Making sense of electoral politics in Texas as the 2022 election reaches its crescendo

With in-person early voting underway and Election Day within clear view, the October UT/Texas Politics Project Poll provided a portrait of the 2022 Texas election that extends beyond the trial ballots –  and which looks very familiar.

This snapshot of the political landscape is an instance in which familiarity is certain to inspire contempt (or, in the response to the poll, skepticism), particularly among Democrats and/or those looking for significant change. After all that has happened in the state over the past two years, are Texas voters really just ready to stand pat on Election Day?

It appears so. For all the upheaval in the state over the last two years – month after month of screaming and fighting over COVID measures (amidst tens of thousands of COVID-related deaths), persistent threats to democratic institutions that broke into open violence on January 6 and have simmered ever since, the power outage that killed hundreds and brought discomfort and suffering to millions in Texas, the mass killing of children at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, the overturning of Roe v Wade and the resulting deterioration of health care and autonomy for millions of Texas women – the Texas electorate as likely constituted seem poised to vote for continuity rather than change. This situation is the result of long-standing, and only slowly changing, characteristics of the Texas political system being reinforced by a strong national dynamic favoring Republicans.

Texas has remained mostly on the fringe of the feverish mix of handicapping and speculation about the dynamics and eventual results of the 2022 election in the United States. Compared to swing states with razor thin margins in the 2020 presidential elections, U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races with polling perpetually within the margin of error, and election-deniers running for Secretary of State positions, Texas looks pretty ho-hum. There’s not a U.S. Senate race this cycle, polling in the race for governor has never put O’Rourke within the margin of error of Abbott, and a third of the state legislature, facing no opposition on the November ballot, have already been declared elected by the Secretary of State (who is appointed by the governor, so no election story there, either).

However comparatively quiet Texas has seemed in the 2022 cycle, the feeling inside Texas politics has been decidedly less business-as-usual for most of the last two years.

The arc of the long 2022 election season – which commenced with Joe Biden’s clear yet irrationally disputed defeat of Donald Trump (who won Texas by about 6 percentage points) – has been marked by mayhem and outright horror, and no small amount of disquiet and outright discontent on the part of Texans. In four of the five polls conducted this year, half or more of Texas voters said the state is on the wrong track.

Despite Texans’ dark mood in the wake of the events of the last two years, the major Republican statewide candidates (all but one of them incumbents) maintain leads of varying margins in all available non-partisan statewide polling. There is only the most abstract chance that Republican majorities don’t return to both chambers when the 88th Legislature sets about the state’s business — their vision of it, at least — in January 2023.

We are, of course, obliged to offer the necessary caveats, qualifications and cliches. The voters will decide. And the margins we find among likely voters in the survey conducted by the UT/Texas politics between October 7-17 are estimates of an approximation of the electorate before the vast majority of votes have been cast. The Republican advantages in these estimates are not offered as predictions of the final vote count, but as an estimate of where sentiment stood in mid-October amongst those most likely to participate in the process now underway.

All that said, the overwhelming weight of the public polling suggests a very low chance of major upsets in statewide races, and still lower chances of any shift in the partisan balance in the legislature.

Polling data suggests that we need to look beyond trial ballots to explain the seeming reversion to the mean in Texas politics in 2022. We start  by giving pride of place to the structural factors that appear to be reinforcing GOP advantages in the final weeks of the election. These factors have powerfully influenced other factors that have also fluctuated over the course of the campaign, but now seem to be aligning in a pattern that reinforces the GOP advantage in Texas that most expected in the early days of the election cycle.

Enduring negative partisanship in Texas creates serious obstacles to efforts by statewide Democratic candidates to attract crossover Republican votes. The tendency of partisan voters’ dislike or hostility toward the opposing party to be more intense than their positive views of their own party has been evident in UT/Texas Politics Project Polling across several polls, and O’Rourke has not been able to overcome it. 

