Politics is Chess Not Checkers: Reflecting on Some Strategic Errors from the Primaries in Dallas

An image of a chess board with chess pieces

On this past Tuesday, the state of Texas had their political primaries for November’s mid-term elections. Texas was the first state in the country to hold their primaries and I wanna share several lessons I learned that I think will help our listeners all over the country.

As you may know, I’m the co-founder of a political organization called Real Justice. Our goal is to help elect progressive, reform-minded prosecutors and District Attorneys that are committed to ending mass incarceration. In Texas, we endorsed two candidates — a wonderful, compassionate man named Joe Gonzales in San Antonio and a brilliant black woman and highly respected judge named Elizabeth Frizell in Dallas.

In San Antonio, our candidate, Joe Gonzales, won in a landslide, and helped oust a horrible DA there, but in Dallas, our candidate, Judge Frizell, is now in a 50–50 split that is going to come down to a recount, and we won’t know the full results for another 10 days or so. At least a thousand more votes need to be counted and many others need to be reviewed.

But let me tell you what I learned…

In San Antonio, Joe Gonzales, the winner who won by a landslide, raised at least twice as much money as his opponent and spent it well. It showed. He mopped the floor with Nico LaHood and will go into the general election this November with a great deal of momentum.

In Dallas, a race I poured my heart and soul into, our opponent raised and spent more money than us, and that has everything to do with why it’s neck and neck right now.

But if you don’t mind, I need to get even more detailed -because something else happened on Tuesday that I think every single one of us needs to understand. Our opponent, in some ways, gamed the system. I’m not mad about it, but I need us to understand that if we don’t increase the sophistication and nuance of our own political strategies, we are going to lose all over the country.

Let me explain what I mean.

On Tuesday in Dallas, our candidate, Judge Frizell, actually won the popular vote by 10 points in a landslide by a 55–45 margin. She won precincts all over Dallas County in the North, South, East, and West. It wasn’t even close. All of the hype and momentum was behind her. It was an amazing victory. To make that happen our team knocked on tens of thousands of doors, made hundreds of thousands of phone calls and sent hundreds of thousands of texts. We sent mailers to all of Dallas. We ran ads on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I traveled to Dallas to speak and mobilize voters. We were still outspent, but we raised and spent $150,000 on the race and on Tuesday, our efforts paid off. She won the Election Day vote by a huge margin.

Even though we won the vote on Tuesday by a 55–45 margin, we are now down by 516 votes. I’ve never seen anything like it. We won Tuesday by over 5,000 votes, but we’re now down by 516 votes, because our opponent blew us away on several aspects of early voting. Don’t get me wrong, we worked our asses off in early voting, but while we worked harder, he worked smarter. To be honest, I thought we won early voting. Even our polls had us winning early voting by 3–4 points. He said he knocked on 2,000 doors. We knocked on 20,000. We had packed out rallies. He didn’t have a single rally.

He didn’t need to.

For instance, he did something we didn’t even think of. He had thousands of senior citizens mail in voting ballots. In Dallas, they are the only people that get to mail in their votes. Had we gotten just 600 more senior citizens to do this, we would’ve won. A buddy of mine called me on Election Day and said he spoke with our opponent and that he was so calm and cool — openly bragging about how he was going to win. What our opponent knew that we didn’t know is that he had quietly amassed nearly 6,000 more votes than us in early voting. We had all the energy, but he had all the votes. So even though our momentum gave us a huge victory on Election Day — we started the day with a 6,000 vote deficit.

I said all of that to say this — conservatives currently control the House, the Senate, the Presidency, the Supreme Court, most governorships, and most state legislatures not because that’s just the way it has to be, but because they often out-organize and outspend us.

On Tuesday in Dallas, we did what we do well — we showed up to vote on Election Day, and we crushed it by 10 points, but it looks very possible that we’re still going to lose because our opponent had a more sophisticated strategy and got votes in places that we didn’t even think of. Judge Frizell has not conceded yet, and she shouldn’t, because so many votes have not been counted yet, and she’s only down by less than 1/2 of 1%, but it is my job to always ask the question of what we could’ve done better.

  1. We didn’t give ourselves enough time to build a comprehensive strategy. We were literally only on the ground in Dallas for a month. We did our best in that month, but we must be on the ground earlier in a race like that.
  2. While we maximized and won every traditional voting method on Election Day, we were out-organized with our early voting strategies. I sincerely thought we won early voting, but we missed opportunities with senior citizens and mail-in votes.
  3. Hype and momentum are good, but they must always lead to votes.

That’s why I say that our political strategy all over the country has to be a lot more than “Go Vote.” On Tuesday in Dallas, we voted, won the popular vote on Tuesday by a wide margin, but here we are, still down by 516 votes, in the midst of a recount.

And here’s what I know — we can say what we want about our opponents, but they are crafty and organized. They know how to use the whole system to their advantage.

So when you begin organizing in Birmingham and Atlanta and Baton Rouge and in Boston and up and down California from San Diego to Oakland and Sacramento, when you begin organizing in Detroit and Flint and Indianapolis and in Charlotte and Charleston — when we begin organizing all over the country — just know that we can say Go Vote, show up and vote, which we must, but we can do those things and still lose if we don’t figure out how to get people to vote in every way available to us.

They know how to game the system, and if we want to win, we have to do the same thing.