Julián Castro is behind in the polls, but he's finding a niche

Julián Castro is behind in the polls, but he's finding a niche
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Julián Castro is carving out a place for himself in the crowded race for the Democratic presidential nomination as the border crisis and immigration dominate news cycle after news cycle. 

Castro, a Texan and the major Hispanic candidate in the field, is one of the few candidates who have introduced comprehensive immigration plans, an issue of growing interest to Democrats.

An NBC-SurveyMonkey poll out Friday shows that 22 percent of respondents said immigration is the issue that matters most to them, an increase of 7 points since September.  

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Castro's wide-ranging plan would roll back policies put into place by former President George W. Bush and President TrumpDonald John TrumpLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades MORE. At the heart of the proposal is a path to citizenship for undocumented individuals who “do not have a current pathway to legal status, but who live, work and raise families and communities throughout the United States,” according to his campaign.  

At the first Democratic debate last month, Castro, a former San Antonio mayor and Housing and Urban Development secretary under President Obama, became one of the night's clear winners, delivering a crisp “Adios, Donald Trump” at one point that played on a loop on cable. 

While Castro is not a top contender for the nomination in polls, Democrats say he demonstrated he has what it takes to be a viable candidate. He’s followed it up with a number of media appearances and will be looking to break out further at the second series of debates on July 30 and July 31. 

“He was ready for prime time despite what the critics said,” one major Democratic donor acknowledged after seeing his debate performance. “On some level, I almost wish he would have been on with [former Vice President Joe] Biden and [Sen. Kamala] Harris on the second night because he would have given them both a run for the money on a very hot issue.”

Castro appeared on the first night of the debates with Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBiden: 'I'd add' Warren to my list of potential VP picks Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades How can top Democrats run the economy with no business skill? MORE (D-Mass.). He’ll next take the stage on July 31, where he’ll appear with Biden, Harris and seven other candidates.

“Castro is trending upwards,” said Democratic strategist Adam Parkhomenko, adding that “this is a long campaign” with plenty of opportunities to gain traction.  

On the evening of his first debate, Google said Castro searches “spiked” by 2,400 percent as voters sought out more information about him. 

In the following days, he also saw an increase in donations to his campaign, increasing his second quarter total to $2.8 million, an increase of more than $1.5 million in the previous quarter. 

Joint polls from Morning Consult and FiveThirtyEight done immediately before and after the debate showed his favorable rating increase from 29.3 percent to 47.4 percent.

Castro has also put reform of the police and the criminal justice system at the center of his campaign, an issue with appeal to Hispanic and African American voters. “What about Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Laquan McDonald and Sandra Bland?" Castro said in one of the more memorable moments in the debate. 

“Castro has really distinguished himself as a reformer of police behavior at the border and in communities of color,” said Democratic strategist Basil Smikle, adding that he can inevitably be a force in moving other candidates and the party toward his positions. 

At least part of Castro’s recent success could be linked to the brewing border crisis. He’s been actively promoting his immigration plan and has been sought out for cable news appearances to discuss his experiences in Texas.

“I think his team concluded very early on that he needed a breakout moment, particularly in such a deep field,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “And it seems to me that it was the right choice because he does have some advantage on the issues of the border and immigration.”

Castro, 44, is seen as having a very small chance of winning the election by most Democratic strategists. He scores just 0.6 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of polls. Recent pollys by NBC and The Wall Street Journal, The Hill and HarrisX, and Politico and Morning Consult didn’t register him at 1 percent.

In Iowa, Castro won 1 percent in a recent poll from USA Today and Suffolk University, behind nine other candidates, including former Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyDelaney to DNC: Open second debate stage for candidates who qualified for past events Krystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates 2020 Democrats thank Harris for friendship, candidacy after senator drops out MORE (D-Md.).

“The most notable thing he has done in this race is get in,” said one Democratic strategist who worked on recent presidential campaigns and has been a fan of Castro’s work. “And the next notable thing will be when he drops out.” 

“He has elevated the Latino community, and he has spoken about immigration forcefully,” the strategist added. “But has really run a forgettable campaign so far.”

Castro this spring said his path to winning the nomination runs through Nevada, given that state’s large Hispanic population. But polls show he is lagging in the state, running behind six competitors.

But Sawyer Hackett, a spokesman for Castro's campaign, pushed back on the idea he should drop out. 

"The American people want a candidate who has the right experience, poise, and ability to take on Trump—they saw that from Secretary Castro in the first debate. As more and more voters hear about his candidacy and vision for our country’s figure, he will only continue to rise in their consideration of a nominee.”


Still, strategists and political observers say that even if Castro can’t break out in the crowded Democratic field, the recent weeks point to promise for his future.

“He has many solid political options ahead of him,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “The majority of Texans are nonwhite, and someday soon the voting population will be too. That puts Castro in place to be governor or U.S senator.

“On the national level, he certainly merits consideration as the vice presidential nominee, and he definitely rates a Cabinet position in a Democratic position a step up from his old job at Housing and Urban Development,” Bannon added. “A Democratic president could score big points by appointing him secretary of Homeland Security.”

Jillson added that Castro has “got a broad menu of options.” 

“A lot of people run for the presidency knowing they're not going to be the nominee,” he said. “There are lots of ways that the visibility and notoriety sets you up for something down the road.”