For right-of-center folks who can’t stand the media’s reflexive swooning for any Democrat with an ounce of charisma, the 2020 Democratic presidential primary is turning into a multi-course banquet of schadenfreude. Vehement anti-gun congressman Eric Swalwell kept coming up zeroes in polling. Even people who agreed with Kirsten Gillibrand on the issues found her increasingly insufferable. Beto O’Rourke is vindicating those of us who contended his 2018 rise represented the national media seeing what it wanted to see instead of what was actually there.
And then there’s Julian Castro, who on paper should be doing much better than he is; today Politico unveils a long profile asking, “what went wrong?” His sputtering campaign should challenge a lot of conventional wisdom about identity politics.
We’re on the right, so we’re not going to like or often agree with any of the Democratic candidates. But by a lot of measures, Julian Castro is a pretty good candidate. On the stump, he can be funny and charismatic and impassioned. He comes prepared to the debates. He’s been a mayor of a sizable city and worked in Washington as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Compared to the rest of the field, his policy proposals are detailed and far-reaching. He hasn’t made any killer gaffes, although he probably could have done without his twin brother, Representative Joaquin Castro, listing the names and employers of Trump donors in his district.
And it has to be said: he’s the only Latino candidate in a crowded field. If all Latino Democrats backed Castro in this race, he would be, at minimum, a major player. Immigration has been a huge issue in the primary so far, and Castro has emphasized the immigrant roots of his family.
And yet, all of that appears to have meant nothing. Castro is at 1.1 percent in the national RCP average right now. He’s at 2 percent in the most recent poll of Democrats in his home state of Texas! Travel back in time to 2012, when the media was calling Castro “the Latino Obama” and he was giving the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, and tell people that seven years from now, Castro will be trailing the then newly elected mayor of South Bend, Ind.
Latino voters are not going to just automatically flock to a Latino candidate, just as African-American voters have not automatically flocked to Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. Politico writes, “polling that does exist shows that immigration isn’t the big concern among Latinos that many analysts assume it to be. Jobs and health care rank above immigration, and polling shows that Latinos tend to favor the candidates who are preferred by the rest of the Democratic electorate like Warren, Sanders and Biden.” It would be nice if “analysts” could catch up to what Latinos are actually thinking.
There’s another line in the Politico profile that reveals a lot: “Part of Castro’s pitch as a nominee is that he would change that calculus, that seeing one of their own onstage would mean that the quarter or so of the Latino electorate that now supports Trump would come his way in big numbers.” A president who is allegedly the most stridently anti-Latino xenophobic monster to ever stride across the American landscape shouldn’t still have the support of a quarter or so of the Latino electorate.
Politico theorizes that Castro never caught on because almost all of his strengths are duplicated by other candidates: “Elizabeth Warren is the ‘policy candidate.’ And Pete Buttigieg, seven years younger than Castro, is the Millennial Mayor candidate. Joe Biden is the one with better ties to the Obama administration.” That’s probably part of it; what’s more, many of the also-rans and asterisk candidates have been in denial about the reality that the objective is not to be a good candidate, but to be the best candidate. Whether it’s a pollster calling or their actual ballot, voters can only pick one person as their top choice.
One other strong possibility is that Democratic voters simultaneously like Castro and don’t like his odds in a head-to-head debate against Trump. Castro is 44 and looks younger. Whatever his height and weight are, he looks short and skinny next to other candidates on the debate stage, adding to the perception of his youth. He met with vehemently anti-Trump New York Times columnist Charles Blow in December, and Blow summarized Castro as “a nice guy who made it” and predicted that “Trump would have a field day” with Castro’s declaration that he got into Stanford because of affirmative action.
Democrats are terrified of a second term for Trump — and they don’t seem to be willing to bet all their chips on Castro.