It's October, But Is Any of This Really Surprising? Texas Data Points from the Week in Politics, October 2, 2020

The rules regulating voting in Texas got another restrictive twist this week when Governor Abbott issued a proclamation imposing new limits on the handling of mail-in ballots. Abbott’s action took place even as agitation among GOP dissidents on the right continued to pressure him for his exercise of executive power during the pandemic. One of those dissidents added more fuel to that fire Tuesday when she finished first in the special election in Texas Senate District 30. While all this was unfolding in Texas, apparently President Donald Trump was getting infected with COVID-19, which as the week ended diverted attention away from his reluctance to unambiguously reject White supremacist groups at the Tuesday’s unpleasant presidential debate, though it sheds a new light on his continuing underestimation at the debate of COVID-19 in general and preventative measures in particular. 

1. GOP efforts to throttle back Texas voting in the 2020 election continued this week. Governor Abbott issued a proclamation Thursday decreeing that the number of intake points for hand-delivered mail in votes to one location per county, and clarifying the guidelines and scope for poll watchers to observe the the casting of ballots at drop-off points, “including the presentation of an acceptable form of identification” as described in the Election Code. Abbott justified these measures in the name of election security, but skeptics understandably see these measures as facilitating suppressing the vote and voter intimidation, respectively. While the term “voter suppression” had taken on a distinctly partisan connotation, the term seems apt for a measure that will hit voters in the most populous urban counties with the largest concentration of people of color, the majority of whom vote Democratic if they vote, and voters otherwise more likely to vote Democratic. The governor’s order also specifies the application of the Election Code to poll watchers. While the code lays out fairly extensive regulation for the appointment and behavior of poll watchers (see Title 3, Chapter 33), the governor’s proclamation unavoidably resonates with President Trump’s urging his voters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully” during the presidential “debate” this week. The justification for the measure invokes the perpetual invocation of the need to protect the integrity of the voting process; just as perpetual is the absence of any evidence of widespread ballot fraud or other irregularities that might conceivably be remedied by these measures. The governor’s actions will resonate with the attitudes of partisans that are well-documented in Texas polling – see very few of the many examples from the Texas Politics Project poll data archive below.  Late breaking, per Taylor Goldenstein in the Houston Chronicle: "Voting rights groups including The League of United Latin American Citizens and the League of Women Voters of Texas on Friday sued Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in federal court for his order Thursday limiting mail ballot drop-offs to one per county."

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Don’t know/No opinion17%22%12%


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Don't know/No opinion9%20%8%

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Don't know/No opinion14%19%6%


2. Greg Abbott v. The Republican Party of Texas? That's how the governor's critics within his party would have you think about it. The Governor’s interest in reducing the number of polling places for the in-person submission of mail-in ballots follows Republican Party of Texas chairman Allen West joining a lawsuit filed against the Secretary of State for enforcing Abbott’s extension of early voting by a week. The chair of the state party finding common cause with activist Steven Hotze comes after West inveighed against the “tyranny that we see in the great state of Texas, where we have executive orders and mandates, people telling us what we can and cannot do, who is essential, who is not essential" during his successful campaign for party chairman, per Patrick Svitek’s account in The Texas Tribune. According to a promotional site for a protest rally “Sponsored by: The somewhat-still free citizens of Texas” at the Governor’s mansion scheduled for October 10, West will attend along with a group of his new allies and litigants (new in the sense of West being comparatively new to Texas) – the site lists “Lt. Col. Allen West, Sid Miller, Julie McCarty, Don Huffines, Matt Rinaldi, Michael Quinn Sullivan, JoAnn Fleming, Konni Burton, Bob Hall, Mark Meckler, and others.” Abbott definitely has a problem on the far right seemingly catalyzed by the fact that the government is the best available institutional vehicle for attempting to limit the spread of the virus while treatment of the infected continues to improve, and a vaccine is developed, manufactured, and widely distributed. So far, the animus toward Abbott among party activists and the resurrected remnants of the Tea Party elite from last decade’s insurgency has not shown up in polling of rank and file Republican voters, as the graphic below of trend data of Abbott’s job approval among Republicans through June illustrates. But there have definitely been tremors in Abbott’s support among participants in the process, and as recently as June 2020 about one third of Republicans said that GOP elected officials were not conservative enough. We’ll have fresh data soon that will help see whether more Republican voters’ support for the governor has been shaken by a very rough summer and fall. In the meantime, as the week ended, vaguely attributed rumors that the governor was considering giving in to the Hotze et al court actions and cutting back the extra week added to the early voting period circulated in Capitol circles. The lack of attribution made it impossible to evaluate how seriously to take the item.

