As the Politics of Harvey Relief Shift in Washington, a Look at Public Opinion Baselines in Texas

The politics surrounding disaster recovery after an unprecedented season of hurricanes and fires in the United States are now entering a new phase as the White House and Congressional Republicans attempt to respond to the fiscal demands of recovery while reaching some kind of workable political consensus on significant rewrite of the tax code and an approach to the budget deficit.

The impact of Hurricane Harvey has made Texas one of the supplicants requesting billions of dollars in aid of various types from the federal government. The expectations of Texans' elected officials that Texas should be in line for substantial federal relief has already resulted in friction between Governor Greg Abbott and some members of the Texas house delegation as a result of when the governor lamented that the state delegation was showing a “lack of spine” and getting “rolled” in an early round of disaster appropriations. The governor has since himself journeyed to the swamps of D.C. to make the case for aid. If you want something done right (and are running for re-election)…

However, the latest signals suggest a White House beginning to see the impossibility of saying "yes" to all disaster aid requests while also cutting taxes, increasing defense spending, and generally spending wherever there is a political gain to be had. Saturday’s New York Times carried a front page headline announcing “ADD DISASTER AID, BUT CUT BILLIONS, WHITE HOUSE SAYS” and “ANGST AS DEFICIT SWELLS,” topping a story on a White House request that Congress provide another $44 billion in hurricane relief. The story recounted negative reactions from Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, as well as Congressman John Culberson, one of the House members who expressed unhappiness with Abbott’s criticisms last month. Reminders about the separation of powers were very much in vogue in the Texas delegation:

“After the outpouring of sympathy and the expressions of concern that we’ve heard from the highest levels here in Washington, D.C., we’ve continually been told to wait, wait, wait,” Mr. Cornyn said.

Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, said on Friday that the Trump administration “must keep its repeated commitments” to provide the necessary funding to help Texas recover from Harvey.

He then offered a reminder: “The constitutional responsibility to appropriate funding resides with Congress.”

Representative John Culberson, Republican of Texas, deemed the request “very disappointing” and “completely inadequate,” and said it showed a “complete lack of understanding of the fundamental needs of Texans” by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

The Texans’ interest in getting their share of the pie serves their constituents and is predictable, whatever their attitudes toward past disasters in other states. But the White House request suggests that, per Senator Cornyn's comments, the initial period of sympathy has ended. Broader fiscal politics will continue to seep into the discussion of funding for disaster relief, given the context of the coming Congressional elections, which have high stakes not just for Congressional candidates but for President’s Trump’s position.  

Given these dynamics, expect the initially positive public attitudes in Texas toward the federal government’s response to Harvey to suffer some serious leakage. State legislative hearings related to Harvey in recent weeks have found local and state officials criticizing the slowness of the response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has also been a theme of national coverage. Some local officials have also voiced criticism of state government, too.

All of which makes the initial probing of attitudes toward government response to Harvey baselines that are very likely to change. How much these shifts in opinion can be expected to impact the 2018 election campaigns in Texas depends on how they interact with what has become an unexpectedly roiled political season in the state. The elections are already buffeted by the raucous rule of Trump and his nominal party allies in Washington, the specter of an unusually roused Democratic electorate, lots of candidates shifting around as a result of Congressional retirements, and the ongoing intra-party warfare in the Texas GOP. As government at all levels struggle to respond to the aftermath of disaster in Texas and other places where severe misfortune has struck, the data below will serve as benchmarks for understanding the changes that are coming. (For a compendium of all results related to Harvey, with the usual dizzying array of downloadable graphics, see this pre-loaded search page of Harvey results from the October poll.)


On the federal response to Harvey.

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Approve strongly30%
Approve somewhat27%
Neither approve nor disapprove17%
Disapprove somewhat10%
Disapprove strongly10%
Don't know6%

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Approve strongly9%32%49%
Approve somewhat29%20%27%
Neither approve nor disapprove20%18%13%
Disapprove somewhat15%12%4%
Disapprove strongly18%10%3%
Don't know9%7%4%

On state government response to Harvey.

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Approve strongly38%
Approve somewhat30%
Neither approve nor disapprove13%
Disapprove somewhat7%
Disapprove strongly6%
Don't know6%

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Approve strongly14%36%59%
Approve somewhat34%31%27%
Neither approve nor disapprove21%15%6%
Disapprove somewhat12%7%2%
Disapprove strongly12%4%2%
Don't know7%7%4%

On local government response to Harvey.

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Approve strongly38%
Approve somewhat31%
Neither approve nor disapprove13%
Disapprove somewhat5%
Disapprove strongly4%
Don't know9%

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Approve strongly31%34%45%
Approve somewhat35%26%29%
Neither approve nor disapprove15%16%10%
Disapprove somewhat4%5%6%
Disapprove strongly6%4%2%
Don't know9%14%7%

On Donald Trump's response to hurricanes in the continental U.S..

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Approve strongly40%
Approve somewhat16%
Neither approve nor disapprove12%
Disapprove somewhat9%
Disapprove strongly20%
Don't know3%

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Approve strongly5%45%71%
Approve somewhat15%20%16%
Neither approve nor disapprove18%13%6%
Disapprove somewhat17%4%3%
Disapprove strongly40%14%3%
Don't know5%4%1%

On the most important problem to address in the immediate aftermath of Harvey.

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Public Education2%
Public health22%
Environmental contamination15%
Debris cleanup and disposal28%
Damage to local businesses2%

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Public Education1%0%1%
Public health25%16%21%
Environmental contamination21%16%10%
Debris cleanup and disposal19%33%35%
Damage to local businesses1%3%4%