Can country roads take Beto O'Rourke home?

Beto O’Rourke’s recurring swings through rural Texas has rekindled a debate about campaign strategy that first flared up during O’Rourke’s "254 county tour” in 2018. The key point of the debate is whether the O’Rourke campaign is wasting time in seeking a small number of long shot votes in the state’s least populated and most reliably Republican counties at the expense of drumming up base turnout in the Democrat-heavy cities and hotly contested suburbs where Democrats have made demonstrable in-roads in recent years.

We should say at the outset that there is no clear answer to this question based on past returns or polling given that no Democratic strategy has resulted in statewide success in more than two decades. This lack of clarity fuels the debate, which continues on as a result of O’Rourke’s apparent determination to continue spending time in some of Texas’s most durably Republican, rural locales in an effort to, presumably, persuade some independents (and maybe even some Republicans) to consider voting for him, while bucking up the relatively few rural Democrats who remain to turn out in counties where their votes are all but meaningless (in terms of impacting largely non-competitive, or even non-contested, local elections). 

O’Rourke is definitely earning media coverage pegged to his experiences out in the country. The story is hard to resist, whether for an editor making an assignment or a writer pitching a trip to rural Texas: Skateboarding, iconoclastic, “hell yes, we’re gonna take your AR-15’s” Beto O’Rourke journeys to small town Texas, and hijinks ensue!

Of course, hijinks have ensued – along with some pretty grim snapshots of the hostility, often armed, with which O’Rourke is routinely greeted at his rural stops, as nearly all reporting from the campaign trail has portrayed. And O’Rourke himself has met editorial expectations, as when he earned coast-to-coast coverage of an angry MF-ing of an Abbott-supporter laughing while O’Rourke was describing the carnage from the mass shooting at a Uvalde elementary school.

Setting media coverage and armchair campaign strategizing aside for the moment, some back of the envelope estimating of potential vote shares suggests there are reasons to think O’Rourke’s country tours are not a terrible bet – though on their own, unlikely to be game changers, either.

Considering the most general campaign arithmetic informed by past election results, it makes sense to think that O’Rourke needs to find votes beyond the pool of reliable Democrats who overwhelmingly support him. Polling to date suggests that, just as Greg Abbott has most of his partisans sewn up, O’Rourke has locked down most Democratic voters.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Greg Abbott3%32%84%
Beto O’Rourke87%22%4%
Mark Tippets2%3%2%
Delilah Barrios1%4%1%
Someone else2%7%3%
Haven't thought about it enough to have an opinion6%33%6%

To the extent that each candidate’s ability to turn out their voters will be a major factor in the outcome of the gubernatorial election, the recent past suggests that O’Rourke is at a disadvantage. Democrats and Republicans may well be at near parity in party identification among eligible voters, but the Republican advantage has historically grown larger with each filtering of the population that produces the final, actual electorate.

The theory of the case for O’Rourke’s rural focus is straightforward: do better in the areas where Democrats have the weakest presence among the electorate, and where they have lost by the largest margins for decades now. Working rural areas presents repeated opportunities to persuade some number of Republican voters to cross over and vote for a Democrat, to rally independents to consider Democrats (or at least O’Rourke), or to mobilize Democratic-leaning non-voters (or those who are hostile to Republicans) to join the electorate. In a race in which O’Rourke has consistently trailed by single digits, there could theoretically be a non-trivial number of votes to contribute to closing the baseline partisan gap statewide.

Republican and Democratic Share of the Rural and Non-Rural Vote*
  Rural Vote Share Non-Rural Vote Share
  Republican Democrat GOP Advantage Republican Democrat

GOP Advantage

2020: President 75.92% 22.97% +52.95 48.38% 50.06% -1.68
2020: Senate 75.73% 22.23% +53.50 50.12% 47.18% +2.94
2018: Senate 74.42% 24.93% +49.49 47.23% 51.96% -4.73
2018: Governor 77.21% 21.69% +55.52 52.46% 45.75% +6.71
2016: President 73.55% 23.49% +50.06 48.75% 46.47% +2.28
2014: Governor 75.26% 22.98% +52.28 56.32% 41.84% +14.48

And there are Democratic votes to be had in rural Texas. Looking back at polling between 2015 and June 2022, on average over that time span, 61.75% of rural Texas voters have identified as Republicans and 25.61% as Democrats. The data don’t demonstrate significant fluctuations in the party identification patterns of Texas’ rural voters over time, though the Republican share has not been less than 64% in 6 UT/Texas Politics Project polls conducted between June 2021 and June 2022. Democratic identification among rural voters has stood at 22% in each of three surveys conducted so far in 2022. The remainder of the rural registered voter pool, 12.57% on average, identify as independent, by which we mean voters who neither identify with, nor consistently lean toward, either party. So while a non-trivial share of Democrats appear to remain in Texas’ rural areas, in the recent term, the GOP advantage does seem to be slightly on the increase — consistent with broader trends in party system dynamics.

