The Public Opinion Context in Texas of the Kavanaugh Confirmation, Sexual Assault Charges Against Him, and Ted Cruz’s Role in the Coming Senate Hearings

(This post was slightly revised 20 September 2018 at 3:10 PM to reflect new developments, including data on Texans' views of the FBI.)

The dramatic turn in Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court adds a complicated (to say the least) discussion of sexual assault to the politics of the confirmation process in the U.S. Senate. While the centrality of Roe v. Wade and the fate of abortion rights in a Court with a conservative, anti-Roe majority strengthened by Kavanaugh’s addition were already central to the politics at play in his confirmation hearing, allegations by Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when she was 15-years old and he was age 17 has raised the simmering but previously more or less predictable gender politics of the nomination to a blistering boil.

The myriad important issues surrounding the situation notwithstanding, the view from Texas has an added election-year dimension because Senator Ted Cruz, embroiled in a more difficult than anticipated re-election effort, is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Along with Senator John Cornyn, who is not on the ballot, Cruz will be one of the Senators questioning both Kavanaugh and his alleged victim in high-visibility hearings initially scheduled for next Monday, but now under negotiation. Amidst talk (though uneven evidence) of Cruz’s possible vulnerability among women in the suburbs and of a lack of enthusiasm for Cruz overall, as well as comparatively more demonstrable gender differences in attitudes related to sexual harassment and assault, his questioning of Kavanaugh and his accuser poses political hazards for Cruz. He has built his public image based on combativeness in defense of conservative causes, but this approach poses clear political hazards when questioning an avowed victim of sexual assault. Cruz will be expected to champion Kavanaugh’s confirmation without being characteristically aggressive. In the present atmosphere of partisan polarization on both Kavanaugh’s nomination and gender politics, Cruz must walk a narrow and somewhat unfamiliar path – one that requires moderation of his usual temperament.   

We revisit key aspects of the relevant landscape of attitudes in Texas below. Multiple results on relevant subjects from University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling illustrate  just how narrow this path is in the Texas electorate, who will start early voting in about a month. 

Perceptions of discrimination against women are not as widespread as perception for other groups. 

In February 2018 UT/TT polling, only 3 percent of Texans said that women face the most discrimination in society compared with a number of groups – with African Americans (21 percent), Muslims (19 percent), and Christians (15 percent) rounding out the top three. But even when evaluated individually, only 64 percent said that women face “a lot” or “some” discrimination in America today, less than said the same about African Americans, Hispanics, gays and lesbians, muslims, and transgender people. While perceptions of other groups were subject to partisan differences, there was no real difference between Democrats and Republicans as to whether women faced the most discrimination, though clear differences over how much discrimination they currently face.

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African Americans21%
Gays and lesbians6%
Transgender people13%

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A lot of discrimination34%14%6%
Not very much6%27%35%
None at all3%9%16%
Don't know/no opinion3%5%3%

Views of the treatment of men in discussions of sexual assault and discrimination reveal partisan differences, and evidence of backlash.

In that same 2018 poll, we fielded a battery of questions on Texans’ reactions to the #MeToo movement and to prominent reports of sexual assault and discrimination. One item probed backlash sentiments by asking about how men as a whole were faring in the wake of public attention towards the sexual misdeeds committed by some prominent men. Specifically, it asked Texas voters whether they agree or disagree that the recent attention to sexual misconduct “is leading to the unfair treatment of men.” Overall, 44 percent of Texans agreed, while 47 percent disagreed. Republicans were far more likely to agree (61 percent) than Democrats (23 percent). Maybe unsurprisingly, 55 percent of men agreed that the movement was leading to the unfair treatment of men, compared with only 34 percent of women, but, and this is a big but, Republican women were slightly more likely to agree (48 percent) than to disagree (40 percent). 

