Texas Attitudes on Race, Policing, and Protest as the GOP Doubles Down on Law and Order

With their parties’ national conventions behind them and the final phase of the presidential campaign set to begin after the Labor Day weekend, both Donald Trump and Joe Biden will seek to reinforce their framing of the campaign this week amidst the backdrop of continued attention to the reckoning with racism in the U.S. after recent events in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Each seeks to mobilize a base that is likely unpersuadable by the other side given the combination of party polarization and the overwhelmingly negative perceptions that partisans hold of the opposing candidate — but which must be turned out in their respective entireties to maintain parity in the closely dividely country. Yet around the edges, these efforts to fire up partisan supporters can’t alienate the thin share of voters who are either undecided partisans, truly independent, or whose partisan inclination might be shaken by the volatile issues at the intersection of race and policing.

Both candidates will now seek to frame events in Kenosha and Portland to their comparative advantages based on the predicates both parties laid out at their national conventions. Donald Trump has been making it clear for months that a core plank of his re-election strategy would be a 21st century reboot of the racially-infused law and order campaign associated with the 1968 campaigns of Richard Nixon and George Wallace (and, less commonly recognized, which was retooled again, with an incumbent twist, for Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign). On Monday, the President appeared to defend Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year old who, while armed, crossed the state line into Kenosha, WI in the wake of the police killing of Jacob Blake and ended up shooting three people, killing two.

As Joe Biden’s Monday speech in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania illustrated, the Democratic campaign aims to deflect the Trump campaign’s ongoing efforts to define Biden as the avatar of violent left-wing chaos, and to refocus attention on Trump himself (the plan all along, one assumes, though the campaign has said as much). Katie Glueck captured Biden’s distillation of their efforts in The New York Times: “Does anyone believe there will be less violence in America if Donald Trump is re-elected? We need justice in America. We need safety in America. We’re facing multiple crises — crises that, under Donald Trump, have kept multiplying.’’ 

In Texas, the partisan manipulation of the law and order frame began in early August, prior to recent events in Kenosha and Portland, when the City of Austin made changes to its public safety budget. Like much of the discourse around the foggy notion of “defunding the police,” (which, arguably, works much better as a slogan than a policy strategy), Austin’s proposed budget involved a degree of complexity (as budgets often do) that first led to general misunderstanding and misrepresentation (also common), then to political exploitation by Texas’ major statewide elected officials, with Governor Abbott leading the political gold rush. As Ben Wermund wrote last week in the Houston Chronicle, Austin was an outlier in both efforts to combine cuts in the police budget with reallocation of functions and the funding that pays for them to agencies other than enforcement.

Trump’s efforts to paint Biden as a friend of anarchy and himself as the guarantor of law and order will depend little on the details of city budgets and crime rates, relying instead on predispositions and opinions on visceral issues like race, public safety, and stability. Texans’ attitudes at the intersection of race, policing, and the spectrum stretching from public protests to the meme of “civil unrest” illustrate the likely audiences for the coming efforts by both national presidential campaigns’ attempts to frame recent events to their advantage — the advantage resting in their ability to mobilize their bases while also landing appeals among the narrow band of voters whose votes are still up for grabs.

A set of questions in our 2020 polling illustrates the degree to which Texas partisans are polarized in their views of the systemic effects of racism on policing, of police more generally, and of the protests that emerged in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in the custody of the Minneapolis Police Department.

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A sign of broader problems...88%46%15%
Isolated incidents7%43%76%
Don't know/No opinion5%11%9%

Asked in the June 2020 University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Poll whether the deaths of African Americans during encounters with police in recent years are isolated incidents or signs of “broader problems in the treatment of African Americans by police,” Texans were essentially split, with 49% saying that they are signs of broader problems, and 43% seeing these deaths as isolated incidents. This narrow divide in opinion conceals overwhelming partisan differences, with 88% of Democrats but only 15% of Republicans viewing these deaths as a sign of broader problems; while 76% of Republicans and only 7% of Democrats view these deaths as isolated incidents. Tellingly, independents were narrowly split, with 46% saying these deaths are signs of a broader problem and 43% saying that they are isolated incidents. Anglo and Hispanic attitudes mirrored the overall population, with 47% of Hispanics and 43% of whites saying that these deaths are signs of a broader problem, while 43% and 50% of Hispanics and Anglos, respectively, said that these deaths are isolated incidents. Among African Americans there was no ambivalence, 82% said that these deaths are a sign of broader problems.

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A sign of broader problems...43%82%47%
Isolated incidents50%13%43%
Don't know/No opinion7%5%10%

With much of the President’s law and order appeal directly aimed at suburban voters –  Trump repeatedly claims Biden will destroy suburbanites way of life – self-identified suburbanites’ views show a split similar to the overall electorate: 49% say Black deaths in policy interactions are a sign of broader problems, 45% say that they are isolated incidents.