Party Identification Among Rural, Registered Voters
(University of Texas Polling)
  Democrats Independents Republicans
June 2022 22% 14% 64%
April 2022 22% 11% 67%
February 2022 22% 11% 67%
October 2021 22% 9% 68%
Average from February 2015 through June 2022 25.61% 12.57% 61.75%

Given these patterns in voting and party identification among rural Texans, O’Rourke’s goal clearly isn’t to win over a majority, or even a plurality of these voters. The realistic expectation here must be to continue doing as well or better than Democrats have done in non-rural areas while doing less badly among rural voters, as recently expressed by O’Rourke in Spearman, Texas: “I understand that if we’re only interested in those who are already with us, we’ll never get there...We’ll end up in the same place every Democrat has for the last 28 years.”

This isn’t to say that attempting to mobilize this identifiable pool of rural Democrats is either guaranteed to succeed or enough to generate net gains sufficient to overcome the baseline advantage that Republicans hold statewide. O’Rourke has a hill to climb if he’s to significantly improve Democratic returns in rural areas given recent history, but maybe even more importantly, considering well-established views of him among rural voters. 

Examining O’Rourke’s favorability ratings going back to 2017 suggests that the combination of O’Rourke’s increasing public profile and his detractors' framing have created very negative assessments of him among Republicans and, more critically, independents.

Given this overall pattern, it’s not surprising that O’Rourke’s favorability ratings in rural Texas suggest significant constraints on his efforts to win hearts and minds. It wasn’t always so. O’Rourke, not surprisingly, was largely unknown to rural Texans when he made his entrance into statewide politics a little more than five years ago. In June of 2017, soon after O’Rourke announced his candidacy challenging U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, only 23% of rural Texans held a view of the El Paso Congressman, with a nearly even split between them: 13% unfavorable, 9% favorable — attitudes that remained largely unchanged in polling through October. As the 2018 election year began, February polling found rural voters still split yet mostly without opinions of O’Rourke: 15% held either a favorable or unfavorable view, while 70% had not formed an opinion. 

But with primaries concluded and the general election campaign underway, rural voters had formed opinions more obviously reflecting the partisan balance in rural Texas: by October 2018, 55% held an unfavorable view of O’Rourke and only 23% a favorable one. 

Those negative attitudes have largely stuck. As of June 2022, 25% of rural voters hold a favorable view of O’Rourke, 60% unfavorable – with 57% of those views very unfavorable. The die seems pretty well cast.

Beto O'Rourke Favorability Ratings Among Rural, Registered Voters
(University of Texas Polling)
  Favorable Unfavorable Neither / No opinion
June 2022 25% 60% 15%
April 2022 20% 64% 16%
Feb. 2022 22% 57% 21%
Oct. 2021 16% 66% 18%
June 2019 29% 61% 10%
Feb. 2019 24% 62% 14%
Oct. 2018 23% 55% 22%
June 2018 24% 29% 47%
Feb. 2018 15% 15% 70%
Oct. 2017 10% 14% 76%
June 2017 9% 13% 78%

Given O’Rourke’s past electoral performance and (less helpfully but still contextual fodder) what polling tells us about his likely position among rural Texas voters, what might a very speculative back of the envelope calculation assessing the potentials of this strategy look like?

Looking back to the 2018 Senate race between Cruz and O’Rourke provides a very generous comparison point for O'Rourke, but is the most concrete available starting point for some basic numbers. Cruz’s margin of victory overall in 2018 was 215,557 votes. Cruz was buoyed by a large margin of victory in rural counties (defined here as the counties remaining once we exclude urban counties, like Bexar and Harris, suburban counties, like Denton and Fort Bend, and other metropolitan area counties, like Midland and Cameron). Cruz ran up a 558,195 vote advantage (839,433 votes for Cruz, 281,238 votes for O’Rourke). Had O’Rourke improved his vote share among rural voters from the 24.93% he received in 2018 to 30% — an ambitious goal – he would have netted approximately 57,000 additional voters. If we further assume that all of those voters would have voted for Cruz (a big assumption) and thus have to be deducted from Cruz’s column, O’Rourke would have netted an additional 114k votes – cutting his 2.8% loss margin statewide to about a 1.2% shortfall — that is, still about 100,000 votes short. 

