GOP Candidates Debate, but on Which Issues?

Assuming that at least some of the questions that will cue the candidates in the Republican gubernatorial debate will focus on issues, it might be useful to review results when the October 2009 UT/Texas Tribune Poll asked Texans to identify the most important problems facing the state and the country. This will give us an opportunity after the debate to see if the media interlocutors asked questions that reflected public concerns. It also invites us to speculate on how public perceptions of which problems are important sets the stage for the candidates’ attempts to define themselves and each other.

Given that Kay Bailey Hutchison's campaign intelligentsia has repeatedly suggested that they are NOT focusing on getting Democrats to vote in the Republican primary, and that the Rick Perry campaign can’t possibly be said to have made any effort to attract Democrats, I’ve broken out the highlights of the most important problem (MIP) responses provided by self-identified Republicans and independents.

There aren’t a lot of surprises here. In terms of concerns about Texas, immigration always scores high, and, not surprisingly, causes more worry among Republicans and independents (24% and 20% respectively) than among Democrats (not shown in the charts, but only about 10% of Democrats in this sample chose immigration as their biggest worry). These numbers are even higher if you combine them with the “border security” option, which some respondents likely fold into immigration. We separated it out because of the media coverage of violence in some border areas, which is more about crime than immigration, even if some combine the two in their minds. The economy and the more specific but related problem of unemployment were major preoccupations. Interestingly, political corruption and leadership break into double figures among independents (13%) but not Republicans (3%).

Though this is race for a state office, the national MIP results have a bearing on the race and are an interesting context for the debate. The relatively higher tendency of independents to view political leadership in the state as a problem might suggest a slight opening for Hutchison in the debate; but the national MIP results suggested a much stronger animus toward the federal government and national policy. Political corruption and leadership and the federal deficit and spending together accounted for 46% of Republican responses and 36% of independent responses. These problems lend themselves very well to criticisms of “Washington insiders,” the centerpiece meme of the Perry campaign’s relentless effort to identify the Senator with the entity that is increasingly the bête noire in some corners of Texas politics: the national government of the United States of America.

All things being equal, the national MIP numbers suggest an environment that is ripe for exploitation by Perry and Debra Medina at Hutchison’s expense, leaving the Senator with the burden of arguing that she has spent her time in Washington fighting the good fight against the forces of darkness. Many Republican primary voters, however, seem in no mood to recognize the benefits good Senators bring to their state. Worries about deficits and spending have facilitated the Perry campaign’s recasting of Hutchison’s successful efforts to bring home the bacon as profligate spending. We’ll likely see this played out in the debate.

Medina is Thursday night’s wild card. It seems highly unlikely (to say the least) that she could become a real contender. But she could have a real effect.

Given the mood reflected in the MIP numbers and her role as the candidate channeling Tea Party anger, Medina’s attacks on either or both candidates could resonate with good chunks of the Republican primary electorate. In the course of trying to do herself some good in a free media venue, she could wind up doing some damage. But how much damage, and to whom? The big questions are (1), whether she has the skill (or luck, for that matter) to affect her opponents’ performances, and (2), whether she will fire away equally and indiscriminately, or pull a vintage ’92 Ross Perot and choose to focus mainly on one target.

Of course, public judgments related to the issues, either directly or as reflected in the campaign’s efforts to negatively portray their opponents’ records, could wind up being beside the point. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that some completely non-issue-related factor suddenly created a decisive moment in a televised debate. Just ask Dan Quayle.

NOTES ON THE NUMBERS: The independents are “true independents” only. Those who identified as independents but responded to a follow-up by saying that they “lean Republican” are lumped into the Republican column. And while we’re talking about the numbers, these are not all of the responses, but they are all of the items that broke into double figures, plus some other issues that have been in the political ether. The numbers are, of course, a couple of months old now, so we’d probably get somewhat different results now, though my gut feeling is that they wouldn’t be dramatically different. The complete numbers are in the cross tab files.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at