Five Medium-Hot Takes from the First Wave of October 2020 UT/Texas Tribune Poll Results

The Texas Tribune rolled out three Ross Ramsey stories on the first wave of results from the October University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll early Friday morning. The release included results of the trial ballots in the presidential and U.S. Senate races, as well as job approval numbers for the candidates and several state elected officials.  Here are five first-cut takeaways from the day one results – much more analysis to come, and many more results focused on matters such as race and policing, attitudes and behaviors related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and expectations of how smoothly the election and its afternmath will go coming next week. (Find a summary of day one results in pdf form here.) Below are some early impressions of the first group of results, with much more drilldown to come between now and Election Day.

1. In 2020, the Republican Party of Texas is Trump Country. Republicans in Texas have consolidated behind President Trump. In the first day results, this is evident in his job approval ratings among Republicans, which crept back up to 90% approve and only 8 percent disapprove in the latest poll. These data were gathered during what was arguably one of the worst weeks of any modern presidency, encompassing Trump’s conduct and performance in the first debate with Joe Biden, his subsequent infection with Coronavirus, and his hospital jailbreak despite almost certainly still having an active infection. And those were just some of the low points (the president also walked away from stimulus talks until after the election, and threw a tantrum about the possibility of the second debate taking place virtually, because, you know, people still have the coronavirus). The Trump/Pence ticket was the choice of 92% of Republicans in the trial ballot, with 88% of likely Republican voters rating him favorably – and only 9% rating him unfavorably. These results propelled Trump’s overall job approval into net-positive territory, albeit narrowly. Among this same group of Republican likely voters, 80% said that they were voting for Trump because they wanted him to be elected, with 20% saying it was because they didn’t want Biden to be elected. By comparison, in 2016, 46% said they were casting an affirmative vote for Trump, while 54% said they were voting against Hillary Clinton.

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categoryApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't know
February 201746%44%11%
June 201743%51%7%
October 201745%50%6%
February 201846%46%8%
June 201847%44%8%
October 201848%45%6%
February 201949%45%6%
June 201952%44%5%
October 201947%48%5%
February 202045%48%7%
April 202049%45%6%
June 202046%48%6%
October 202049%46%4%

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PollApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't know
February 201781%10%8%
June 201780%13%7%
October 201778%15%7%
February 201883%11%5%
June 201887%7%6%
October 201888%7%4%
February 201988%8%5%
June 201988%8%5%
October 201988%8%5%
February 202087%9%4%
April 202090%7%3%
June 202086%8%6%
October 202090%8%2%

2. Democrats have coalesced around Joe Biden, though they are still VERY Motivated by Donald Trump. Biden’s favorability ratings among Democrats increased notably between the summer and fall. In the April University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 68% of Texas Democrats viewed Biden favorably — 38% very favorably —  and 19% viewed him unfavorably. In late September and early October, 80% viewed him favorably, 45% very favorably, and only 10% viewed him unfavorably. Dumping Trump remains a major motivator for Democrats, but more Democrats still say that their vote is primarily about wanting Biden to be elected (57%) than about NOT wanting Trump to be elected (43%). Among the subgroups in the sample large enough to reasonably draw inferences from, Black Biden supports are most likely to say they affirmatively want Biden to be elected president (77%). Preventing Trump’s re-election is most motivating to Democrats in the 18-29 cohort (57%) and to White Democrats (55%).

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Very favorable45%9%3%
Somewhat favorable35%29%6%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable10%10%4%
Somewhat unfavorable5%11%11%
Very unfavorable5%35%76%
Don't know/No opinion0%6%1%

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I want Joe Biden to be elected president57%40%43%
I don't want Donald Trump to be elected president43%60%57%

3. Independents appear more engaged with the presidential election in 2020 than they were at this stage in 2016...and less supportive of Donald Trump.  The trend in Trump’s job approval among independents went into net-negative territory a year ago in the October 2019 UT/Texas Tribune Poll, when it was 41% approve, 51% disapprove (net -10). In our October 2020 poll, his rating among independents has descended to 31% approve, 54% disapprove, 41% strongly (net -23%). Among the independents in the likely voter pool, 37% preferred Trump, 45% Biden, and 7% an unspecified “someone else.” At this stage in 2016, the October 2016 UT/TT poll showed Trump with 47% of independents and Clinton with only 19%. When Republicans enjoyed a 10%-12% baseline advantage not so long ago (Mitt Romney won the state in 2012 by 14 points), independents could be expected to translate a broadly conservative orientation into a small supplemental advantage for Republicans, but their impact on the election, given the Republican baseline, was to pile onto the inevitable outcome, not necessarily to have much of a say in the election as a group. With Trump fairly consistently leading in statewide polling but only (on average) in the mid-single digits, and a few dozen legislative and congressional races looking very competitive after being decided by 10 points or less in 2018, targeting and persuading independents is going to matter a lot more to candidates of both parties in 2020. We’ll have a lot more analysis of the dynamics around independents soon.