While one can debate similarities and differences between 2018 and 2022 (there are many differences), the electoral math problem is still essentially the same. While there are *potential* gains to be made from efforts in rural areas, even major success as in the hypothetical (and generous starting) scenario above while speculating about a 5% swing off the trend line still doesn’t yield enough votes to close the gap, all things being equal.

Finally, the denominator of available vote shares in rural Texas is gradually shrinking, making the size of the potential prize smaller. As the state continues to urbanize (though it’s already very urban), the rural contribution to the state’s overall vote totals have been slowly but consistently declining, from 15.61% in 2014 to 14.38% in 2016; to 13.53% in 2018; to 13.29% in 2022. Thinking about the big picture, this is, of course, bad news for Republicans. But in the short run, it also shrinks the potential return for O’Rourke’s rural push.

Rural and Non-Rural Turnout Rates and Contribution to Statewide Vote*
  Turnout Rate Among Rural Registered Voters  Turnout Rate Among Non-Rural Registered Voters Rural Votes as a Share of Total Votes Non-Rural Votes as a Share of Total Votes
2020 65.01% 67.26% 13.29% 86.71%
2018 50.95% 53.58% 13.53% 86.47%
2016 58.54% 60.11% 14.38% 85.62%
2014 34.55% 33.67% 15.61% 84.39%

There may be some potential for O’Rourke to bring non-voters into his fold following slight declines in rural-turnout relative to non-rural areas. In 2014, turnout was slightly higher in rural counties compared to non-rural counties (34.55% of registered voters vs. 33.67%). In 2016, 2018, and 2020, non-rural counties had slightly higher turnout than rural counties, with 2018 exhibiting the largest gap in turnout (2.63 points, vs. 2.25 points in 2020 and 1.57 points in 2016). One might possibly speculate that the decline in rural turnout is among voters negatively disposed to Republican candidates, and thus not motivated to vote in elections with limited or no alternatives. But again, those are small margins and relatively small groups of voters.

The math remains challenging for O’Rourke, but the approach may make more sense in 2022 than it did even in 2018. O’Rourke finished that campaign, and his 254 county tour, with about the same vote share in rural areas as other, less adventurous Democrats received. This time, O’Rourke has a few political assets he didn’t enjoy in 2018. He now enjoys nearly universal name identification among Democrats. But perhaps just as importantly but less widely recognized, he is competing against an opponent who is now viewed more negatively than the Democrats’ arch-nemesis Ted Cruz was in 2018. Republicans’ negative views of O’Rourke may have become more deeply seated and intense since 2018. But Abbott’s negatives have also grown since he defeated a much less formidable opponent by 14 percentage points a very long-seeming four years ago.

Job Approval Ratings Among Registered Voters (Approve-Disapprove)
(University of Texas Polling)
  Overall Democrats Independents Republicans Urban Suburban Rural
June 2022: Greg Abbott 43-36 6-86 27-55 77-11 38-51 41-48 55-34
June 2018: Ted Cruz 39-41 9-74 17-43 74-9 39-47 41-41 51-39

O’Rourke’s repeated forays in rural Texas might generate externalities not measured directly by the rural vote count. Part of O’Rourke’s appeal both to established Democrats as well as potential young voters and those non-voters uninterested in politics is a cultivated image as an unorthodox and energetic candidate. Both the overall strategy and the specific stops have attracted local, statewide, and national media coverage. On the occasions in which O’Rourke has engaged in direct, sometimes heated exchanges with detractors and trolls in unfriendly confines, his image as a vigorous upstart is burnished. This may be a wash with already-converted partisans, as it likely reinforces views already held. But it nonetheless aids an effort to establish a contrast with Abbott’s more conventional persona as a known, incumbent, Republican Governor — which could be something of a liability given a time of broad disillusion with all things institutional.

