Drilling down in the 2020 election and impeachment items in the February 2020 UT/TT Poll

The February 2020 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll drew from the rapidly flowing waters of the 2020 Democratic presidential nominating contest and caught Bernie Sanders’ apparent rise and troubling times for Joe Biden, even as the race changes on a seemingly day-to-day basis heading into the end of the beginning of the delegate-earning phase of the contest. While the flow of the Democratic race remains rapid and unpredictable, Texans’ views of Congress are still, deep, and fetid. The impact of the impeachment process and its outcome were similarly settled, especially along partisan lines, though the attitudes of independents could potentially produce tricky undercurrents for incumbents. And if impeachment will inevitably be in the lede of Donald Trump’s obituary, in the shorter term he’s getting some credit for a good economy even as his other job approval ratings remain deeply divided (and under 50% positive). Beneath all the Democratic presidential shifting and Trumpian chaos, the Democrats attempting to earn the right to challenge John Cornyn continued to struggle for attention -- good news for the incumbent. Find more on these points below.

1. It might not be so, Joe. Bernie Sanders made headlines by being the top choice (24%) of Texans who say they plan to vote in the Democratic primary to take on Donald Trump, edging out Joe Biden (22%), the leader in our September Democratic primary poll and the UT/TT October poll. In the immediate aftermath of the New Hampshire primary, in which Biden was practically an also-ran, some took his performance as a (further) sign of his inevitable decline. This decline might still continue, but it hadn’t happened yet in Texas, at least prior to the New Hampshire results. Biden’s support here strongly suggests that he was never as formidable as many assumed -- including, apparently, the current President. The passive good will toward him among older Democrats and high name recognition are assets, but appear to have been overvalued. This is a very unstable and still crowded field, made even more complicated by the lack of reliability of the Iowa results, and in turn, the failure of any candidate to claim significant momentum after the first-in-the-nation caucus. While Sanders’ share in Texas doubled, likely helped by the fizzling of favorite son Beto O’Rourke and increasing attention to the election by young voters as the contest nears, Biden has stagnated without declining much (he earned 23% in October). It will take more work by other candidates, or more signs of Biden’s weakness, to render him irrelevant in the hunt for delegates here. This may seem like small stakes for someone once thought of as the frontrunner, but he was a weak frontrunner, in a crowded field, all along. Oh, and Michael Bloomberg has succeeded in buying enough attention in Texas to get him into double-digits.

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Bernie Sanders24%
Joseph R. Biden22%
Elizabeth Warren15%
Michael R. Bloomberg10%
Pete Buttigieg7%
Andrew Yang6%
Amy Klobuchar3%
Tom Steyer3%
Tulsi Gabbard2%
Michael Bennet1%
Kamala Harris1%
Roque De La Fuente1%
Julián Castro1%
Cory Booker1%

2. Congress is half empty for both Democrats and Republicans. No matter where you look, Texans have a bad attitude about Congress, yet another factor amplifying Trump’s presence in 2020, including in the party primaries. Congressional job approval is a dismal 18%, with 61% disapproving, a net negative of 43%. With divided control, it would appear that views of Congress may be determined more by hating the institution because the other party controls half of it. Asked which branch of the US government they trusted the most, only 12% of Texans chose the Congress. The legislative branch finished third behind the executive branch (headed by an impeached president) and the Judicial Branch, the chief justice of which spent much of the last month resolutely ducking any active role in said impeachment process. The judicial branch, however, shared first place honors with the “don’t knows,” those voters who couldn’t commit to trusting any single branch more than the others. It should be noted, though, that Republicans retain faith in the executive branch with GOP figurehead Donald Trump at the helm: 54% of Republicans chose the executive branch, joined by only 3% of Democrats and (drumroll please) 17% of independents. (And if you’re wondering, 18% found the executive branch most trustworthy in November 2015, made up of 41% of Democrats, 8% of independents, and 1% of Republicans.) Even a “Hamilton” spin-off making the Federalist Papers danceable couldn’t repaint this dismal portrait of a lack of institutional trust exploited by personality-based politics.

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Approve strongly5%
Approve somewhat13%
Neither approve nor disapprove16%
Disapprove somewhat19%
Disapprove strongly42%
Don't know4%

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The U.S. Congress, the legislative branch12%
The President, the executive branch27%
The U.S. Supreme Court, the judicial branch30%
Don't know30%

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The U.S. Congress, the legislative branch24%6%2%
The President, the executive branch3%17%54%
The U.S. Supreme Court, the judicial branch36%40%24%
Don't know38%38%20%

3. Back to the trenches. The Constitutional high drama of impeachment had very little effect on the attitudes of partisans. When asked in October 2018 if Donald Trump has taken actions that justify his removal from office before the 2020 election, 79% of Democrats said yes and 79% of Republicans said no. After televised House hearings and a Senate trial, countless hours of media coverage, and Trump being impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate, the October numbers found 80% of Democrats answering yes to the same question, and 84% of Republicans answering no.

