Can Republican Leaders in Texas Break with Trump on COVID-19 Before It’s Too Late?

In the absence of a strong GOP counterweight to President Donald Trump’s denial of the COVID-19 pandemic, recent University of Texas/Texas Politics Project polling finds more and more Texans drifting into attitudes that minimize the threat of the coronavirus and, consequently, encourage behavior that continues to fuel a rapid rise in positive tests, active cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. These increases, in turn, add to the strain on an already reeling economy. The partisan characteristics of Texans who are downplaying or even denying the seriousness of the pandemic, and seemingly ignoring public health guidelines, suggest that it’s vital that the state’s political leaders provide different guidance in their rhetoric and their behavior.

While liberal partisans may be quick to internalize the inflamed meme of mask-wearing as a partisan shorthand, most Texas Republicans report complying with the main behavioral recommendations for slowing the spread of the coronavirus. But in the absence of alternative GOP voices willing and able to counter Trump’s message of minimization and redirection, the minority of Republicans who appear to deny both this guidance and the threat posed by the pandemic is growing.

The very public efforts by President Donald Trump and like-minded allies to downplay the public health threat posed by the pandemic now straining Texas’ public health system has, by most measures, failed to persuade a majority of Trump’s otherwise devoted supporters in the Texas GOP that they should treat the pandemic as he has. 

Texas Republicans as a group unambiguously express lower levels of concern about contracting the coronavirus, or about people in their communities contracting it than do Democrats or even independents. But a majority, or at least a plurality, of Republicans remain conscious of the risk posed by COVID-19, and also report behaviours consistent with this recognition

June 2020 UT/Texas Politics Project Poll: Percent of Texas Republicans Who....
Survey Item Percent of Republicans
Are washing their hands more frequently 84%
Are staying away from large groups 80%
Say the coronavirus is either a significant crisis or a serious problem (but not a crisis) 75%
Are wearing a mask when outside their home 69%
Are being careful when they leave their home, only leaving their home when they have to, or not leaving home at all 68%
Are avoiding other people 67%
Are avoiding touching their face 67%

And while Republicans express less overall concern than do Democrats, majorities still say that it is unsafe to go to the gym, fly on an airplane, go to a movie theater, bar or club, or attend any large events (outdoors or inside). This is a vital political point in this moment: the effort to mobilize as many Texans as possible to support necessary public health measures to contain the pandemic will be hurt if Republicans are demonized as not participating in the effort by virtue of their political party. It’s simply not the case.

But that said, the share of Republican voters whose attitudes about the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic reflect a minimalist view of the risks associated with the virus, and whose reported behavior reflects a rejection of the containment measures being urged by public health authorities, did grow substantially between April and June.

  • The share of Republicans who viewed the pandemic  as “a minor problem” or “not a problem at all” more than tripled from 7% to 23% between April and June polling; the share of Republicans who consider it a “significant crisis” dropped from 48% to 29% during the same period.
  • Concern about community spread and individual infection both dropped over the same period. The share of Republicans either “not very” or “not at all” concerned increased by 20 points to a near majority of GOP voters in both cases.
  • The share of Republicans who describe themselves as “living normally, coming and going as usual” almost tripled from 11% in April to 32% in June.
UT/Texas Politics Project Poll/Texas Tribune Polling: Percent of Texas Republicans Who....
Survey Item April June % Point Change
Say the coronavirus is a minor problem or not a problem at all 7% 23% +16
Say they are not very or not at all concerned about the spread of the coronavirus in your community 27% 44% +17
Say they are not very or not at all concerned about you or someone you know getting infected with the coronavirus 26% 46% +20
Are “living normally, coming and going as usual” 11% 32% +21
Say that the coronavirus is already contained enough in the U.S. so that things can return to normal 12% 19% +7

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Extremely concerned44%21%11%
Very concerned30%21%12%
Somewhat concerned21%25%32%
Not very concerned3%18%29%
Not at all concerned2%10%15%
Don't know/No opinion1%4%1%

 

Concern about the pandemic also declined among Democrats and independents, but those declines are smaller, and also reflect groups that took the virus more seriously from the start. For example, 26% of Democrats in June said that they were unconcerned about community spread, up from 17% in April (49% of Republicans are unconcerned); however, 6% of Democrats are unconcerned about contracting the coronavirus, unchanged from April, compared with 46% of Republicans, up from 26% in April.

Loading chart...
CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Extremely concerned42%20%12%
Very concerned31%22%14%
Somewhat concerned20%26%27%
Not very concerned4%14%30%
Not at all concerned2%14%16%
Don't know/No opinion1%4%1%

The erosion in GOP concern took place during the period in which efforts to “flatten the curve” in Texas failed and the number of cases and positive tests began to rise, as the chart below illustrates. That failure emerged from an intermixture of policy and politics, and likely some bad gambles by policy makers, first and foremost among them Governor Abbott, as he has at least partially acknowledged. The increase in lax attitudes and behaviors in response to the partial “opening up” reported in the June poll have to be attributed at least in part to that staged “opening,” which is now in the process of being reversed. (The graphic below from the FT's COVID-19 tracking project shows the increase in Texas cases through late June - the Texas Politics Project poll was in the field June 19-29.)

 

Source: "HEALTH AND SCIENCE Record spikes in U.S. coronavirus cases push up hospitalization rates in 16 states" via CNBC

But the increase in lax attitudes, and indeed the premature relaxation of vigilance against the spread of the virus by policy makers, express the force of the president’s influence on the attitudes and calculations of Republican elected officials, as well as their effect on his loyalists in the Republican base. 