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PollRight DirectionWrong Track
October 200938%39%
February 201043%37%
May 201045%38%
September 201043%38%
October 201045%37%
February 201141%41%
May 201136%48%
October 201139%43%
February 201243%38%
May 201238%42%
October 201243%34%
February 201345%39%
June 201350%32%
October 201342%39%
February 201445%35%
June 201449%33%
October 201448%35%
February 201550%30%
June 201550%32%
November 201545%36%
February 201642%37%
June 201641%38%
October 201642%40%
February 201746%36%
June 201743%40%
October 201743%40%
February 201848%36%
June 201846%37%
October 201850%35%
February 201949%35%
June 201949%34%
October 201947%35%
February 202049%37%
April 202043%43%
June 202041%47%
October 202041%44%
February 202139%41%
March 202141%46%
April 202142%42%
June 202141%43%
August 202135%52%
October 202140%48%
February 202240%46%
April 202239%51%
June 202231%59%
August 202236%52%

The issue environment has also shifted somewhat unexpectedly in O’Rourke’s favor. Gov. Abbott’s determination to win over Republican primary voters and defend himself from challenges from the right, a seemingly low-risk strategy from the perspective of mid-2021, has been complicated by the events of 2022. An election that seemed destined to be defined by Biden, the inflation, and the border is now being defined for many voters by issues like abortion (most prominently), but also guns, voting, race and racism, public education, and the grid. There are plenty of Democratic candidates elevating these issues in more heavily Democratic, and more clearly competitive, areas, something that until recently couldn’t be said of many of the rural counties that O’Rourke, and Lieutenant Governor candidate Mike Collier, keep visiting.

Thus, the mobilization of some additional rural votes might well be a successful part of a scenario in which O’Rourke moves enough voters in enough places to succeed where Democrats have failed for almost three decades. But it won’t be enough on its own. It will rely on successful increases in Democratic votes elsewhere, and, importantly, on the resources spent on the rural campaign not resulting in declines in Democratic turnout and margins in the non-rural areas. The O’Rourke campaign strategy, presumably then, relies on winning the non-rural areas of the state, like he did in 2018 (51.96% to 47.23%), and not performing so badly in the rural parts of the state (24.93% to 74.42%) to result in a traditional Democratic outcome.

Skeptics would point out that this strategy has risks when, examining top of the ticket races since 2014, only O’Rourke and Biden have garnered a majority of the non-rural vote over those election cycles, with M.J. Hegar failing to achieve a majority in 2020, and Lupe Valdez, Hillary Clinton, and Wendy Davis all falling short. (Cue discussion of the battle for the suburbs, where increased Democratic competitiveness shouldn’t be confused with Democratic dominance.)

The fundamentals of the election environment still favor Republicans (i.e. a Democratic-controlled congress and an unpopular president in the White House amidst widespread economic concerns). But there can be little doubt that the emerging issue set (abortion, gun safety, and the state’s rightward shift) provides Democrats with a firmer footing than they’re used to, and has in turn changed the outlook. Handicapping is hardly as straightforward as it seemed at the beginning of 2022. As Biden’s national job approval creeps upward and expectations about the magnitude of the GOP advantage cool, the sunny outlook for Republicans nationally has grown cloudier. While the forces nationalizing the agenda to Democrats’ advantage can’t negate the GOP’s fundamental, material advantages, they do change the political climate enough to consider at least the plausibility of O’Rourke’s rural strategy contributing to what would be a shattering upset of Greg Abbott. But regardless of whether this is a good year for Republicans, or a surprising challenge, one thing is clear: O’Rourke likely can’t rely solely on eking out relatively narrow wins in urban and suburban areas while continuing to lose rural Texas by a margin of 3 to 1. 

 

 

*Source: Texas Legislative Council Comprehensive Election Datasets, https://data.capitol.texas.gov/dataset/comprehensive-election-datasets-compressed-format. County designations are borrowed from those used by Wayne Thorburn in his 2014 book, "Red State: An Insider's Story of How the GOP Came to Dominate Texas Politics." Rural counties are those counties not classified as Urban, suburban, or other metropolitan by Thorburn. Easier than listing all of the counties that count as rural, the non-rural counties include: El Paso, Bexar, Travis, Harris, Tarrant, Dallas, Wise, Denton, Collin, Rockwall, Hunt, Kaufman, Ellis, Johnson, Parker, Williamson, Bastrop, Hays, Caldwell, Kendall, Comal, Guadalupe, Wilson, Atascosa, Medina, Bandera, Galveston, Chambers, Liberty, San Jacinto, Montgomery, Waller, Fort Bend, Brazoria, Austin, Potter, Randall, Lubbock, Ector, Midland, Tom Green, Taylor, Wichita, Grayson, Bowie, Gregg, Smith, McLennan, Bell, Brazos, Jefferson, Victoria, Nueces, Webb, Hidalgo, and Cameron counties.