The trial ballot among likely voters in the gubernatorial race showed little potential for crossover voting (much like the trial ballots among registered voters in our June and August polls). In the October trial ballot among likely voters, 95% of Republicans said they would be supporting Greg Abbott, 94% of Democrats said they would be supporting Beto O’Rourke.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Greg Abbott4%60%95%
Beto O'Rourke94%29%3%
Mark Tippets0%5%0%
Delilah Barrios1%1%0%
Someone else1%6%1%

Our October poll illustrated the power of the general phenomenon in Texans’ views of the major parties, and its likely reinforcing impact on non-Democratic Texans' negative views of O’Rourke.

Among Republicans, 84% have favorable views of their own party — 30% very favorable, and 54% somewhat favorable. Their views of Democrats are correspondingly negative, but much more intense: 88% view the Democratic Party unfavorably, 79% very unfavorably — more than twice the share that view their own party very favorably. The pattern in Democratic ratings is similar: 83% view their party favorably, but a smaller share is very favorable (36%) than is merely “somewhat favorable” (47%); 86% view the GOP unfavorably, 72% very unfavorably.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Very favorable3%5%30%
Somewhat favorable3%13%54%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable8%26%6%
Somewhat unfavorable14%20%7%
Very unfavorable72%33%2%
Don't know/No opinion1%2%1%

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Very favorable36%4%2%
Somewhat favorable47%12%6%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable10%16%5%
Somewhat unfavorable5%15%9%
Very unfavorable1%49%79%
Don't know/No opinion1%4%1%

Given this, it’s not surprising to find no evidence of large scale persuasion of or defection by the state’s Republican voters – likely depriving O’Rourke of one potential source of votes necessary to overcome the expected baseline deficit in Democratic votes relative to the top-of-the-ticket Republican in an off-year election.

 

The Abbott campaign has aligned with the powerful national currents favorable to Republican candidates – especially President Joe Biden’s low approval numbers and association with the inflation-ridden economy. The October poll found persistent majorities of Texas voters feeling the effects of increased prices along with continuing disapproval of Biden’s handling of inflation and prices (57% disapproval to 27% approval) and the broader economy (52% disapproval to 31% approval). 

This overall pattern repeats with key groups in the electorate: 59% of independents disapprove of Biden’s handling of inflation along with 58% of suburban voters, and the plurality of Hispanics, 47%. At the same time, the slight softening of economic evaluations from historically bad in June of this year to merely very bad in August has trended back in the negative direction as summer turns to fall.

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PollBetterSame Compared to a Year AgoWorse
October 200917%39%43%
February 201017%41%41%
May 201020%42%38%
September 201020%39%40%
October 201019%38%41%
February 201120%45%35%
May 201118%40%41%
October 201116%40%43%
February 201220%45%34%
May 201219%48%32%
October 201223%43%34%
June 201325%44%30%
October 201322%41%35%
February 201425%43%31%
June 201427%42%29%
October 201427%42%30%
February 201527%44%28%
June 201526%48%24%
November 201523%45%30%
February 201625%45%28%
June 201623%44%29%
October 201627%44%27%
February 201727%50%23%
June 201725%52%20%
October 201731%47%21%
February 201838%42%18%
June 201837%42%20%
October 201839%39%19%
February 201940%39%19%
June 201940%37%19%
October 201940%38%18%
February 202041%38%19%
April 202028%34%35%
June 202024%43%31%
October 202023%44%31%
February 202118%49%29%
March 202122%49%28%
April 202121%53%23%
June 202123%49%25%
August 202120%46%31%
October 202120%43%35%
February 202221%39%38%
April 202217%37%43%
June 202214%32%53%
August 202217%38%42%
October 202213%35%49%

Much might be made of the generally negative view Texans express about the trajectory of the state. For much of the year, 50% or more of Texans have said the state was on the wrong track – the worst run of ratings we’ve seen in Texas Politics Project polling since 2008.  