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Strongly agree15%
Somewhat agree29%
Somewhat disagree21%
Strongly disagree26%
Don't know/No opinion9%

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Strongly agree9%19%20%
Somewhat agree14%42%41%
Somewhat disagree25%10%18%
Strongly disagree43%14%14%
Don't know/No opinion9%16%8%

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Strongly agree22%9%
Somewhat agree34%24%
Somewhat disagree20%21%
Strongly disagree19%33%
Don't know/No opinion6%12%

Texans are divided on whether  public discussion of sexual harassment and assault helps the effort to address gender inequality – again, amidst sharp partisan differences. 

How might people react to the discomfort of what will be extremely high visibility hearings? The answer is most likely mixed. While a majority of Texans agree that the attention to sexual harassment and assault “is helping to address the issue of gender inequality” (53 percent) and “is improving the lives of most women” (52 percent), majorities of Republicans are skeptical (57 percent disagree with the first statement, 51 percent disagree with the second).

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Strongly agree20%
Somewhat agree33%
Somewhat disagree20%
Strongly disagree16%
Don't know/No opinion10%

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Strongly agree15%14%
Somewhat agree35%40%
Somewhat disagree23%21%
Strongly disagree17%12%
Don't know/No opinion10%13%

Less than a year ago, the #MeToo movement drew mixed reviews, especially among Republicans.  

Taking a step back to look at Texans’ overall reaction to the #MeToo movement, as of February of this year, 38 percent had a favorable impression, 30 percent an unfavorable impression, and 32 percent were unable to offer one. Not surprisingly, given the above, a majority of Republicans expressed a negative opinion of the movement (51 percent), including 58 percent of GOP men and 44 percent (a plurality) of GOP women. There was also a notable divide between urban, suburban and rural voters, which is important given that much of the campaign energy in Texas in 2018 (beyond the Senate race) is taking place in suburban Congressional and State House Districts.

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Very favorable21%
Somewhat favorable17%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable19%
Somewhat unfavorable15%
Very unfavorable15%
Don't know/no opinion13%

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Very favorable39%13%6%
Somewhat favorable27%5%10%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable16%30%19%
Somewhat unfavorable6%17%22%
Very unfavorable1%15%29%
Don't know/no opinion10%20%14%

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Very favorable18%23%
Somewhat favorable16%18%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable18%20%
Somewhat unfavorable18%12%
Very unfavorable19%12%
Don't know/no opinion10%16%

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Very favorable26%21%12%
Somewhat favorable19%17%12%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable22%17%19%
Somewhat unfavorable8%17%22%
Very unfavorable10%17%21%
Don't know/no opinion15%11%14%

A few more data points:

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Ted Cruz49%34%
Beto O'Rourke34%39%
Neal Dikeman4%1%
Someone else3%3%
No opinion11%23%

  • Supreme court nominations mattered a LOT to Republicans and Trump voters in 2016 (and to a lesser degree, to Democrats, too)

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The economy19%21%14%
Foreign policy3%4%3%
Health care11%5%4%
Race relations5%0%1%
The criminal justice system2%0%0%
Gun policy5%7%1%
Police-community relations6%2%0%
Nominating Justices to the Supreme Court19%18%33%
Trade with other countries2%2%1%
National security4%15%12%

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categoryNot supporting Donald TrumpSupporting Donald Trump
The economy19%14%
Foreign policy5%2%
Health care10%4%
Race relations4%1%
The criminal justice system2%0%
Gun policy4%2%
Police-community relations5%0%
Nominating Justices to the Supreme Court16%35%
Trade with other countries3%0%
National security6%12%

  • In the wake of Christine Blasey Ford's request that the FBI investigate her claims as part of the confirmation process and the various partisan responses, we are reminded of the increasing role of partisanship in people's views of the FBI in the Trump era. (James Hohman raised this in the Washington Post's Daily 202 Thursday morning.)

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Very favorable26%9%7%
Somewhat favorable36%18%19%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable20%24%23%
Somewhat unfavorable6%13%27%
Very unfavorable5%17%18%
Don't know/no opinion7%19%6%

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Very favorable15%
Somewhat favorable26%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable22%
Somewhat unfavorable16%
Very unfavorable13%
Don't know/no opinion8%