But there are large differences within the suburbs. For example, a majority of suburbanites under the age of 44, 54%, say that these deaths are a sign of broader problems, while a majority of suburbanites 45 or older, 62%, say that these deaths are isolated incidents. Similarly, white, suburban voters are more likely to see these deaths as isolated incidents (51%), while non-white, suburban voters are more likely to see these deaths as a sign of broader problems (58%). However, while non-white, suburban voters show broadly similar attitudes across age groups, with 59% and 55% of those under 44 and 45 or older, respectively, viewing these deaths as signs of broader problems, 69% of white suburban voters over the age of 45 view these deaths as isolated incidents, as opposed to 43% of those under 44 — a 26-point gap.

It’s not surprising then to find these same factors influencing attitudes towards police in Texas. Asked whether they hold a favorable or unfavorable view of the police, 55% of Texans said that they hold a favorable view, compared to 30% who hold an unfavorable one. Favorable attitudes towards police run much higher among Republicans than among Democrats. Among Republicans, 84% hold a favorable view of the police, including a majority of Republicans, 55%, who say that they hold a “very favorable” view. By contrast, only 7% of Democrats said they have a “very favorable” view of the police, with 27% holding a favorable view overall. In contrast, a majority of Democrats, 53%, hold an unfavorable view of the police, compared with only 8% of Republicans. Independent voters rated the police more positively (44%) than negatively (29%), with nearly a third (27%) holding neither a positive or negative opinion. White Texans hold significantly more positive views of the police than other groups. Overall, 64% of white Texans said that they hold a favorable view of the police, compared with 46% of Hispanic, and 30% of African American Texans.

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Very favorable7%22%55%
Somewhat favorable20%22%29%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable19%19%7%
Somewhat unfavorable30%12%6%
Very unfavorable23%17%2%
Don't know/No opinion2%8%1%

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Very favorable40%10%21%
Somewhat favorable24%20%25%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable9%22%17%
Somewhat unfavorable15%20%20%
Very unfavorable10%24%13%
Don't know/No opinion1%4%4%

Suburban voters, again, look much like Texans as a whole, with 56% holding a favorable view of the police and 27% holding an unfavorable view. White, suburban Texans view the police more favorably (64%) than do non-white, suburban voters (43%), with signifantly more favorable ratings among older Texans of all races/ethnicities.

Given these attitudes towards police in general, and the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police in particular, it should come as no surprise to find significant differences in attitudes towards the protests initally triggered by the killing of George Floyd while in the custody of the Minneapolis police, as well as in opinions of the Black Lives Matter movement. Overall, 43% of Texans said that they held a favorable view towards recent protests, while 44% said that they held an unfavorable view. This pattern is similar to the 42% who hold a favorable view of the Black Lives Matter movement and the 43% who hold an unfavorable view. Among partisans, attitudes towards the recent protests and the overarching protest movement diverge sharply, with 77% of Democrats holding a positive view of the protests along with 81% who hold a favorable view of Black Lives Matter, and 73% of Republicans holding a negative view of the protests along with 76% holding an unfavorable view of Black Lives Matter. Among political independents, 46% hold a negative view of the protests while 30% hold a favorable view. Similarly, 47% hold a negative view of the Black Lives Matter movement, compared with 25% who hold a positive view. Should these issues prove salient in indepentents' vote choice in October and November, and should they believe Trump's portrayal of Biden, Trump's law and order play could work to his advantage among Texas independents.

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Very favorable50%20%5%
Somewhat favorable27%10%9%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable10%15%11%
Somewhat unfavorable5%9%20%
Very unfavorable7%37%53%
Don't know/No opinion2%8%2%

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Very favorable53%12%4%
Somewhat favorable28%13%7%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable12%18%10%
Somewhat unfavorable3%14%18%
Very unfavorable3%33%58%
Don't know/No opinion1%10%3%

African Americans hold more favorable attitudes towards the post-George Floyd protests and the group most associated with them than do either Hispanics or Whites. While 69% of African Americans hold a favorable view of the recent protests, including a majority (55%) who hold a “very favorable” view, only 38% of Whites and 40% of Hispanics view these protests favorably. Asked their opinion of the Black Lives Matter movement, 77% of African Americans said that they hold a favorable view compared to 35% of Whites and 40% of Hispanics.

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Very favorable20%55%24%
Somewhat favorable18%14%16%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable7%17%15%
Somewhat unfavorable14%3%14%
Very unfavorable39%8%26%
Don't know/No opinion2%3%4%

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Very favorable20%55%22%
Somewhat favorable15%22%18%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable10%6%19%
Somewhat unfavorable13%5%11%
Very unfavorable39%10%26%
Don't know/No opinion2%2%5%

Among suburban voters, 46% hold an unfavorable view of the recent protests, while 43% hold a favorable view. However, while 63% of suburban voters over the age of 45 hold an unfavorable view of these recent protests, a plurality of suburban voters under the age of 44 hold a favorable view, 48%, but with a significant share also viewing these protests negatively (41%). Opinion towards the protests among white and non-white voters mirror each other in the suburbs: 54% of whites view the protests negatively, 38% positively, while 50% of non-whites view the protests positively, 33% negatively. Suburban women are also significantly more predisposed towards the protests than are suburban men, with a plurality of the former (48%) holding a favorable view of the protests and a majority of the latter (56%) holding unfavorable views.