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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%
October 202237%50%

However, the Texans’ assessments of the direction of the country are significantly worse. In our latest poll, the share of Texans saying the country is on the wrong track (69%) was 19 points higher than the Texas wrong track number (50%).

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PollRight DirectionWrong Track
October 200935%59%
February 201031%56%
May 201027%62%
September 201026%63%
October 201025%64%
February 201126%59%
May 201124%63%
October 201114%75%
February 201228%61%
May 201225%61%
October 201231%58%
February 201329%62%
June 201328%60%
October 201320%69%
February 201425%63%
June 201423%65%
October 201425%65%
February 201526%59%
June 201523%64%
November 201522%68%
February 201622%66%
June 201618%70%
October 201622%67%
February 201739%49%
June 201734%54%
October 201729%61%
February 201839%50%
June 201841%47%
October 201842%49%
February 201939%53%
June 201940%50%
October 201937%54%
February 202040%49%
April 202039%52%
June 202030%62%
October 202029%62%
February 202131%56%
April 202132%57%
June 202131%57%
August 202125%64%
October 202120%70%
February 202223%66%
April 202223%66%
June 202216%76%
August 202221%69%
October 202221%69%

These measures of Texans’ mood illustrate why it has been relatively easy for the Abbott campaign to deflect the overarching critique of Republican stewardship of the state that is at the heart of O’Rourke’s campaign. However much fodder the events of the last few years have provided Abbott’s opponent, it is all too easy for Abbott to divert this attention to voters’ views of the state of the country, and to exploit the well-established habits of voters to hold the incumbent president and their party responsible for what’s gone wrong — especially with respect to the economy.

 

Abbott and other statewide candidates enjoy the electoral benefits of long term incumbency while avoiding their potential costs. However advantageous the national environment, Republicans enjoy other advantages that are internal to Texas politics. In policy terms, the Republican leadership’s authorization of major internal transfers of state spending for border security and school safety last week are only the latest example of how the Texas GOP’s monopoly on state government accrues significant electoral advantages. While owning Texas state government might expose them to negative coverage, it also enables them to use the levers of power to earn potentially helpful media attention, and to redirect negative attention.  

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Too little13%32%45%
Too much51%32%11%
About the right amount17%16%33%
Don't know/No opinion20%20%11%

Another indication of the advantages of incumbency can be found in the favorability ratings of statewide candidates in our last pre-election poll. Among the Democratic challengers running statewide, with the obvious exception of Beto O’Rourke, more than 50% had no opinion of all of the Democratic challengers running for statewide office, suggesting their extremely low name recognition in the last month of the campaign.

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categoryTotal
Very favorable14%
Somewhat favorable15%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable27%
Somewhat unfavorable4%
Very unfavorable8%
Don't know/No opinion32%

 

Beto O’Rourke appears not to be overcoming the baseline partisan deficit in support by attracting new Democratic voters. While this situation is developing on a day-to day basis, neither the increase in new voter registration nor the patterns in early voting suggest a surge in new Democratic voters sufficient to alter the baseline partisan advantage Republicans enjoy in the actual, vote-casting electorate. In short, if the events of the past year, and in particular, the Dobbs decision, mobilized a surge in new (Democratic leaning) registrants, it’s not obvious in the data, and in a state as large as Texas, it would have to be.

Daily In-Person Early Voting Patterns

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2014 General Election2016 General Election2018 General Election2022 General Election
1st Day of Early Voting113622394280396502300220
2nd Day of Early Voting114295401459388065310848
3rd Day of Early Voting108613388026333,602292771
4th Day of Early Voting102657372099327510280602
5th Day of Early Voting117716383641347984278786
6th Day of Early Voting103701321300321096233920
7th Day of Early Voting41066143154137458113079
8th Day of Early Voting120340307536301629268558
9th Day of Early Voting129433322225288862257315
10th Day of Early Voting141364326514229702291236
11th Day of Early Voting167241341257300999355410
12th Day of Early Voting244028484616453423500322

(For some cautions in making year-to-year comparisons, see our recent post on early voting data, which will be updated throughout the election.)

