Trump’s Left Behind Voters and GOP Politics in Texas

At first blush, Donald Trump’s apparently successful appeal to voters who feel left behind by the effects of globalization and economic change in the U.S. economy seems an odd fit for Texas. The 21st century has been good to the state so far, where even the steep decline in the price of oil has only cooled economic growth and significant in-migration from other states. While dark clouds loom on the fiscal horizon as the 85th Legislative session nears, Trump’s promises to renegotiate trade deals and prevent job losses don’t seem particularly relevant here, because in the minds of many Texans, especially Texas Republicans, there’s not much concern about making Texas great again – it already is.

Nonetheless, pre-election polling in Texas reveals a group of conservative voters who do report feeling left behind by changes in the economy, while also holding attitudes that cohere with broader elements of Trump’s rhetoric-- and, crucially, with the appeals of the most conservative factions of the Texas GOP. The beginning of the Trump presidency will come 10 days after the opening gavel of the 85th Texas Legislature. While the internal dynamics of the state’s political system traditionally drive most policy and politics in the session, Trump’s ascension to the presidential bully pulpit, at the head of one-party rule in Washington, markedly changes the national context and its possible impact. Patterns in the pre-election polling data raise a question: Will the constellation of attitudes seemingly activated by Trump’s candidacy catalyze shifts in the factional lines of the Texas GOP?

One central aspect of Trump’s campaign was the message that elites had benefitted from economic change while too many average Americans were left behind. In the October 2016 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, we included an item that helps assess how this theme maps onto the attitudinal landscape of Texas voters. We tried to get a sense of who among the electorate feels most impacted by the changes in the economy that Trump (and Sanders) highlighted by asking a simple question:

Do you feel like you have been left behind by changes in the economy?

Overall, only 35 percent of Texas voters said that they felt this way – pointing, to some extent, to the ways in which Texas might differ from a rust belt that has been so hurt by the loss of manufacturing jobs (i.e. we might expect that the share of voters expressing this feeling would be higher in those states).

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Don't know/No opinion17%

The political leanings of those who feel left behind aren’t particularly distinct. Forty-seven percent identify as Republican, 37 percent as Democrats – a 10 point party identification gap that makes them look much like the Texas electorate, if slightly less Democratic. Ideologically, they look like the rest of the state: 45 percent identify as conservative (compared to 43 percent of the state), 39 percent identify as moderate (compared to 38 percent of the state), and 16 percent identify as liberal (compared to 19 percent of the state).

But when it comes to how they voted, 50 percent chose Donald Trump compared to only 35 percent who said that they would be voting for Hillary Clinton.

Trump’s decision to return to the distressed and disaffected rust belt for his “thank you” rallies (between meetings in New York at Trump Tower, his tony New Jersey golf club, and Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach) shows that he knows who his base is in the regions that delivered his Electoral College majority.  

But who are they in Texas?  The critique that played so well in the Rustbelt is a different formulation than the discontents of the Tea Party in Texas circa 2009-2010. Elite failure was a common enough rallying cry then as now, but the focus was much more on taxes and government growth. So thinking about how a Trump administration may affect Texas’ own political climate also invites looking at how the attitudes of the “left behind” correspond with the traditional fault line of the last few legislative sessions between Tea Party Republicans and their non-Tea Party counterparts.

First, who are they? On average, those who feel left behind in Texas are white (60 percent), between 45 and 64 years old (43 percent), and, maybe interestingly, female (55 percent). Only a slightly higher percentage of these Texans lack a college degree (74 percent) than Texas voters overall (69 percent). They’re also no more religious than voters overall: 41 percent say that religion is “extremely important” to them compared to 42 percent of voters, 27 percent believe that the bible is the literal word of god, the same proportion as among all voters.

The interesting intersection here is where those who feel left behind meet support for the president-elect. Among those who both said that they feel left behind and said that they would be voting for Trump, 79 percent identified as White, 49 percent were between the ages of 45 and 64, 54 percent were female, and 75 percent had no college degree. Given the GOP infighting that is already beginning to shape our understanding of the yet-to-convene session, this group of left behind Trump voters seems a good set of individuals to understand if we think that Trump will continue to directly reach out to them.

Not surprisingly, their views of the economy are rather negative compared to everyone else. While 40 percent of Texans, 62 percent of Republicans, and 70 percent of Tea Party Republicans say that the national economy is worse off compared to a year ago, 75 percent of left-behind Trump supporters feel this way. They’re also less positive about the Texas economy, with 34 percent saying that the Texas economy is worse off (50 percent say it remains unchanged over the last year), compared to only 22 percent of Republicans and Tea Party Republicans. On Trump’s general election focus, trade deals, 75 percent of left behind Trump supporters say that these deals have been bad for the U.S. economy, 12 points higher than among Tea Party Republicans and 20 points higher than non-Tea Party Republicans.

When it comes to policy, as a group they’re actually more concerned – and more stringent – when it comes to immigration than Republicans and Tea Party identifiers. While 51 percent of non-Tea Party and 60 percent of Tea Party Republicans said that immigration or border security was the number one issue facing the state, 65 percent of left-behind Trump supporters made this endorsement. When asked if undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States should be deported immediately, 67 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans and 76 percent of Tea Party Republicans expressed approval – both trailing the 85 percent of left-behind Trump supporters who agreed.

While we weren’t able to ask as many policy questions as we might have during the October poll due to the attention given to the election, we did ask whether transgender individuals should use the public restroom that corresponds with their birth gender, or the one that matches their gender identity. Among Republicans, there is little ambiguity: Overall, 76 percent express the opinion that transgender individuals should use the bathroom of their birth gender, including 73 percent of non-Tea Party and 76 percent of Tea Party Republicans. But like immigration, among left-behind Trump supporters, 87 percent say that transgender individuals should use the bathroom matching their birth gender.

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Their birth gender26%73%76%
Their gender identity55%17%9%
Don't know/No opinion20%10%15%

These are obviously an extremely limited set of the attitudes that one would like to know about when evaluating how Trump’s most die hard supporters feel towards issues that might face the Legislature in 2017 – and they are his most die hard supporters: 79 percent hold a favorable view of the President-Elect compared to 60 percent of Texas Republicans overall and only 54 percent of Tea Party Republicans.

But despite Tea Party acolytes’ comparatively lukewarm views towards Trump himself going into the election (and this may well change once he’s in the the White House), these overall attitudes suggest that Tea Party affiliated Republican politicians leaders in Texas could benefit if Trump’s rebranding of Republicanism in his image remains durable among his voters.

Whatever Trump himself believes, he has attracted a following among Texans who hold very conservative attitudes in conjunction with negative opinions of the current state of politics.  Trump himself shied away from some traditional conservative issues at the national level or even moved in more liberal directions -- recall, for example, his appeal to LGBTQ voters at the Republican National Conventions. Prominent Republican public officials in Texas, their eyes on the voters, have already provided ample illustration of their willingness to throw in with Trump, while still invoking the more traditionally southern conservative style.  

The urban northeasterner Trump embraces their cultural politics much less naturally, though as campaign surrogates like Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and cabinet picks like Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions and former Texas Governor Rick Perry illustrate, he’s happy to choose surrogates who can give occupy the field in his name. Back in Texas, the conservative ideological profile of the left-behind Trump voters in Texas suggests that there may yet be room for appeals to make Texas great again, though the pitch is likely to be a much less disguised appeal to familiar cultural discontent among this bloc of voters.  There are many ways to feel left behind, even if the economy seems to be booming around you.