It should go without saying that these different attitudes reflect different experiences. While 11% of white, Texas voters said that they have been treated unfairly by police because of their race or ethnicity (1 in 10), that share increases to 29% among Hispanics (almost 1 in 3), and up to 51% of African American Texans (1 in 2).

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Ultimately, these survey results show partisans of both sides – and their constituent groups – approaching recent issues of race, policing, social justice, and ant-racist direct politcial action with sharply and significantly diverging sets of attitudes. Both presidential candidates’ strategies reflect these differences, given that they have access to their own polling likely showing broadly similar patterns among the national electorate and in the states they are focused on – and can witness some of the most visible public responses in the most recent manifestation of centuries of protest and other forms of direct action by individuals and groups. 

For all the complexities of the issues involved, the mobilization equations for both campaigns are fairly fairly straightforward. As in so many other dimensions of the presidential race, there seems to be little room for persuasion, particularly as these issues become salient and wrapped up in the context of the presidential election. Even if partisans have doubts about the difficult judgment calls inherent in public safety debates or the relatively sudden public shift in discussions of racism and antiracism, the intensely polarizing effect of the views of the president likely reinforce predispositions and make it even less likely than usual that partisans will change their minds about these issues.

At the same time, the less fixed attitudes of independent voters may well be more volatile and even less likely than usual to predict in down ballot races (if independents stick around that long), where the impact of their views of the president are likely to be less forceful. These dynamics among independents could have more direct consequence on who governs Texas than usually expected, and on how these issues are or aren’t addressed in the near term. Texas independents as a group have been expressing increasingly negative assessments of the president. But on balance, they also hold relatively conservative views towards the issues of race, policing, and protests — an expression of independents' relatively conservative orientation on a number of issues. By definition, independents are generally less fixed in their views and less attentive to politics. As the political system becomes less lopsided in favor of the GOP and elections become more competitive, independents have become more relevant to considering outcomes, and their volatility more important to understand – particularly in an environment in which public attention continues to shift rapidly from one major public issue to another in difficult to predict ways. Today’s focus is on independent attitudes on race, policing, protest, and perceptions of law and order. But it’s unlikely that this focus will remain fixed between now and the election given the pandemic and its dire effects, both direct and indirect.

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PollApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't know
February 201739%37%24%
June 201747%41%11%
October 201755%35%10%
February 201849%37%13%
June 201843%45%12%
October 201839%43%17%
February 201946%37%17%
June 201946%39%15%
October 201941%51%8%
February 202036%47%17%
April 202034%47%18%
June 202036%50%14%
October 202031%53%15%

If independents have been the dogs that didn’t bark during the period of GOP hegemony, the voters in  Texas’ increasingly populous and diverse suburbs are the equivalent of newly-beloved pandemic puppies in 2020. In Texas, suburbanites as a group are evenly split on the president’s job performance lately, and express attitudes that divide in ways that look approximate to the views of Texans as a whole. However, this split at the top level hides distinctions laying in plain sight below the surface — distinctions between men and women, younger and older suburbanites, and people of color living in the suburbs compared to their white neighbors. All of these factors, of course, relate. Limitations in sample size forestall our ability to make strong statements about the attitudes of say, young, Hispanic, female, suburbanites compared to older, white, male suburbanites, but the data indicate that we would likely witness a pretty significant divergence of opinion that would resemble the distinctions on these among the overall population of voters if we had a sufficient amount of reliable data for these groups .

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PollApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't know
February 201750%40%10%
June 201745%48%7%
October 201746%48%6%
February 201849%44%7%
June 201850%44%7%
October 201850%46%4%
February 201950%45%5%
June 201951%43%5%
October 201948%47%5%
February 202044%51%6%
April 202049%46%7%
June 202048%49%4%
October 202051%46%3%

A question left unanswered in all of this is whether or not issues of race, social justice, policing, and unrest will, on their own or in combination, mobilize more of one kind of partisan than another — or give some voters reservations about following their usual ideological and partisan dispositions. The Trump campaign is gambling, in essence, that the past is a good prologue. All signals suggest that the president believes that his dark portrait of the traditional social order being torn down by a dangerous cabal of ungrateful and unamerican secularists, subversives, and dangerously unruly people of color will mobilize a base already conditioned to feel aggrieved, scared, and angry, while scaring just enough casual voters into joining in out of fear and uncertainty. Herein lies the resurrection of the rhetoric invoking "the silent majority." The Biden campaign's gample is based on the recongition Trump is at once the GOP’s lynchpin and its most likely point of failure. So their main task this week is to deflect Trump’s attacks on Biden as the agent of this particular chaos while redirecting attention back to Trump and all his failures and flaws — and to the fact that Trump is president right now, and owns the present tense. This is purely defensive for the Democrats to the extent that no amount of redirection is likely to detach the hard core of Trump support, whose attachment seemingly borders on atavism. But the law and order frame only works beyond those who identify him with ties of blood and soil if Trump can successfully deflect the fact that for all his invocation of law and order, he stands for neither.

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