Independents favor Abbott by a wide margin and continue to hold broadly and intensely negative assessments of O’Rourke. Since 2018, independents’ have shifted back to a more expected pattern in their views of O’Rourke compared to his first statewide campaign in Texas. Independents in the October 2018 UT poll favored O’Rourke over Senator Cruz 51% to 39%. Their relatively favorable views of O’Rourke were likelys a consequence of a number of factors including a very different national environment, including President Trump’s single midterm election, and a far friendlier state environment for the (then) newcomer, O’Rourke. We noted in 2018 that this swing to the Democrats in the voting preferences of independents was without recent precedent, and likely contributed to the tightness of the final margin in the U.S. Senate race. 

The 2022 electoral environment is very different from 2018. Democrats were elected to the White House and given slim working majorities in both houses of Congress, and O’Rourke is far from a fresh face after the 2018 race, an unsuccessful bid for the 2020 presidential nomination, and years of strategic efforts by Republicans to drive up his negatives. The upshot: in October 2022 polling, independents favor Abbott over O’Rourke 60% to 29%, and O’Rourke’s favorability ratings among independents are intensely negative – reducing another potential pool of deficit-closing votes available to O’Rourke.

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categoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Very favorable65%20%2%
Somewhat favorable21%18%6%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable7%16%5%
Somewhat unfavorable1%5%10%
Very unfavorable1%32%73%
Don't know/no opinion5%9%4%

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Very favorable70%11%3%
Somewhat favorable22%14%3%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable3%11%3%
Somewhat unfavorable1%8%2%
Very unfavorable2%56%89%
Don't know/No opinion2%0%1%

 

Despite the potential shift that the Dobbs decision and the enduring fallout from the Uvalde mass shooting seemed to portend earlier in the year, the issue environment as Election Day approaches strongly favors Texas Republicans. The October poll finds the majority of Republican and independent voters focused on the economy and the border, with Democrats, as usual, split in their attention across a number of issues, with abortion topping the list.   

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Immigration / border1%25%60%
State economy9%21%18%
Abortion26%4%3%
Gun violence16%3%2%
Environment / climate change13%9%1%
Health care10%5%1%
Voting & elections9%3%3%
Property taxes1%8%4%
The state's electric grid7%4%2%
Public education3%4%1%
Public safety5%0%4%

This is a double-edged problem for O’Rourke. Motivating Democratic voters requires a persistent focus on a disparate set of issues while, for the large part, ignoring one or both issues driving the election for a significant share of the electorate. A focus on Democratic voters’ many priorities might leave many of the less firmly aligned, and most or all of the unaligned, feeling that he and his fellow Democrats aren’t focused on the right things. A focus on the economy would face all of the headwinds described above, and a Democrat-led focus on the border remains hard to imagine given the liabilities of the Biden-defined Democratic brand on both issues and the national forces influencing the environment.

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categoryTotal
Approve strongly9%
Approve somewhat19%
Neither approve nor disapprove14%
Disapprove somewhat8%
Disapprove strongly46%
Don't know4%

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categoryTotal
Approve strongly13%
Approve somewhat18%
Neither approve nor disapprove14%
Disapprove somewhat9%
Disapprove strongly43%
Don't know4%

So the key elements of the overall electoral environment revealed in our October data, for all the events of the last two years, find most Texans focused on problems that are either deeply etched in the collective political consciousness, like immigration, or, like inflation and the economy, that have developed in the interlude since the last election to the detriment of Democrats and to the advantage of entrenched Republicans. In this environment, the structural forces at play in the political system – especially ever-more partisan antipathy amidst increasing ideological polarization between the two parties – also work to further strengthen Republicans’ position in a state they already dominate. All of this suggests that Election Day is likely to provide a sobering reminder for Texas Democrats that while Texas is becoming more competitive, it is doing so very gradually.