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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%


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Donald Trump and Mike Pence2%37%92%
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris96%45%6%
Jo Jorgensen and Jeremy "Spike" Cohen1%5%1%
Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker2%6%2%
Someone else0%7%0%

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Donald Trump3%47%83%
Hillary Clinton93%19%4%
Gary Johnson1%16%7%
Jill Stein1%10%0%
Someone Else2%8%5%

4. Flying too close to the sun.  While it would be hyperbolic and simply empirically wrong to say that Greg Abbott has fallen from Republican graces, negative assessments of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic have certainly suppressed his once singular standing among Texas elected officials. Abbott’s job approval rating has declined from 52% approval and 32% disapproval overall (net +20) on the eve of his re-election by 14 points in October 2018 to 47% approval (20% strong approval) and 40% disapproval (24% strong disapproval) (net +7) in October 2020. Among Republicans, he earned 89% approval (69% strongly) and 4% disapproval in 2018, which dropped to 81% approval (38% strongly) and 13% disapproval two year later. That 31-point decline in strong approval is the sign that while Abbott has not suffered anything like a total collapse in support, he is no longer the transcendent figure among Republican voters he was prior to the pandemic. The data strongly suggest it is the pandemic that has brought him back to earth. It’s been a rough landing.

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PollApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't Know
November 201542%29%28%
February 201641%29%30%
June 201642%31%27%
October 201642%33%25%
February 201745%33%23%
June 201745%38%16%
October 201748%33%19%
February 201846%31%23%
June 201847%36%18%
October 201852%32%17%
February 201951%32%17%
June 201951%31%18%
October 201952%28%21%
February 202048%34%18%
April 202056%32%13%
June 202049%39%13%
October 202047%40%14%
February 202146%39%15%
March 202145%43%11%
April 202143%45%13%
June 202144%44%11%
August 202141%50%9%
October 202143%48%10%
February 202244%42%15%
April 202247%41%13%
June 202243%46%12%
August 202246%44%10%
October 202247%44%9%
December 202249%41%8%
February 202346%43%12%
April 202346%41%12%
June 202347%42%12%
August 202345%45%10%
October 202349%40%10%
December 202348%41%11%
February 202453%37%10%
April 202455%37%10%

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PollApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't Know
November 201570%8%23%
February 201669%8%23%
June 201673%7%21%
October 201675%5%21%
February 201780%5%15%
June 201783%8%10%
October 201779%5%14%
February 201881%5%14%
June 201880%7%14%
October 201889%4%8%
February 201983%6%10%
June 201984%4%12%
October 201979%6%15%
February 202084%8%12%
April 202088%6%7%
June 202083%7%9%
October 202081%13%7%
February 202179%10%11%
March 202179%13%8%
April 202177%13%10%
June 202177%12%11%
August 202173%18%9%
October 202179%15%6%
February 202274%14%12%
April 202280%10%11%
June 202278%11%12%
August 202280%12%8%
October 202286%8%6%
December 202287%6%8%
February 202383%7%10%
April 202379%9%12%
June 202381%10%8%
August 202381%11%8%
October 202379%10%11%
December 202378%10%12%
February 202483%8%10%
April 202485%8%8%

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Approve strongly3%20%69%
Approve somewhat9%21%20%
Neither approve nor disapprove16%22%6%
Disapprove somewhat18%8%2%
Disapprove strongly49%25%2%
Don't know5%5%2%


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Approve strongly3%9%38%
Approve somewhat10%24%43%
Neither approve nor disapprove14%26%6%
Disapprove somewhat24%19%8%
Disapprove strongly46%20%5%
Don't know3%3%1%

5. For voters, the election isn't about a policy or a problem – it's about Donald Trump. While the first three items in this post make it clear just how large Donald Trump's personal presence looms over this election, we should also note what his outsized presence is excluding. If the 2016 elections were about Supreme Court appointments and the 2018 elections were about healthcare, the 2020 elections lack a  comparable specific policy focus, despite, or maybe even because of, the multiple policy crises besetting the country. Even the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic fallout from fighting the virus fail to dominate voters’ focus in the election. Instead, the focus of this election for voters in large part appears to be a referendum on the temperaments and political careers of the two nominees for president — despite the different lengths of their tenures in public office. In the most recent UT/TT polling, asked in an open-ended item to provide the one issue that is most important to their vote choice in the 2020 election, no single issue clearly rose to the surface, with the economy leading the pack, but only selected by 11% of voters. The second most cited issue was COVID (7%), followed by health care (6%), and the threat of socialism and/or communism (5%) (a threat, one has to suspect, driven by policy only in a very abstract way). Mentions of the candidates, their parties, or the traits associated with them, when combined, loom larger than any single issue or even any cluster of issues. Removing Trump from office (8%), trait considerations about honesty, ethics, morals, or decency (4%), returning Trump to office (3%) keeping Democrats out of power (2%), competence (1%), keeping Biden out of office (1%), unity (1%), and a return to normalcy (1%) together combined to make up the primary consideration of more than 1 in 5 likely voters in this election (21%). To the extent that voters are focused on Trump, it creates a powerful tendency for the election to be in the end a referendum on Trump’s performance, and thus Biden’s fitness to replace him. Most voters are not unified in viewing this election through the prism of the major policy problems plaguing the country. The most common and powerful focus is on problems they have with one or the other of the two men seeking office – and with their associations of the partisan labels attached to them.

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The economy11%
Removing Trump from Office8%
Health care6%
Threat of Socialism / Communism6%
Social disorder / Violence4%
Honesty, Ethics, Morals, Caring, Decency4%