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How Relational Organizing Shaped the 2020 Election

Words by Gabriel Galvan, edited by Gisela Zuniga

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How Relational Organizing Shaped the 2020 Election

Words by Gabriel Galvan, edited by Gisela Zuniga

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Colorful mural of word "vote"
Mural by Danielle Griffin

Why did an area heavily populated with working-class, largely immigrant Latinx voters vote Republican last November by historic margins? It’s been discussed nonstop over the past 6 months, but to many it wasn’t a surprise.

For Ofelia Alonso, the regional organizer for civic engagement organization Texas Rising, the 2020 election demonstrated that Democrats need to do a better job connecting to the progressive base, especially young progressive voters of color. On the other hand, Daniel Garza, senior advisor to conservative organization LIBRE Action, argues that Latinx voters can be persuaded towards conservative causes if Republicans make a compelling case. This means that how people vote locally doesn’t come from long-term shifts of political affiliation, but rather how targeted outreach to relate to voters can sway them in either direction.

According to 2020 exit polls, those who have identified themselves as men within the Latinx community voted much more conservative than those who identify as women. In 2012, Republican share of the vote was 29.6 percent in the Rio Grande Valley. In 2020, that share was 41.96%. Not only was there an increase in Republican voting, but this falls along gender lines for Latinx voters as well.

Alonso explained how in November, turnout depressed on the left and increased a lot on the right. “It wasn’t so much a big boost in Republican support as it was that the existing conservative population of the [Rio Grande Valley] felt more confident, and the [progressive] side didn’t have any real enthusiasm or representation. We saw a lot of people who were unhappy with the [Democratic] primary and  platforms. A lot of working-class people felt like neither party was really reflecting the reality they were living.”

For our state representatives, the way they vote in state government could be seen as too similar to Republican interests. According to 538’s Tracking Congress In The Age Of Trump, Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas’s 28th District voted the same way President Trump did more than two thirds of the time in the 115th Texas State Congress. Using this metric, Cuellar is more conservative than three of the Republicans in state politics.

For many progressive voters, having a Democratic candidate be so similar to the Republican candidate can lower voter turnout among RGV residents who care about key issues such as Medicare for All, a 15 dollar minimum wage, and the Green New Deal.

Texas Rising voter outreach pre pandemic
Pre-pandemic voter outreach / Via Texas Rising

On top of these trends, the COVID-19 pandemic contributed in a massive way to the depressed turnout for Democrats in the Rio Grande Valley. Traditionally, get out the vote efforts include in-person canvassing and block walking, but this disappeared to accommodate social distancing measures. “A lot of those in-person conversations we relied on to reach voters stopped happening” Alonso said. Texas Rising turned to phone banking to fill in the gaps for voter outreach. “Even though we made millions of calls, we didn’t get to talk to as many people as we would have if we were able to canvas safely.” In Texas Risings’ most reliable outposts, such as university campuses, this change in outreach approach not only decreased how many people they could encourage to go and vote, but caused a critical gap in speaking with the latest influx of voters for the 2020 election cycle. This shift to phone outreach directly correlated to the depressed voter turnout statewide, particularly in the Rio Grande Valley.

Madeleine Croll, the Democratic chair for Precinct 216, explained further how Democrats had to choose between public safety or engaging with the voters. Alongside phone banking, Democrats used car caravans to supplement in-person canvassing. Croll shared that by 2022, Democrats should see a resurgence in local voter turnout once the pandemic is under control. “As soon as we can get to a sense of normalcy, we can start seeing grassroots engagement begin again,” Croll said.

Republicans used an unorthodox approach to connecting with voters during the last election. The RGV Trump Train used group flag waves alongside car caravans to connect with voters and promote issues to encourage them to vote Republican. In a flag wave, local committee members and Trump supporters would wave American and Trump campaign flags, as well as other flags signaling pro-police or other political sentiments. In the lead up to the election, McAllen residents could often spot group flag waves while driving down Nolana, one of our most central streets.

Garza observed that grassroots support for conservatives in the Rio Grande Valley was built organically over the past 4 years because of this relational outreach, and that the left should pay attention to this political shift.