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PollApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't Know
November 201570%8%23%
February 201669%8%23%
June 201673%7%21%
October 201675%5%21%
February 201780%5%15%
June 201783%8%10%
October 201779%5%14%
February 201881%5%14%
June 201880%7%14%
October 201889%4%8%
February 201983%6%10%
June 201984%4%12%
October 201979%6%15%
February 202084%8%12%
April 202088%6%7%
June 202083%7%9%
October 202081%13%7%
February 202179%10%11%
March 202179%13%8%
April 202177%13%10%
June 202177%12%11%
August 202173%18%9%
October 202179%15%6%
February 202274%14%12%
April 202280%10%11%
June 202278%11%12%
August 202280%12%8%
October 202286%8%6%
December 202287%6%8%
February 202383%7%10%
April 202379%9%12%
June 202381%10%8%
August 202381%11%8%
October 202379%10%11%
December 202378%10%12%
February 202483%8%10%
April 202485%8%8%
June 202482%8%10%

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CategoryLean conservativeSomewhat conservativeExtremely conservative
Approve strongly28%57%69%
Approve somewhat40%28%22%
Neither approve nor disapprove15%6%4%
Disapprove somewhat9%3%2%
Disapprove strongly6%5%2%
Don't know2%1%1%

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CategoryLean RepublicanNot very strong RepublicanStrong Republican
Conservative enough46%36%55%
Too conservative13%22%4%
Not conservative enough33%30%33%
Don't know/No opinion8%12%7%

3. Speaking of vocal Abbott critics, Shelly Luther narrowly edged out State Rep Springer in the Senate District 30 special election. The Salon à la Mode owner finished in pole position for the run-off, edging State Representative Drew Springer by fewer than 200 votes. The run-off date is up to the governor within guidelines set in the Texas Election Code. Luther has emerged as a public representative of the clique in the GOP revolting against the governor’s efforts to contain the pandemic; GOP dissident Tim Dunn “loaned” her Texas Senate campaign $1 million, a big signal to other Republicans. Abbott did his best to tip the election Springer’s way by calling the snap election, but it wasn’t enough to counter Luther’s name recognition and celebrity in the region. Luther’s campaign emerged from media coverage of her crusade against public health policy, then was propelled by a fat bankroll, the support of conservative consultants and activists, and what turned out to be pretty good media chops, a combination captured well back in August by Jonathan Tilove in the Austin American Statesman. Given that Springer will serve in the legislature win or lose, Gov. Abbott has made his preferences clear, and Luther clearly has backers with deep pockets, expect the run-off to attract another infusion of cash and support from Luther’s backers as well as more of the same from established Republican-aligned trade groups in the lobby, albeit with behind-the-scenes grumbling from the latter. Luther would appear to continue to have the advantage. As the table below shows, she was the top vote getter in most of the more populous mixed counties, while Springer won in the smaller ones. The exception was Denton, where Democrat Jacob Minter’s votes surpassed the combined total of the frontrunners. Neither, however, seem in much of a position to make a strong play likely to succeed with Democrats, so there are likely few Minter votes for either Luther or Springer in the run-off likely to find both of them continuing to run to the right. It's possible, though, that should Luther continue to run primarily on her criticism of Abbott, she may have a better (if still small) chance of collecting a few of the less attentive among those voters.

Top Three Candidate Vote Totals in Senate District 30 Special Election by County (September 29, 2020)

County Luther votes Luther % Springer votes Springer % Minter votes Minter % County  total  County % Turnout
Collin 3056 34.10 1825 20.36 2870 32.02 8963 13.03 7.63%
Denton 1620 19.14 1435 16.95 3476 41.06 8465 12.3 9.33%
Parker 4726 42.76 3041 27.51 1620 14.66 11053 16.06 11.05%
Grayson 4107 37.98 2519 23.29 2582 23.88 10814 15.72 12.87%
Wichita 2530 32.31 2395 30.58 1748 22.32 7831 11.38 9.55%
Wise 1441 35.82 1318 32.76 537 13.35 4023 5.85 9.09%
Cooke 3417 66.74 3417 66.74 403 7.87 5120 7.44 19.32%
Erath 1120 40.71 951 34.57 407 14.79 2751 4 11.88%
Palo Pinto 608 31.5 702 36.37 329 17.05 1930 2.8 10.42%
Montague 486 18.89 1673 65.02 161 6.26 2573 3.74 18.81%
Young 582 27.64 1173 55.7 201 9.54 2106 3.06 18.19%
Clay 421 35 489 40.65 104 8.65 1203 1.75 15.43%
Archer 447 42.78 407 38.95 77 7.37 1045 1.52 16.31
Jack 186 20. 626 67.31 57 6.13 930 1.35 18.22
Totals 22135 32.17% 21971 31.93% 14572 21.18% 68807 10.9%


