Q&A with Jeremy Bird, the Man Who Plans to Turn Texas Blue
In literature, a deus ex machina is a device used to solve an insoluble dilemma and push the story toward a satisfying conclusion. The sudden death; the alien attack; the miracle cure. The insoluble dilemma for Texas Democrats has long been how to use Texas’ demographic change to break their epically long losing streak. Call it Waiting for Gomez.
It is not news that Latino population growth in Texas affords the moribund Texas Democratic Party at least an opportunity to find its way out of the wilderness. The question has long been, will the Democrats be able to seize it?
That’s why Battleground Texas has made such a big splash. It could be the Democrats’ deus ex machina. Led by Jeremy Bird, former national field director for Obama for America, the organization promises not just to make Democrats more competitive in Texas but to put the state into play in presidential politics by engaging key Democratic constituencies—Latinos, young people, African Americans—on a mass scale. Bird promises to bring fresh blood, national resources and proven organizing techniques to Texas.
We talked to Bird recently about his plans. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Texas Observer: Why Texas? Why not Battleground Georgia or Battleground Indiana?
Jeremy Bird: One reason is staffers from Texas, whether it’s organizers in battleground states who are from Texas or just the people in our organization who had either worked in Texas during the primary and had experience there or are actually from there, they’ve got a tremendous amount of passion to go back [to Texas] and work. I’ve heard it over and over again. I would talk about Texas in presentations whether we were talking about the maps and the battlegrounds and how we get to 270 as a long-term ambition, and people would come up to me later and say, ‘Hey I want to be a part of that long-term thing’, even though we’d barely mentioned it. It was sort of an aside. So I was struck by that.
The second group of people are our volunteers in Texas. This really started back during the Two-Step, back in the primary days. The folks there were incredible. The size of our email list in the campaign. The amount of work they did in the primary. What they did in ’08 and then watching their work in 2012, it’s a very motivated group of folks who did a lot of work. Whether they were in El Paso driving up to Las Cruces, New Mexico knocking on doors. Or, in Houston or Dallas or somewhere else making calls into Florida or Colorado, the sheer value of what they were doing was impressive. When we did big days of action on health care or something there’d always be a disproportional number of event happening in Texas versus the size of our staff. I think that led me to believe this was something that was possible.
The third group of people is our donors, whether they’re grassroots donors online who contributed in pretty massive numbers or the great community of donors in this state that are really active. Same thing, I’d be at meetings talking to the national finance committee and there’d be a lot of Texans there and be excited that I’d mentioned Texas in my presentation and want to make that real.
The people in the world where I’d been working really wanted something like this. I also think the sheer size; Texas can play a much bigger role in our national politics. It’s on policy issues and politics. Everybody there knows that.
TO: I guess the size has always been a challenge for progressives and Democrats trying to rebuild after declines over the past couple decades. What is it that Battleground Texas is going to do where other organizations have tried and not have had as much success as they would have liked? Is it scale, a different model?
JB: One is there are some great groups doing great work on the ground and we hope to complement what they’re doing and not replace it. We want to be a partner with groups doing great things. In terms of scale, we want to make sure we’re able to do is run a real statewide operation and that’s going to take, first, a belief that we can do that. And, second, we need to make sure we have the resources to do that, which means we need to have a really strong grassroots presence online we need to be doing all the right things to show that we can move the needle. So I think scale will be one that will make it unique.
Second is that we want to take the best organizing principles and spend the money on organizing. We learned a lot from the last six years of presidential politics that we want to take all those lessons on: How do we use better data? Smarter analytics? How do we make sure our digital and offline programs are fully integrated? There’s a whole approach that we want to take to it that I think it is new in some ways. There are good groups that have done great things in Texas and we want to take the best from them, but then take it to a scale that will actually move the needle.
And be honest with people that this is a long-term process and we’re going to have to show results at the local level and then sort-of build up from that. I think it’s a unique moment where a lot of people are interested in doing this.
TO: Do you have an idea of how you show proof of concept at the local level; do you have particular areas you’re looking at, or particular races or candidates in mind at this point?
JB: We’re going to be figuring that out over the next couple months. One thing I’m really interested in is at the county level. I think there are a lot of counties you’re starting to see shade blue. There are some particularly interesting county races. I mean, you can’t gerrymander a county.
