaz’s canvassers are knocking on doors has a fence with brick pilings and white stiles. It’s lined with statues of lions. And behind the fences, there’s usually at least one dog.
“They make it hard to get to the door,” Diaz said. “You gotta look for that one person who knows everybody.”
As a founder of Cambio Texas, a group dedicated to boosting the rock-bottom voter turnout rates of Hispanics in South Texas, it’s Diaz’s mission to get past the fences to the families inside. If your name is in his app, it’s because you’re registered to vote but haven’t been showing up. Cambio spends its time in working-class neighborhoods and in the unincorporated settlements along the border known as “colonias” in Hidalgo County, talking to people who almost never get contacted by political campaigns.
Beto O’Rourke, the hottest candidate that Democrats have put up for statewide office in Texas for the better part of two decades, needs exactly these voters to turn out if he is going to beat Ted Cruz and win a Senate seat. But with Election Day a few weeks away, the Beto campaign faces the same problem Democrats always face in this state and across much of the country: how to drive Latino voters, who skew Democratic when they vote, to the polls.
Progressives hope that hostility to Trump will motivate Latinos to vote in greater numbers this year. But that hope should be tempered by the reality that activists like Diaz face: This is the work most likely to make a difference. It’s slow. It’s often unsuccessful. And in Texas, it’s only just beginning.
Cambio Texas is one of several groups trying to mobilize the Latino vote in Texas, and it’s far from the largest. But Diaz, the son of farmworkers and a longtime community activist in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, believes the group he co-founded in Hidalgo County has some of the key ingredients for success.
Low Latino voter participation rates have become an existential threat to the Democratic Party in a majority-minority state whose demographics actually favor them. Republicans hold the governorship, majorities in both houses of the state legislature and haven’t lost a statewide election since 1994. No other state in the Deep South can boast such longstanding conservative control.
In 2014, Democratic Party operatives built a multimillion-dollar effort led by organizing group Battleground Texas, rallying behind the candidacy of abortion-restriction filibusterer Wendy Davis. She lost her campaign for the governorship to Greg Abbott by more than 20 percentage points. President Donald Trump’s fulminations against Mexicans and vilification of the border on the 2016 campaign trail likewise spurred no surge of Hispanic voter mobilization in Texas.
Having worked on the 2014 turnout campaign, Diaz is less inclined than most political observers to write it off as a flop. But he did see a problem — the efforts were led largely by out-of-staters unfamiliar with the region. At a barbeque he organized in a colonia to drum up support for Davis, he recalled a campaigner from the Northeast trying to convert residents to vegetarianism.
Cambio’s volunteers, by contrast, are locals, most of whom speak Spanish and look like the people they’re talking to — an element that political science research generally views as key for success. Several of the canvassers can’t vote themselves, either because of their immigration status or because they’re still in high school.
This midterm election cycle features no well-funded, Democratic-aligned campaign trumpeting its ambitions to turn Texas purple. But smaller groups like Cambio have formed to aid in the grunt work of registering and talking to more than 100,000 voters between them in an attempt to stoke enthusiasm.
Cambio’s doorknockers are scoring enough victories to keep them motivated despite O’Rourke’s clear gap in the polls. When María Díaz — no relation to Danny — opened her door to a Cambio canvasser last week, she initially appeared skeptical as he launched into his spiel. Speaking in Spanish, José Coronado explained that O’Rourke wanted to raise teacher salaries. He wanted to make health care more affordable. He planned to hold a rally that afternoon at the McAllen Convention Center if she wanted to hear more.
Diaz nodded politely, not visibly impressed. But she lit up when Coronado said O’Rourke wanted to save Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that shields from deportation those unauthorized immigrants who arrived as children. Trump canceled the program, but federal judges in multiple lawsuits have temporarily blocked the decision.
“I suffer for them, because I know people who have it,” Díaz said, announcing her intention to vote for O’Rourke based on that piece of information alone. “They’re so afraid.”
Moments like these, however, are the exception. Over two hours of block-walking, few people opened their doors at all. Some of the houses were inaccessible due to the fences. One canvasser was chased away from a property by a pack of dogs.
Why Latino Turnout Lags
The people who do this work rattle off similar lists of reasons why Latino turnout in Texas remains so low. Texas Hispanics are disproportionately young and working class, two demographics less likely to vote, regardless of ethnicity. Since his days as a community organizer, the biggest challenge Diaz has faced is convincing people who work multiple jobs that it’s worth their time to attend a meeting or a rally.
Party dynamics also play a role. The hard right’s vilification of immigrants and the border repels many Hispanics. But that doesn’t mean Latinos are flocking to the Democrats. Fewer than a third of 1,016 Texas Latinos identified as Democrats, according to a major report released by the Austin-based Latino civic engagement group Jolt. Most either called themselves independents or didn’t know which party to prefer.
In the Democratic-dominated districts along the border, races are rarely competitive after the primaries, so the stakes are lower. Because conservatives have such strong control of Texas, money raised by the Democratic Party has a tendency to flow to more competitive races outside the state, which in turn undermines long-term turnout efforts.