4.  “I don’t wear masks like him. Every time you see him, he’s got a mask.” That Trump quote about Joe Biden from this week’s debate is just one of several being tossed in the direction of the now-infected president  There’s really not much to add to the speculation and high emotions around the reports in the wee hours Friday that the President, the first lady, and Melania Trump have tested positive for COVID-19, at least not in this initial wave of reactions and backfilling on the events leading up to it. There will be more than ample analysis of possible repercussions for this development for the election as events unfold (James Hohmann takes an early crack at it in Friday’s Daily 202 in The Washington Post). As a matter of public health, the extent of the first family’s illness and the president’s public reaction to it will likely influence GOP attitudes and behavior about the virus. Patterns in public opinion provided a lot of grounds for the argument that the President’s downplaying of the virus in the early months of the pandemic hitting the United States, and the scarcity of GOP public opinion leaders willing to contradict him, helped reduce the perception of the virus as a threat and thus reduced safe behavior among Republicans as a group in Texas.  One thing is clear though: For the immediate future, efforts by candidates to change the subject away from COVID-19 face a serious headwind with the virus in the oval office. The relentless focus on Trump’s health, however, may well provide opportunities at the state level to continue to manipulate election rules to the advantage of the party in power.

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Go grocery shopping58%70%84%
Get a haircut34%56%81%
Go to work32%57%77%
Vote in person25%53%81%
Stay in a hotel35%51%63%
Eat at a restaurant21%45%75%
Attend church10%37%70%
Go to a shopping mall15%40%55%
Send child to school9%36%58%
Attend an outdoor event10%28%48%
Go to a gym9%29%48%
Fly on an airplane9%27%43%
Go to a movie theater10%26%43%
Go to a bar or club6%23%38%
Attend an indoor event5%24%35%
Go to protests13%14%20%

5. Fallout from what is sure to be the only presidential debate of 2020.  Reactions to the first 2020 presidential mostly focused on President Trump’s defiance of both the rules of the debate and, more broadly, the norms of discourse in such events. Both this and Biden’s need to respond to Trump’s disruptive and personal attacks led to a deeply unpleasant night of political TV. The debate likely affirmed partisan preferences while furthering the widespread sense that one of Trump’s primary effects is to break political discourse as we know it, from the shared assumption that discussion requires at least some element of evidence-based argument to the obligation to maintain a minimum level of civility. Prior to Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, the specific storyline that seemed most persistent in reactions was Trump’s resistance to disowning and discouraging the militant white supremacists among his supporters. Amidst the widespread revulsion among Trump’s critics and even some of his allies, many searched for an explanation for Trump’s somewhat fumbling refusal to issue a straightforward rejection of White supremacists and his instantly immortal “stand down, stand by” guidance when asked about one group specifically by Biden. There is plenty in Trump’s history  which urges looking to Trump’s personality here, espcially his well-established unwillingness to admit mistakes, or to risk offending or alienating those who support him. While these are certainly part of the explanation, both Trump’s own history and the public opinion data point to a more fundamental political explanation: Trump is unwilling to unambiguously renounce racists because there is a non-trivial share of the party he represents among whom this unwillingness plays well. Muddled or not, his at-best ambiguous responses to invitations to criticize White supremacists signal a refusal to accept contemporary social norms about racism in the U.S. that a large share of his supporters don’t accept either. The belief that groups that have long been in a hegemonic position in American society– for example, White people and Christians – suffer more discrimination than other groups that have demonstrable histories of various forms of persecution and/or second class citizens is manifest in the attitudes of partisans who support Trump. So even if his failure to renounce White supremacy seems venal and anachronistic, the explanation for this lies pretty close at hand: He knows that a sizable chunk of his supporters share these views, and he doesn’t want to lose either their votes or their adulation. It may be ugly and hard to look at it, but it’s not especially complicated.

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CategoryLean RepublicanNot very strong RepublicanStrong Republican
A lot of discrimination24%8%29%
Not very much23%26%25%
None at all12%31%10%
Don't know/no opinion1%4%4%

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CategoryLean conservativeSomewhat conservativeExtremely conservative
A lot of discrimination12%27%35%
Not very much42%23%15%
None at all11%14%11%
Don't know/no opinion3%1%3%

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Transgender people94%66%54%
African Americans96%63%51%
Gays and Lesbians91%59%47%

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Transgender people93%78%53%
African Americans94%79%49%
Gays and Lesbians89%76%44%