The 'Learned Helplessness' of Texas Democrats

Everyone believes that Barack Obama can't win Texas because Democrats don't spend any money here. I wrote as much in a guest column in these pages back in February, declaring confidently that when Texas Democrats put money into getting out the Hispanic vote, then we'll become the biggest swing state in the country.

Turns out, I was wrong. It happens, and as is usually the case, one of my friends pointed out my mistake. Ed Espinoza, who headed up Hispanic turnout operations in Western states for the Democratic National Committee, pointed me to one case in which the Obama campaign did spend money in Texas with depressing, if instructive, results.

In 2008, Obama targeted New Mexico. Winning that state means buying TV time in the El Paso media market because it reaches Las Cruces, N.M. That meant that New Mexicans and old Texicans saw the same ads in 2008. But only 38 percent of El Paso County voted in the 2008 general election, far fewer than the 62 percent turnout in neighboring Doña Ana County just over the state line.

"Same media market. The voters are seeing the same commercials. They're voting in the same election. The turnout is a 24 percent difference. That on the surface is significant," said Espinoza the other day over scotch and wings at the Tavern.

The turnout is also horribly depressing to anyone who has been counting on a growing Hispanic population turning Texas blue. Eventually national money will follow and, presto, Democrats can start winning again. But if Obama's spending in El Paso is any indication, that's just a fantasy.

"Everyone talks about the 'sleeping giant of the Latino community,' but the sleeping giant will not wake up on its own. The Republicans know this. This is why they actively try to keep it sleeping," said Espinoza who accused Republicans of pushing voter ID and packing non-voting Hispanics into congressional districts to dilute their influence. He says Republicans are convincing Hispanics that their votes don't matter.

If Texas Democrats want to be more like those in California, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, and less like Arizona's -- all states with similar Hispanic populations but with very different voting patterns -- then apparently we have some real work ahead of us.

Espinoza identified several factors that exist in California, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico but that do not effectively exist here yet: organized ground campaigns, compelling statewide leaders, powerful labor unions and a government that makes a positive difference in people's lives. All of that we already knew.

But he also identified another factor: When it comes to statewide elections, Texas Democrats, and Hispanics in particular, do not believe their vote makes a difference.

"If it's going to be a blowout, why are they going to show up and vote anyway?" he asked.

What he's talking about is a pervasive pessimism that has infected the Texas Democrats' donor and activist bases when it comes to statewide campaigns.

We can get our guns up for a congressional or legislative race, but there's no enthusiasm or faith in our statewide efforts anymore.

Somehow, Texas Democrats have to overcome the learned helplessness born of our perceived lack of control over the outcomes of statewide elections. Martin Seligman, a psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania, came up with the theory of learned helplessness when he shocked dogs without giving them a way to escape it. Eventually, the dogs gave up.

Texas Democrats are those dogs. No matter how many times donors fund campaigns, volunteers knock on doors or Democrats vote, we lose. Somewhere along the line, we learned our votes, checks and efforts did not matter. Like those poor dogs, we gave up.

"That's the hardest one," said Espinoza. "How do you alter psychology?"

The right things to do aren't rocket science. Adopt best practices, run our best candidates, train local talent, build up the party and defend unions. But the biggest hurdle is to get the veterans of the last two decades to believe that doing things correctly will matter.

"What we're doing's not working. If we keep doing what we've been doing, we're going to keep getting what we've been getting," said Espinoza, echoing a message that didn't work in El Paso in 2008 but is no less true today.

Jason Stanford is a Democratic political consultant, syndicated columnist and co-author of 'Adios, Mofo.'