Editor’s Note: This post is the first part in a series examining failed 2020 candidacies. See our other campaign postmortem posts: Michael Bennet
by Chrissy DeMarco and Dana Wakeman
Julián Castro has been a standout in Democratic politics for many years since he was the first Hispanic to give the keynote address at the DNC, and was even considered as a running mate for Hillary Clinton. However, he was unable to generate sufficient support with the electorate and suspended his campaign after failing to qualify for the Democratic debates.
Castro separated himself as a progressive, candidate of color who represents the antithesis of not only Donald Trump, but his policies as well. Specifically, he stood out with his immigration reform policy that advocated for making border crossings a civil rather than criminal offense, which contrasts with Trump’s policies of family separation and the wall. To further show him as the antithesis to Trump, Castro explained the importance of immigration in his family by sharing his Grandmother’s story immigrating to the U.S. Castro shared her experience when announcing his candidacy for president to show how much immigrants impact our society, further contrasting with Trump’s discussion of immigrants.
The question of why Castro thought he could win is an interesting one. As a candidate, he was progressive on a lot of issues, like policing and immigration, where he was further to the left than even Warren and Sanders were. But, he was not as progressive on the key issue to most voters, healthcare. Due to this, it was hard for a lot of voters to place him in an ideological lane, which, at the beginning of this primary process, seemed to be important. As the mayor of San Antonio and Secretary of HUD, Castro had cemented himself as a favorite within the party, which came with the assumption that he would garner quite a bit of support during the primary process. When in the race, his rhetoric was extremely similar to that of Elizabeth Warren, and a lot of their plans were similar, signifying that they viewed the world similarly.
In an alternate reality, Castro is the progressive alternative to Bernie Sanders, rather than Elizabeth Warren. He is progressive, the polar opposite of Donald Trump, and could appeal to more moderate voters who have had trouble with both Sanders and Warrens support for abolishing private insurance. With the support from both progressives and some more moderate voters, Castro could have been the person everyone wanted to win. In addition, many of Castro’s potential voters also supported other candidates. As 86% of his supporters indicated that they would be “satisfied” if Warren won the nomination.
Following the 2018 midterm elections, when the U.S. saw the most diverse Congress in history be elected, with unprecedented numbers of women and people of color elected, it felt as though the country was finally ready to elect a non-white, non-male president. The 2018 midterms turned out voters who had never turned out before, specifically more people of color and young voters, which led to such diversity among elected officials. This is important because these are the voters Castro needed to impress.
According to the FiveThirtyEight model, in order to win, Castro would have had to appeal to predominantly Hispanic and Asian voters, as well as Millennials. The problem for Castro is that many of these voters supported other candidates. Latinx voters have been primarily backing Sanders, Asian Americans have been split between Biden and Warren, and Millennials are behind Sanders, leaving Castro with too few supporters to gain real momentum. Castro utilized the fact that he would be the first Latinx president if he was successful, which prompted him to find some support from Latinx elected officials. In fact, Castro polled best among residents of the Western Midwest and also polled well in the Western South, which shows his increased support in areas with higher percentages of Latinx persons. However, he was unable to obtain more than 2% support among voters in spite of his progressive policies.
In a field of over twenty people, most of them were destined to fail, but failure in this situation is not a bad thing. Castro was able to raise his name recognition, become a coveted endorsement for president, and an indispensable surrogate for Warren when he endorsed her. For most people, there is not really a single moment that can account for their downfall, but there is a clear moment for Castro. In the September debate, he and Joe Biden got into an argument over Medicare for All versus the Public Option and how it would be funded. During this exchange, Castro made a comment about the Vice President’s memory, which many people perceived to be ageist and to have crossed a line.
Castro defended himself against the backlash by stating he was “demand[ing] answers” for the American people, but many media commentators described this exchange as “too low” and a “cheap shot”. Prior to this debate, Castro was not getting much attention from media outlets, as he was polling around 2% the entire time he was in the race. After this debate, though, he started to receive negative media attention, as people were expressing frustration with his comments toward Joe Biden. Although his polling numbers did not decrease significantly after the debate, the surge in negative coverage did certainly lead to people being skeptical of moving their support to him.
This exchange between Castro and Biden represents a concept in Political Science which explains that candidates are discovered, scrutinized, and then decline. Voters discovered Castro from his performance in the June debate, where he encouraged other candidates to support decriminalizing border crossings. He then faced increased scrutiny due to the exchange with Biden, which produced extensive negative coverage of his candidacy. Due to this coverage, Castro lost his path to victory as he could not escape the negative stories, which contributed to his inability to raise money, make the debate stage, increase his poll numbers, and his eventual decision to suspend his campaign.
Castro’s consistent polling at 2% also hurt his fundraising abilities, as people were starting to get behind candidates with more support, and give them their money instead. The Castro campaign ultimately ended due to a lack of funds, something that could not really have been fixed, considering his place in the race. His inability to qualify for the November and December debates was what ultimately made him unable to fundraise enough, causing him to drop out. Overall, in spite of Castro representing the antithesis to Trump due to his policies and identity, he was unable to stand out among the large field of Democratic candidates. Due to Castro being less known than other candidates, many voters believed he could not beat Trump, with less than 15% of voters believing he could win. The incessant discussion of electability during this election cycle hurt Castro, yet his ideas likely will be utilized in the Democratic platform for 2020.