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Don't know/No opinion2%9%5%

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Don't know/No opinion4%9%4%

4. A plague on all of your houses. Independents as a group still seem to think the impeachment process reflects badly on Trump, though they give negative reviews to Congressional partisans, too. Only 24% of independents approved of Trump’s handling of the impeachment process, and 41% said they thought he had taken actions that justified his removal from office. Yet only 26% approved of how Republicans in Congress handled the matter, and an even smaller share, 20%, approved of how Democrats in Congress handled the whole situation. Speculation on the impact of independent attitudes in the general election requires a lot of hedging: Sound predictions of the voting behavior of independents, as we’ve written before, is fraught with uncertainty given their lack of attention to and engagement in politics, the heterogeneity of their issue positions as a group, and the lack partisan moorings for their attitudes. Back of the envelope math suggests that doubts about Trump among independents, 9% of the electorate in this and the previous UT/TT polls, are unlikely to swing statewide races. But with Trump at the top of the ticket, they could become a factor in the tightest races in Congressional and state house races if this pattern persists into the fall.

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Approve strongly3%16%53%
Approve somewhat3%8%22%
Neither approve nor disapprove9%18%12%
Disapprove somewhat4%9%6%
Disapprove strongly79%41%5%
Don't know3%8%3%

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Approve strongly4%7%38%
Approve somewhat5%19%31%
Neither approve nor disapprove4%19%13%
Disapprove somewhat9%6%8%
Disapprove strongly75%41%7%
Don't know3%8%3%

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Approve strongly44%11%3%
Approve somewhat28%9%3%
Neither approve nor disapprove11%13%4%
Disapprove somewhat8%20%6%
Disapprove strongly6%37%82%
Don't know3%10%2%

5. It may still be the economy, stupid. The February poll provides slight support for the most well-worn bit of conventional wisdom: The best asset for an incumbent president seeking re-election is a strong economy. At 50% approving (with 38% strongly approving), ratings of Trump’s handling of the economy is highest among the four specific policy areas in which Texans rated his job performance, and five points higher than his overall job approval, boyed by slightly higher ratings among Democrats and significantly higher ratings among independents on his handling of the economy than on his overall performance. It's still early in the election season to judge how decisive this is, and the gap between measures of economic performance and Trump's overall job approval causse a lot of noise. But this still merits watching.

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Approve strongly4%29%74%
Approve somewhat9%14%15%
Neither approve nor disapprove16%6%2%
Disapprove somewhat16%13%2%
Disapprove strongly52%21%4%
Don't know/No opinion3%17%3%

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Approve strongly3%20%66%
Approve somewhat2%16%21%
Neither approve nor disapprove5%9%3%
Disapprove somewhat7%3%5%
Disapprove strongly82%44%4%
Don't know1%8%1%

6. If a primary happens in the forest and no one sees it...it still happened. While M.J. Hegar seems to have established pole position in the race, at this point she's no where near the 50% (+1) mark needed to avoid a run-off. No one is breaking out of the Democratic Senate primary, which seems unlikely to change in a way that avoids what is at this point an inevitable run-off. This means the Democrats will have to wait that much longer -- the run-off isn’t until May 26 -- to focus on the uphill fight against Republican incumbent John Cornyn. Cornyn’s approval numbers in this poll, after a bit of an uptick in the last few polls, dipped back into net negative territory overall (36% approve/39% disapprove), due primarily to a 10-point increase in his disapproval totals among Democrats and a 20-point increase in his negatives among those pesky independents

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ApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't Know
November 201511%47%41%
February 201613%42%45%
June 201610%49%41%
October 20169%53%39%
February 201710%54%37%
June 20178%59%33%
October 20179%63%28%
February 201810%59%31%
June 20189%62%29%
October 20188%64%29%
February 201911%60%29%
June 201911%59%29%
February 20207%69%24%
April 202010%63%26%
June 20208%68%24%
October 20207%71%22%
February 20219%67%23%
March 202111%67%22%
April 20216%73%20%
June 20216%74%21%
August 20217%69%24%
October 20214%70%27%
February 202211%58%31%
April 202210%65%25%
June 20227%70%23%
August 202211%62%26%
October 202211%62%27%
December 202215%63%22%
February 202318%61%20%
April 202319%57%23%
June 202316%57%28%
August 202312%59%29%
October 202315%58%28%
December 202317%60%23%
February 202426%54%21%
April 202424%52%24%
June 202419%53%27%

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ApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't know
November 201520%34%45%
February 201624%34%41%
June 201622%39%40%
October 201625%43%33%
February 201715%48%36%
June 201717%51%32%
October 201726%41%33%
February 201826%33%42%
June 201825%38%38%
October 201825%38%37%
February 201921%39%41%
June 201928%32%40%
October 201930%28%42%
February 202021%48%31%
April 202021%38%41%
June 202024%39%37%
October 202019%46%35%
February 202116%46%39%
March 202118%40%43%
April 202121%38%42%
June 202125%34%41%
August 202110%53%37%
October 202115%55%33%
February 202223%38%39%
April 202216%39%44%
June 202210%58%31%
August 202216%44%41%
October 202219%46%36%
December 202224%42%35%
February 202319%51%30%
April 202311%48%40%
June 202316%46%40%
August 202313%49%37%
October 202318%47%35%
December 202316%45%39%
February 202419%44%37%
April 202417%55%28%
June 202415%43%41%