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Will O’Rourke and Castro Enjoy a Home-Field Advantage at Thursday’s Democratic Debate?

September 12, 2019, 2:44 PM UTC

Political experts are divided as to whether the Texas location of Thursday’s Democratic debate will boost the two presidential candidates from the Lone Star State.

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, an ex-councilman from El Paso, and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, ex-mayor of San Antonio, will be the only two Texas natives on the debate stage at Texas Southern University in Houston. Both are likely hoping this will make a difference for them as they swim upstream in terms of polling.

A poll released Wednesday by The Economist/YouGov showed both O’Rourke and Castro logging 1% of the likely vote. Among Latino voters and Texas voters, both are doing better. A Univision News/University of Houston poll released Tuesday showed Castro is in third place among Latino voters nationwide, with 12%, and O’Rourke comes in first among Latino voters in Texas. 

Still, each of them barely made it into the September debate, which had more stringent fundraising and polling requirements than the earlier Democratic debates.

A Houston city councilman who represents the district where the debate will take place is predicting O’Rourke will get a hero’s welcome. The candidate drew national attention in 2018 when he challenged Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and came close to beating him.

“This is very important: Texas is about to turn blue—Beto O’Rourke contributed to that,” Houston Councilman Dwight Boykins, who is running for mayor, told Fortune. “We believe he will be able to help the state turn blue. We are excited about him coming to Houston.”

O’Rourke has a lot of support in Houston, according to Boykins. “You will hear applause when he comes out,” the councilman said.

Castro will likely not register as enthusiastically, predicted the councilman. While Castro’s name was more widely known when he served in President Obama’s cabinet, residents of the fourth largest city in the country mostly remember him as mayor of San Antonio.

“Castro managed a small city; we’re a big city,” Boykins said.

The Texas homecoming likely won’t make a difference this Thursday for O’Rourke and Castro, predicted Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

“The audience certainly should be somewhat friendly but that overall is not going to change the landscape,” Murray told Fortune in a telephone interview. “It’s not quite the same as a home field advantage in a sport because you’re going to have a significant amount of supporters in other counties, so the extent to which the audience gets involved is going to be a bit more of a wash.”

Polling rarely reflects anything like a home-field advantage, Murray said.

“For 99.99% of people who will view the debate or see pieces of the debate, it’s inside a venue, so the venue could be anywhere,” he said. 

Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright agreed.

“I think they both hope it helps, but just because you play in a certain stadium doesn’t mean the crowd is always with you,” Seawright said. 

Crowds aside, both candidates have had some visibility in the race, but are struggling with the nationwide pool of voters.

Beto O’Rourke became a prominent voice in the aftermath of the August 3 shooting at an El Paso Walmart that left 22 dead. O’Rourke blamed the tragedy on President Trump. He repeated the call to ban assault weapons, and even sparred with the president on Twitter. But that visibility did not seem to register in the polls. It was a lot different than 2018, when voters were excited about O’Rourke’s attempt to take on the conservative Ted Cruz. 

“The excitement that motivated people in the Cruz race and was anticipated to translate to enthusiasm for the (White House) candidacy doesn’t seem to have happened,” political scientist Doug Muzzio of Baruch College told Fortune. “First of all, he entered late. That’s his style. I like that he can drop curse words. It’s just that there’s no spark there.”

Castro was once viewed as a rising star of the Democratic Party and he received good reviews after the first round of Democratic debates in Miami, advocating for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and promised to get rid of the policy of metering, which restricts the number of migrants at the Mexico border who can request asylum.

The extensive waiting list of tens of thousands is prompting situations like the one in which a father and daughter were found dead in the Rio Grande River. Castro also was the first Latino to deliver an address at the Democratic National Convention.

But Castro has had difficulty gaining traction in the crowded White House race in which members of the public are struggling to remember names and positions on issues.

“He’s a guy to me who makes a great deal of sense, knows his policy stuff, is articulate—I just don’t think he’s got a future,” Muzzio said.

In a nutshell, the Texas hopefuls will receive a warm reception on Thursday, but that enthusiasm is not likely to go far, some predicted.

“This is not something we see in polling,” Murray said. “It’s not like sports where the vast majority are going to be supporters.”

More must-read stories from Fortune:

How to watch the third Democratic debate—even without cable

—What to know about the third Democratic debate: Time, date, lineup

—Houston hopes Thursday’s Democratic debate at historically black university drives conversation

—These are the most talked about candidates ahead of the third Democratic debate

Black women voters are key to the 2020 presidential race. Here’s who they support