Public Opinion May be Reinforcing Resistance to SB 6 in the Texas GOP

The Senate State Affairs Committee hearing tomorrow on Senator Lois Kolkhorst’s Senate Bill 6 has triggered three press conferences today and will no doubt be the focus of a large chunk of tomorrow’s news media coverage in Texas – and probably some national coverage, too. Insiders have been focused on Governor Greg Abbott’s silent abstention from taking the lead on SB 6 given Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s fervent advocacy, and divided (or at least not self-evidently unified) Republican caucuses in both Houses of the Legislature. Much of the extant coverage has missed how conflicting public attitudes provide an essential context for understanding the politics among the leadership. Recent results from the February 2017 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll confirm that while Texans’ attitudes convey the expected conservative tilt, only a minority – 39 percent – think it is important for the legislature to act on this issue now.

This follows from what we wrote last month. In short: for a relatively new issue like transgender access and public accommodations, opinions are likely to be largely unformed, lacking in strength, and highly malleable to elite messages (you can read it in long form here). Given this, it would be surprising to find Texans expressing the level of prioritization given to SB6 by the Lt. Governor, but the Lt. Governor is probably right in his expectation of being able to mobilize latent conservative attitudes towards the issue (at least absent competition from other narratives: see business community).

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Their birth gender16%47%78%
Their gender identity72%32%10%
Don't know/No opinion11%21%12%

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Very important24%
Somewhat important15%
Not very important13%
Not at all important38%
Don't know/No opinion11%

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Very important17%21%30%
Somewhat important10%17%15%
Not very important10%14%11%
Not at all important54%32%36%
Don't know/No opinion9%16%7%

At his press conference Monday in advance of the hearing, Lt. Governor Patrick announced a mobilization of support through a pastoral network as part of what has been defended as a campaign to protect women and children. This strategy seems to be a reasonable attempt to mobilize subgroups more likely to attribute importance to legislating bathroom and public facility access than Texans overall.

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categoryThe Bible is the word of God, to be taken literallyThe Bible is the word of God, not to be taken literallyThe Bible is a book written by men
Their birth gender75%57%25%
Their gender identity14%26%61%
Don't know/No opinion11%16%14%

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categoryExtremely importantSomewhat importantNot very importantNot at all important
Their birth gender71%53%36%24%
Their gender identity16%31%48%59%
Don't know/No opinion14%16%16%17%

The Lt. Governor’s mobilization of Christian groups to lobby for SB 6 represents another step in his effort to pressure other political actors, especially the Governor but also House Republicans, who have declined to actively support Patrick’s public efforts. The importance attached to the bill by Evangelicals illustrates that this mobilization is meant not just to preach to the converted, but to use the already persuaded to tip the scales among Republicans. Despite the Lt. Governor’s repeated references to broad public support, if public opinion in the GOP were so clearly in his favor, this mobilization drive would not be so urgent. Underlying opinion dynamics are buttressing the concerns of the business groups (who will hold their own press conference later today) now challenging Patrick on SB 6. It is this internecine disagreement pitting a now-mobilized faction of the Republican primary electorate against the mainstay of the party’s interest group coalition that has everyone asking where the Governor stands. The mobilization of a million Christian voters by their pastors seems meant to force the Governor to spend some political capital to help Patrick by taking a more public position. The Governor, however, has taken a position by letting the legislature do the work to get a bill to his desk. Given public opinion on the issue at this stage, there appears to be much more work to be done, work likely to be more secular than spiritual.