One of the great things about a place like Virginia, 10 years ago if you had said Virginia will be a purple state people would’ve said you’re crazy. But they started to slowly do it and they had some great statewide candidates to help them along the way. But also throughout the process they were building stronger data, which made everyone stronger in terms of the database. And just building on every local thing. Even when they lost, they were stronger when each of those races was over in terms of the long-term vision. And that’s what we’ve got to do.
TO: I think one of the things that has inarguably held back Democrats in a lot of respects is a really low turnout rate, among Latinos especially in certain areas. Is that something y’all are mindful of and what’s the thinking in terms of what to do about that?
JB: That is probably the Number 1 and 2 problems. No. 1 is low registration rates. Two is low turnout rates. They’re both equally important. It’s a full process of how do get people on the rolls and in the electorate. But then you’ve got to turn them out or otherwise it doesn’t matter. We’ve gotta figure out what works and then do some testing of that.
The biggest thing is that if you look at right after the election [Latino Decisions] asked voters all over the Southwest and the West and in the South were you talked to by a campaign, did somebody knock on your door, did somebody call you, was there any interaction. With voters in Colorado it was well over 60 percent of all voters—and you know how hard it is to get to some people—had been communicated with by a campaign.
The number was in the mid-20s, I think, in Texas. Part of it is people aren’t asking, people aren’t going out. If you look at what Andy Brown did with the 21-precinct project, they actually went out and talked to people and saw a difference. We know from every study we did in the campaign and every election I’ve been involved in, you see bigger turnout when people are actually asked for their vote… And so we know that works. The question is can you do that on a scale enough to move the needle.
TO: And you obviously think the answer to that is yes?
JB: I think it is. I think it absolutely yes. And I think there’s even a bigger upside in Texas because increasing turnout in a place like Ohio, you can do it, we found that it can work, but that’s a place where people had been working those neighborhoods for years, spending 100s of millions on TV and everything else. In Texas, you have a bigger upside because people haven’t been worked as much.
TO: When you talk long-term, how many election cycles — because that’s what everyone wants to know. It’s a bit of a parlor game but everyone wants to know when is the election cycle where we’re going to see a turning point. So when you talk long-term what exactly does that mean?
JB: There are so many factors. Who runs, what happens at the local level with local politics. I think what the Republicans are trying to do is put a year on it and say, ‘If they don’t win in 2014 or 2016 they’re a failure’. We’re not going to let them paint that. Like I said with Virginia it’s a really long-term project and every cycle we have to show success and keep moving forward, but we’re not going to let the Republicans put a year on it for us and say if we don’t have a Democratic senator or governor or presidential election that moves our way we’re a failure. That’s the problem. It’s been measured so much and people have put resources so much into a two-year span or a four-year span. National groups too aren’t willing to do it because if I’ve got a budget and I have to put 30 percent of my money into Texas for a national project no one’s going to do that.
It’s a long haul for us. We know it’s a long journey. My big thing is we have to have patience but we also have to work with a fierce urgency. You’re only going to get there if every cycle you maximize potential. Saying long-term doesn’t mean we’re going to go slow or not be aggressive with how we approach the next two years.
TO: There’s plenty of Republicans in Texas or at least a good number who understand that they’ve got to win over more Latinos to stay in power. You’ve got Steve Munisteri going around and George P. Bush’s name being bandied about. How much do you think it’s going to be toe-to-toe with the Republicans, or are they fighting a battle they can’t win b/c of the larger politics around immigration, the economy, etc?
JB: I think all of this can play in. They like to over-emphasize their outreach to Hispanics in Texas by saying they have a couple of candidates that are Latino. But the question is when you talk to Latinos in the Valley and when you look at the budget from the statehouse and form the governor and you look at his inability to take federal funds for Medicaid expansion, when you look at cuts to education, these are the issues that Latino voters in Texas care about. Trying to say you’ve got one in the Senate and you’ve done some work with elected leaders doesn’t change your policies toward Latinos in the Valley or Harris County or anywhere in the state.”
TO: I’m sure you’ve seen the Republican reaction including from Rick Perry when Battleground Texas was first announced, basically that these are a bunch of outsiders, and they don’t understand that Texas is essentially a conservative state. Back when the Democrats ran the state they were by and large conservative Democrats, like Rick Perry, and that they’re missing a fundamental miscalculation.
JB: We welcome that kind of dismissal of what we’re going to do. If you look at the Republican’s welcome letter to us yesterday, a lot of bluster especially from Rick Perry. What we look at is 50 percent of the electorate is turning out. That’s a huge problem. When Rick Perry talks about Texans voting he’s talking about half of Texans. We’re going to change that.