And most frustratingly for those trying to change the dynamic, political campaigns looking for cost-effective strategies generally prefer to curry favor with likely voters instead of signing up new potential voters. That’s why candidates and their political parties are also more likely to trumpet issues of concern to their base and likely voters, rather than the issues Latinos care most about. (At least among Texas Latinos, that issue is universal healthcare, according to the Jolt survey.) That negative feedback loop reinforces cynicism.
What’s Different This Time
Despite all that, activists like Diaz say they have reason to be optimistic. The grinding efforts of Cambio Texas have allowed them to reach some 13,000 voters in Hidalgo County over the last month. Several other grassroots organizations have also stepped into the fray.
The national outfit Voto Latino registered some 52,000 voters this year, blowing past its figure for the 2016 presidential election by more than 30 percent. Private companies including Lyft are helping the group give those voters a free ride to the polls. Attorney Eric Cedillo, retired businessman Richard Marcus and former school administrator Rene Martinez founded a group to boost turnout among Latino millennials, whose volunteers registered around 7,000 people in the Dallas area since last year, mostly high school students. The Austin-based Latino civic engagement group Jolt, founded last year, has knocked on nearly 40,000 doors, also in Dallas, with the goal of speaking to each household at least four times before Election Day. Battleground Texas remains active, though it keeps a lower profile and its donations deflated this year to less than 15 percent of its 2014 haul of $8 million.
It’s old-fashioned neighborhood canvassing — more than digital ads or resentment against Trump’s vitriolic rhetoric — that holds the most promise to boost Latino turnout, according to the Jolt report. That assertion is backed by Lisa Garcia Bedolla, a political scientist who’s studied the Latino voter mobilization campaigns of the 1990s, when the state flipped from red to blue.
“We know if you meet people where they’re at and have conversations that are culturally competent, it works,” García Bedolla told HuffPost. “People keep saying that because Latinos feel threatened, they’ll get angry and vote. That’s not what happens. Some people do, if they have a history of political action or a counter-narrative… Other people will retreat to the things they can control and say, ‘That’s not for me.’”
Democrats are putting up more competitive candidates, too. O’Rourke’s campaign has done a lot. In a cycle where the top of the Democratic ticket is weak — Lupe Valdez is trailing by a margin of around 20 points in her attempt to dethrone Gov. Greg Abbott — O’Rourke has made a statewide race competitive. And despite grumbling from candidates in competitive races elsewhere, the money he has raised is staying in Texas. Part of it has funded statewide block-walking events across the state.
Transitory enthusiasm isn’t a substitute for longterm investment in turnout, Jolt Director Cristina Tzintzún said. But both O’Rourke’s efforts and the growth of community groups like hers and Cambio Texas appear to be pushing the state in a new direction.
People keep saying that because Latinos feel threatened, they’ll get angry and vote. That’s not what happens. Some people do, if they have a history of political action or a counter-narrative… Other people will retreat to the things they can control and say, ‘That’s not for me.’ Political scientist Lisa García Bedolla
“Beto is making as much headway as he is, not because of the infrastructure, but in spite of it,” Tzintzún said. “If you’re going to change Texas, any candidate needs grassroots groups registering Latino voters in off cycles. And the best groups to do that are community groups.”
The success of these efforts won’t be clear until Nov. 6. For all the attention showered on O’Rourke by the national media, several major polls have him lagging Cruz in the upper single digits.
Those are long odds. But most polls measure the preferences of likely voters, an inconsistently defined classification that ranges from people who say they’re likely to cast a ballot to people whom pollsters can confirm voted in recent elections. That makes this Texas election harder to predict. In recent years, Texas has averaged an annual increase of 100,000 new voters. But between the last presidential election and last week, when the Texas Secretary of State’s Office released its final tally, the number of new voters skyrocketed by nearly 700,000.
Some of that growth benefits Cruz. Suburban counties, many of which lean Republican, saw some of the highest growth in registration rates. But the top four counties to gain voters — Harris, Bexar, Travis and Dallas — all went blue in 2016 and amassed more than a quarter-million extra voters between them. The border’s largest counties saw voter growth outpacing the state’s average as a whole. Registration in Hidalgo County, where Cambio Texas works, jumped by 7 percent.
“The only hope O’Rourke has is that turnout is vastly different from what it normally is,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. “But at the end of the day, all these new people that registered actually have to turn out.”
As Cambio’s canvassers attempt to convince voters to do that, piercing the cynicism remains one of the most difficult obstacles. Diaz knocked on one door hoping to find a young man who had registered but hadn’t made it to the polls for the last election. His mother said he left for military duty and wouldn’t be back before Nov. 6. But she was registered, so Diaz turned his attention to her, probing in Spanglish for issues of potential interest. He found one when she told him she was uninsured. Had she heard of Beto O’Rourke?
She had but wasn’t moved. She told HuffPost to make up a fake name if she was quoted for this article and refused to give her phone number to the canvassers, declining their offer to remind her to vote on Election Day. “They’re robbing us,” she said of politicians. “It gets me angry. I haven’t voted in years.”
Diaz gave it one more try.
“The border is being ignored,” Diaz said. “And traditionally it’s because only 20 percent of us vote. I know you’re frustrated, but please consider it.”
Then he thanked her for her time and moved on to the next house.