Because of the disappointment surrounding Democratic turnout in 2020, Democratic party insiders are blaming the progressive and activist wing of the party for alienating moderate voters. House Democratic Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn has publicly blamed progressive activists advocating for police abolition for alienating voters and costing the Democrats seats in the House. “This critique does not address any of the nuances of these election results,” said Alonso, on similar sentiments shared by Democrats. “First of all, we had two very progressive candidates in the primaries,” said Alonso, speaking on the primary challengers Jessica Cisneros and Sara Stapleton-Barrera, who ran against Congressman Henry Cuellar and State Senator Eddie Lucio.  “These are two women who ran against twenty-plus year incumbents, who not only have multiple buildings named after them but also have money and Republican support,” she said. After their respective elections, Congressmen Cuellar and State Senator Eddie Lucio only narrowly kept their seats in their primaries, each winning just over half of the vote. “A first-time candidate in  [Senate District] 27 and Texas 28 [Congressional District] almost beat out incumbents of twenty years,” said Alonso. “That tells you that there is real enthusiasm for real unabashed progressive values.” While these progressive candidates lost, they still performed very well, considering the amount of influence and name recognition the incumbent they ran against Democrats had.

“When you break down the Trump gains in the Rio Grande Valley, you will see that a lot of the gains are in regions and precincts of the valley that are predominantly white and wealthy,” she said, adding that we should not see the Rio Grande Valley as a place where only Black and Brown people live – the biggest gains for Republicans were centered in Mission, north McAllen, and Harlingen.

Voting materials / Bill McCullough for The New Yorker

Given the RGV is a hugely multicultural community, language obviously affects how to grow a supporter base. “Having an extensive amount of content in Spanish, and placing that content in outlets that people that speak Spanish watch and consume,” Alonso said, “would make a massive difference.” For example, the Cisneros campaign used bilingual flyers and canvassed for Spanish-speaking voters in Mission, Texas. The Cisneros campaign came close to defeating Cuellar in the Democratic primary, despite Cuellar’s overwhelming advantage in name recognition and endorsements.  Additionally, voter outreach content on social media currently tends to be targeted to older, college-educated, English-speaking demographics, so campaigns could think about how to diversity this way of communicating.

Campaigns addressing the Latinx community have to focus on issues affecting the working class, like raising the minimum wage and passing Medicare For All, according to Alonso. Otherwise, moderates who do not explicitly advocate for the working class fail to inspire voters to go to the polls.

Garza noted that Democrats traditionally do well with Latinx voters in the past because Republicans, until recently, had been doing insufficient voter outreach. However, as seen in the recent election cycle, Republicans have stepped up their game, and future elections won’t be so clear-cut along traditional party lines.

To improve their position in the region, Alonso shared that political parties must invest in being in the Rio Grande Valley outside of election season, and build voter infrastructure, and work with local progressive organizers. “We see this problem year after year, [with campaigns] importing organizers into Texas or importing organizers into the Rio Grande Valley – They don’t know the region or have that nuanced understanding of the community,” she said. Michael Bloomberg, who ran a primary campaign against Bernie Sanders, performed well by hiring a large number of local organizers to participate in relational community organizing in Hidalgo and Cameron Counties.

Similarly, Garza argues that Latinx people are better positioned to mobilize other Latinx people to go out to vote. “People relate to folks who are experiencing the same thing, either benefiting or suffering the same consequences,” says Garza. “Relational organizing works down here; it takes a lot more time, but it works,” Alonso said. “Ideally, better candidates would be using that tactic.”

After last November, Republicans now have the task of keeping conservative voters engaged and ready to vote in the 2022 midterms and beyond. The task for Democrats, however, is potentially more daunting. Croll believes that many hope Democrats won’t be ultimately undermined by the COVID-19 pandemic in the 2022 elections, as it remains to be seen how much in-person outreach could be done safely.

Everyone from both major parties agrees that relational organizing and in-person outreach is key to getting their side out to vote. However, each group disagrees on what voters are interested in seeing. If Democrats on the ballot are too similar to Republicans on policy, then there is a real danger to make who you’re voting for not matter if no one can really tell the difference. Seeing as Republicans have successfully found their rhythm for voter outreach, then Biden and Democrats would need to focus on making themselves truly distinct. Looking ahead to 2022, everyone engaged in voter outreach is anticipating how campaigns choose to engage with progressive politics and relational outreach, and who will ultimately be the victor.

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