Pausing for a Clear-Eyed Look at the Cruz-O'Rourke Match Up

Incumbent U.S. Senator Ted Cruz wasted no time in launching an early attack against Democratic nominee, Beto O’Rourke, seemingly a formal start to the long-awaited hostilities, as Patrick Svitek of The Texas Tribune wrote in the wee-hours following primary Election Day in Texas. Sparing no hyperbole, Senator Cruz declared his willingness to debate “left-wing, liberal socialists.” One might forgive the hyperbole (at least at this early stage) given the national press’s frequent (if not uniform) infatuation with O’Rourke.

For a more measured look of where this race starts, data from several University of Texas / Texas Tribune Polls, including the most recent one conducted last month, shed light on where the two Senate candidates stand among Texas’ voters.

Cruz remains one of the most well-known political figures in the state. In February, as he sought the nomination to run for reelection to his second term, 40 percent of Texas voters held a favorable opinion of Cruz, with 42 percent holding an unfavorable view. His job approval numbers were almost identical, with 40 percent approving and 41 percent disapproving.

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Very favorable21%
Somewhat favorable19%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable12%
Somewhat unfavorable11%
Very unfavorable31%
Don't know/no opinion6%

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Approve strongly22%
Approve somewhat18%
Neither approve nor disapprove12%
Disapprove somewhat9%
Disapprove strongly32%
Don't know7%

But underlying these overall results, which can be described as somewhat pedestrian, is the fact that Cruz’s job approval, and the share of favorable impressions, among Republican voters who have made up the majority of the state’s voting population in statewide elections for over two decades now is overwhelmingly positive – with views among Democrats correspondingly negative. Seventy percent of Texas Republicans hold a favorable view of Cruz and 72 percent approve of the job he’s doing.

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Very favorable5%13%40%
Somewhat favorable8%13%30%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable10%19%11%
Somewhat unfavorable11%19%10%
Very unfavorable60%25%4%
Don't know/no opinion6%10%5%

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Approve strongly4%8%43%
Approve somewhat7%22%29%
Neither approve nor disapprove12%15%9%
Disapprove somewhat10%18%7%
Disapprove strongly63%22%5%
Don't know5%15%6%

While Democratic hopes of a blue wave hitting Texas in 2018 are more a reflection of wishful, if under-informed, thinking, a more sophisticated argument for Cruz’s potential electoral weakness might hinge on Republican voters turning away from Cruz in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, and in particular, his very public non-endorsement of Trump. Even under this ‘sophisticated’ argument, Republican voters likely wouldn’t turn to O’Rourke, just back to the couch instead of the voting booth. But even this argument proves fanciful in light of the data. While Cruz did in fact take a hit in his approval numbers after the 2016 election (something we should expect when partisans knowingly attempt to differentiate themselves from each other), they quickly bounced back to their pre-2016 highs.

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FavorableUnfavorableNeither/Don't Know
May 201223%19%58%
October 201237%26%37%
February 201339%28%33%
June 201340%31%30%
October 201338%37%24%
February 201443%37%20%
June 201446%34%21%
October 201444%36%19%
February 201541%36%22%
June 201540%37%23%
November 201541%38%20%
February 201636%48%18%
June 201631%48%21%
October 201632%49%19%
June 201737%45%18%
October 201738%45%17%
February 201840%42%18%

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FavorableUnfavorableNeither/Don't Know
May 201238%15%45%
October 201267%6%26%
February 201367%7%26%
June 201370%7%24%
October 201367%12%21%
February 201473%12%15%
June 201480%9%12%
October 201476%9%15%
February 201571%11%19%
June 201567%14%20%
November 201571%15%15%
February 201664%25%12%
June 201655%27%18%
October 201660%24%16%
June 201768%15%18%
October 201766%19%15%
February 201870%14%16%

There is less data on the Democratic nominee, Beto O’Rourke, given his relatively recent entrance onto the statewide political stage in 2017. Despite glowing national press accounts of O’Rourke’s candidacy – even before it was fully realized on Tuesday – the main thing to know about him currently is that about half of Texas voters still didn’t express a positive or negative opinion of the Congressman from El Paso as recently as a month before primary Election Day. This is not entirely surprising, as Texas is a very large state, with many expensive media markets, while O’Rourke’s political home, El Paso, is in a far flung corner of the state.

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Very favorable17%
Somewhat favorable12%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable19%
Somewhat unfavorable7%
Very unfavorable7%
Don't know/no opinion39%

Nonetheless, recognition of O’Rourke has been increasing, and especially among Democrats. In February, 52 percent of Texas Democrats held a favorable view of O’Rourke, up 19 points since October of 2017. Additionally, 63 percent of self-identified liberals held a favorable view, up 20 points over the same period. He glided to an easy victory in the primary election, though his uneven geographic performance – he lost several counties in the border region to virtually unknown counties – raises some questions about a victory that was otherwise lopsided. (We’re looking into it.)

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Very favorable34%7%3%
Somewhat favorable19%6%5%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable16%28%19%
Somewhat unfavorable3%10%9%
Very unfavorable1%10%12%
Don't know/no opinion27%38%51%

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Very favorable44%9%4%
Somewhat favorable19%13%7%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable12%22%21%
Somewhat unfavorable2%6%10%
Very unfavorable1%5%11%
Don't know/no opinion23%45%47%

The race now enters an active general election phase that is likely to be structured by each campaign’s focus on mobilising their partisans. The polarized views of both candidates (and, for that matter, their parties) means O’Rourke can be expected to continue to increase his profile among Democrats and seek to mobilize them in sufficient numbers to challenge Cruz’s demonstrated ability to mobilize Republicans.  Many GOP voteers have already have the experience of voting for him.  In 2012 – a presidential year, with higher turnout than is likely in 2018 – Cruz received more than 4.4 million votes in his first statewide general election. On Tuesday, about 1.3 million GOP primary voters cast their ballot for Cruz, compared to O’Rourke’s 641,337.  This is where the race for Senate in Texas begins.