Support for Trump and relative indifference to the virus ovelapped in the June poll results. Among Republicans who “strongly approve” of the president’s job performance (62% of Texas Republicans), 63% said they were unconcerned about contracting the coronavirus. Among the quarter of Texas Republicans who only somewhat approve of the president’s job performance, 42% say that they’re unconcerned, with only 5% saying that they are “not at all concerned” compared with 22% of the president’s strongest supporters. 

Loading chart...
CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Approve strongly2%22%62%
Approve somewhat3%14%24%
Neither approve nor disapprove2%12%5%
Disapprove somewhat6%16%3%
Disapprove strongly87%34%5%
Don't know0%2%1%

As forceful as Trump’s influence remains, the growing public health disaster in Texas and its inevitable economic repercussions cry out for Texas leaders to declare that Emperor Trump has no clothes and to defy his minimization of the problem before such attitudes further metastasize in the state’s body politic.

The change in public attitudes underlines the urgency of defying Trump now. Texas Republicans grew increasingly skeptical of the reality of the state’s public health crisis as spring turned to summer in large part because no one in the state they pay attention to sustained a more urgent, rational narrative in the face of Trump’s increasingly febrile denial and misdirection. Instead, Governor Abbott declared the state ready to open based on (at best) incomplete and ambiguous data (along with ever-changing benchmarks). Lauded by the president, and amidst continuing ambiguity in the actual information at hand, the governor kept opening. More and more partisans followed the signals of the president and the governor, and both their attitudes and their behavior shifted —  fueling the resurgent community spread now resulting in renewed shut downs and closures across the state required by a resurgent public health crisis.

Source: "Texas puts reopening on hold in face of new Covid-19 outbreak" via Financial Times

The increasing desperation in both the affect and tactics of the state’s leadership suggest that they are aware of their policy mistakes. But will they have the courage to change political course at the risk of triggering the wrath of the president? We wrote in The Texas Tribune in late April that Governor Abbott confronted the toughest test of his political career with a large cache of political capital, and that the moment called for spending down that account in the name of public health and the good of the state. He has squandered some of those funds in the last two months, and now finds himself back where he was in late April, only in a more dire circumstance. 

As always, the governor’s political calculations are freighted with consideration of his frenemy in the Lt. Governor’s office. Lt. Governor Patrick’s expedient approach to the crisis, solemnly appearing with state officials at briefings one moment, then railing against attempts at containment on Fox News the next, epitomizes the poisonous effects of channeling Trump on policy process. It also further highlights the governor’s tentativeness anywhere in the vicinity of Trump’s shadow.

While the heavy weight of defying Trump and his local cadres is on Abbott’s shoulders, the political difficulty of the moment is oddly coincidental insofar as Abbott just happens to occupy the governor’s mansion in the moment of an unforeseeable moment of crisis for Republican rule of the state. For much of the last two decades, the hegemonic GOP leadership has had to make very few tough decisions. The largesse of the fracking boom and the tradition of the low tax, low service political economy nurtured by previous generations of conservative, pro-business Democrats enabled a generation of GOP leaders to claim success for what was mostly baked into the structural trajectory of the state. 

Loading chart...
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%
October 202237%50%
December 202239%46%

For the most part, all that was required policy-wise was to be literally conservative —  to simply hold the fort. Most of the politics of the last 20 years have been about managing the business as usual inter- and intra sectoral fights between the state’s businesses and their trade groups, associations, and corporate lobby teams, and to manage the eruptions of the party’s id from small but not insignificant reactionary splinter groups rooted in what has been at various times, in polite euphemisms, the Christian right, the tea party, or just “the conservative grassroots.” The current confrontation with racial justice and the rise of a more culturally broad and potent  antiracism has exposed the ugliness and retrograde nature of some of these elements of the party. The governor got a personal taste of it recently in a right-wing fringe group’s mistakenly published, unedited podcast recording that crudely berated Abbott’s reliance on a wheelchair even as the discussion provided a textbook case of being blind to the seriousness of the pandemic. The modal reaction of the downtown Austin political class was telling: At last, they wrote and tweeted, the governor can stick it to these guys, and get them out of Republican primaries! The larger question of how a group of fringe-funded reactionaries became so central to Republican political discourse in the state was mostly lost in the bipartisan opportunism and schadenfreude that is a familiar staple of internecine fighting during periods of one-party rule. Everyone seemed happy for the distraction from the exponentially harder problems posed by the pandemic.

Now, for the first time, and with Abbott at the helm, the Texas GOP has to make hard, proactive policy decisions that will have deep structural consequences in a period of multiple sustained crises. To add injury to insult, Abbott’s failed gambit in May has made the situation even tougher for the GOP. Meanwhile, a larger part of his partisan base has adopted the blithe skepticism toward the reality of the pandemic modeled daily by the president. The politics grew more difficult while everyone hoped he, and we, would get lucky. But the error of following the president’s ways gets  harder and harder to deny with each daily increase in the numbers of the sick and dead. The reversal of the re-opening strategy implicitly defies Trump and his denial of facts, science, and the public good in the name of his flawed reelection strategy. The governor needs to stay the course, even if it requires openly defying the president. It’s time for the governor to spend what’s left of that political capital, and perhaps even go in the red, for the sake of the state – both those who voted for him and those who didn’t.