FORT WORTH, Texas – It doesn't feel like an off-year election in Texas right now. One and a half million people have already voted early — about a third of the total turnout during the last midterms — and while the state remains reliably red, it feels more competitive than usual. Democrats say that's no accident.
While Texas won't determine who controls Congress, it may prove to be a test case for a recurring political dilemma: Should Democrats focus on their most friendly turf, or go on offense in places where they're likely to lose — at least in the short term?
Several Obama campaign veterans prefer offense.
Last year, Obama's former national field director, Jeremy Bird, led the charge to build a field operation in Texas, which hasn't elected a single Democrat statewide in 20 years. This week at the group's headquarters, a spartan office on Main Street in Fort Worth, organizers and volunteers scoured voter data to figure out which Democratic-leaning voters to target for GOTV. Executive Director Jenn Brown, Obama's former Ohio director, proposed that in a state where everything is bigger, Democrats have to go big.
"Texas is a really big state, so to talk to the millions of registered voters across the state, you need a big operation," she told msnbc. The group has 32,000 volunteers, according to Brown, providing a grassroots persuasion force that is crucial for campaigning in such a conservative state.
"Nobody goes to a party that they weren't invited to," Brown said, extolling the role of neighbor-to-neighbor organizing, "and voting's the same."
The campaign says it has now visited 2.3 million voters' homes and placed 4.4 million phone calls. It's painstaking work. On a door-to-door trip with organizers this Sunday, even several carefully selected "base" households weren't easy to reach — some voters weren't home, some had already voted, and some weren't interested.
The strategic emphasis on organic field operations — a hallmark of the Obama campaign's success in historically red states like Virginia and Indiana – will also be tested in a contest that is proving to be one of the most expensive ever.
The Texas governor's race has the second most TV ads of any in the nation. In just one crucial homestretch from late September to Oct. 9, Republicans spent more than $5 million to run TV ads over 10,000 times, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. For their part, Democrats spent about $2.5 million to run ads over 4,500 times.
Both sides are plowing cash into ads because they know ads work. Yet not all paid media is created equal; some argue that as campaigns spend more than ever, their ads face diminishing returns.
"It isn't always a matter of who spends the most money, who wins the election," says Bishop T.D. Jakes, who leads the Potter's House Church in Dallas. Jakes has been encouraging his 30,000 members to vote through a coalition with several churches, and he believes people connect to each other in person while ads get stale. "At a certain point," he told msnbc, "when you keep seeing ad after ad after ad, you're mind goes numb to the process anyway."
Whether the key is ads, organizing or this year's candidates, however, the polls are not picking up any major Democratic surge. A New York Times poll from mid-October, the last poll in the state, had Davis trailing by 20 points. And if Democrats lose badly on Tuesday, politicos may rush to declare the battleground effort a waste.
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One election, however, is probably not enough time to test a long-term field strategy, especially when Democrats have such a steeper climb. While Texas Republicans only task is turning out their base — Democrats have a persuasion challenge, in fielding Texas-style candidates with broad appeal, plus the field challenge of registering a growing cohort of Texans who are on their side, but not in the voting booth.
Demography may be the easy part. Whites are now "a minority in the state, and yet Texas is still solidly Republican," as msnbc's Zachary Roth has explained, "because just 39% of eligible Hispanics voted in 2012, compared to 61% of whites." Democrats believe they don't need to change those Texans' minds about ideology; they need to change their minds about the relevance of registering to vote.
In Texas this week, some Democratic officials pointed to progress on this front – voter registration just hit an all-time high of 14 million people, up 400,000 from 2012 — and they believe early vote turnout is up among Hispanic and black voters. The idea is that slow and steady is a good start, even when it doesn't win the race.