At least some of the rationale behind both Beto O’Rourke’s and Julián Castro’s candidacies for the Democratic Presidential nomination is that one, the other, or either of them could put Texas and its 38 electoral votes in play, a state of affairs that would significantly complicate President Trump’s re-election strategy, or at the very least, require a major expenditure of resources by Republicans and their allied groups in Texas.
With both Texas candidates set to be on stage for the first Democratic debate on Wednesday evening, the attitudes among Texas Democratic voters towards last year’s Senate darling are strong, but trending in the wrong direction. And for Castro, long considered by many to be the future of the state’s Democratic party, opinion is best described as...vacant. At this, admittedly, extremely early stage in the process, let’s take a look at where each stands among Texas voters, and in particular, Texas Democrats and liberals.
O’Rourke is clearly the better know among the two after last year’s highly publicized and extremely expensive Senate contest that found him finishing within 3-points of Senator Cruz. At the end of that race, in October 2018 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Polling, O’Rourke’s profile looked much like a national, political figure, with 43 percent holding a favorable opinion towards the former Congressman from El Paso and 44 percent holding an unfavorable opinion. More important for the current contest, O’Rourke was viewed favorably by 86 percent of Democrats (65 percent very favorably) and 92 percent of liberals (77 percent very favorably).
|Neither favorable nor unfavorable||7%||16%||5%|
|Don't know/no opinion||5%||9%||4%|
|Neither favorable nor unfavorable||3%||13%||6%|
|Don't know/no opinion||2%||8%||6%|
In the most recent UT/TT poll, released in June, O’Rourke’s overall favorability numbers look remarkably similar, with 42 percent of Texans holding a favorable attitude towards the former senate candidate, and 46 percent holding an unfavorable opinion. Texas Democrats still hold an overwhelmingly positive opinion of O’Rourke, at 78 percent, but this represents an 8-point drop from the end of his senate race, and a 21-point decline in the share of Texas Democrats who hold a “very favorable” opinion, down to 44 from 65 percent.
|Neither favorable nor unfavorable||9%||11%||6%|
|Don't know/no opinion||2%||9%||4%|
This opinion shift looks similar among Texas liberals, if a little worse. In June 2019 polling, 77 percent of liberals held a favorable view of O’Rourke, not shabby by any stretch, but a solid 15-point decline since October of 2018, and a 22-point decline in liberals who say that they have a “very favorable” impression of O’Rourke.
|Neither favorable nor unfavorable||9%||14%||4%|
|Don't know/no opinion||2%||8%||3%|
While these numbers are by no means bad, the change in attitudes towards O’Rourke must be troubling for the campaign, if not surprising. O’Rourke’s near-universal, positive coverage in 2018 has been replaced in 2019 with a more suspicious press, both asking reasonable questions about policy specifics that he largely escaped in 2018’s partisan contest, but also seemingly more interested in uncovering details of O’Rourke’s past that somehow didn’t come up in 2018.
But maybe even more importantly, O’Rourke faces a different test in 2019 than he did in 2018. Differentiating himself from among a throng of Democrats is different, and his weakening support (erosion is too strong a word here) among Texas Democrats, but in particular Texas liberals, is the likely result of a contest that requires differentiation, at least at this early stage and with this many candidates to choose from. If Texas liberals want a more clearly liberal candidate to win the Democratic nomination, they have many options, and it appears that many are willing to consider them – O’Rourke only garnered 13 percent of the vote among potential Democratic primary voters who consider themselves to be liberal, less than Elizabeth Warren (20 percent), Joe Biden (19 percent), and tied with Bernie Sanders.
Though O’Rourke has been forced into an early reset of his campaign (which I assume is better than a late reset), Castro would love to have O’Rourke’s problems, i.e. seemingly declining intensity in favorable attitudes towards him, but near universal, and positive, name recognition among potential Democratic primary voters.
In February of this year, 26 percent of Texans held a favorable view of Castro, 32 percent held an unfavorable view, but 42 percent were either unable to offer a positive or negative opinion (17 percent) or simply couldn’t state anything about the former San Antonio mayor and HUD Secretary (25 percent). The important numbers here are the latter, while Castro was viewed favorably by a majority of Democrats (51 percent), 43 percent, likewise, could not offer a concrete opinion about him. The same held true among liberals, with 40 percent unable to offer an opinion.
|Neither favorable nor unfavorable||20%||29%||12%|
|Don't know/no opinion||23%||31%||25%|
|Neither favorable nor unfavorable||19%||28%||11%|
|Don't know/no opinion||21%||29%||26%|
The Castro campaign has been relatively up-front about his low name ID, indicating (reasonably, I would say), that his standing would rise as he campaigns and introduces himself to more voters. But in Texas, at least, that doesn’t appear to have happened to any notable degree in the last four months, despite the campaign’s best efforts. In June 2019 polling, Castro remains unknown to 41 percent of voters, including 41 percent of Democrats and 35 percent of liberals.
|Neither favorable nor unfavorable||21%||22%||15%|
|Don't know/no opinion||20%||34%||21%|
|Neither favorable nor unfavorable||19%||28%||13%|
|Don't know/no opinion||16%||31%||21%|
It’s important at this point to state how early we are in this election cycle, and that we should expect more fluidity in the fortunes of the candidates as the race continues. And these numbers should also be placed in context, of the 23 Democratic candidates that we tested, only 8 of those 23 were known in any fashion to more than 50 percent of potential Democratic primary voters in Texas. Seen that way, Castro’s numbers look alright, if not spectacular. But he’s also starting from a presumed position of strength in Texas that so far hasn’t materialized in any notable way.
Debates are funny things, and while we may think that we know a lot about the potential impacts that debates might have on the electoral process, it would be foolhardy to assume that in the Trump era, with a large selection of two-dozen candidates spread out over two nights, what impact, if any, these late June debates, over a year before the general election, will have going forward. It’s arguable that absent a breakout, viral performance, no candidate will benefit too greatly. Likewise, absent a major gaff, it seems unlikely that anyone’s fortune’s will change significantly by Friday morning. For those candidates treading water, that may be enough to sink their slowly sinking (if they were ever actually floating) candidacies – maybe not soon, but sooner. And for the Texas candidates, O’Rourke will be looking to more firmly cement his status in the top-tier by reversing some of the trends outlined above, while Castro will be trying to finally get noticed.