The Mood in the State as (Some) Texans Vote in Primary Run-Offs

While we should expect only a very small fraction of the eligible electorate, or even of registered voters, to show up for run-off elections, there is a pretty good crop of run-off races for party nominations (and, in Central Texas, a special election to file the seat of its departed-for-Houston former State Senator, Kirk Watson). The most consequential single race is the run-off for the Democratic nomination to challenge incumbent U.S. Senator John Cornyn in the fall, but there are also 15 Congressional, 16 state legislative, and 8 statewide seats (including judicial races).

This is a historically uncertain and tumultuous run-off environment, which has contributed to the trend of turnout above expected baselines. (It doesn’t make much sense to imply in any way that the percentages below are “high” in any other than a relative sense.) Per the reliable Jeff Blaylock at Texas Election Source:

More than 1M Texans have participated in runoff elections for just the third time since 1990 (2012, 2014). The number of Democratic runoff voters will almost certainly eclipse the 747K who voted in 1994 to become the highest total since 1990, when 1.1M voted in the gubernatorial runoff. Despite not having a statewide race, the number of Republican runoff voters is expected to be the third highest in state history, trailing only 2014 (1.4M) and 2012 (1.1M).

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Control the virus53%
Help the economy38%
Don't know/No opinion9%

The composition of the electorate is the big unknown here, which has made any early public polling in these races difficult, and, in particular, has contributed to making the public polling in the U.S. Senate run-off a pretty speculative enterprise. But we do have a lot of data from the University of Texas/Texas Politics Project poll conducted very recently (June 19-29), as well as a lot of comparison and trend data, to illustrate the volatile and generally worried mood of the electorate.

The tension between taking measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in the state and the economic toll of these measures is a fundamental tension taking on increasingly partisan dimensions.

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Control the virus88%48%24%
Help the economy7%39%65%
Don't know/No opinion6%13%11%

Expectations that the pandemic will be a longer-term problem have set in when compared to the early days, when the pandemic was less severe in Texas than in the first wave of states in the U.S. afflicted with the virus, and less widespread overall.

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It is already12%
In the next few weeks9%
In the next few months22%
In the next year29%
A year or more26%

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It is already9%
In the next few weeks21%
In the next few months41%
In the next year17%
A year or more9%

Texans’ assessments of the state’s efforts to contain the spread the virus are heading in the wrong direction as case counts climb along with hospitalizations and deaths.

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Very well20%
Somewhat well27%
Somewhat badly21%
Very badly30%
Don't know/No opinion2%

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Very well24%
Somewhat well42%
Somewhat badly20%
Very badly9%
Don't know/No opinion4%

Texans’ assessments of the direction of the state have grown more negative, and the right direction/wrong track estimate in June was in net-negative territory for the first time since May 2012. Partisanship still exerts a strong force over all of these assessments: Republican ratings remain largely positive, though they have declined; Democrats’ ratings have gone from bad to worse.

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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%
December 202239%46%
February 202335%51%
April 202337%50%
June 202338%49%
August 202333%55%
October 202337%50%

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PollRight DirectionWrong Track
February 201058%25%
September 201061%24%
October 201068%21%
February 201159%27%
May 201150%34%
October 201161%27%
February 201263%21%
May 201260%27%
October 201269%20%
February 201357%25%
June 201363%22%
October 201353%27%
February 201458%27%
June 201461%29%
October 201460%24%
February 201567%18%
June 201570%17%
November 201560%26%
February 201661%22%
June 201661%22%
October 201661%23%
February 201776%10%
June 201776%12%
October 201771%18%
February 201876%12%
June 201879%9%
October 201883%9%
February 201979%10%
June 201977%12%
October 201975%14%
February 202080%10%
April 202071%15%
June 202072%16%
October 202070%19%
February 202159%23%
March 202163%26%
April 202165%23%
June 202164%21%
August 202156%31%
October 202168%20%
February 202263%25%
April 202261%28%
June 202252%36%
August 202259%28%
October 202265%22%
December 202266%21%
February 202359%27%
April 202362%26%
June 202357%27%
August 202356%33%
October 202354%30%

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PollRight DirectionWrong Track
February 201026%59%
September 201029%56%
October 201017%64%
February 201121%66%
May 201113%72%
October 201117%67%
February 201226%58%
May 201216%68%
October 201226%56%
February 201325%65%
June 201331%51%
October 201323%62%
February 201426%56%
June 201428%53%
October 201426%55%
February 201531%49%
June 201527%58%
November 201527%56%
February 201631%49%
June 201626%58%
October 201626%58%
February 201716%63%
June 201711%69%
October 201715%65%
February 201822%61%
June 201815%67%
October 201817%66%
February 201918%62%
June 201920%60%
October 201920%58%
February 202018%63%
April 202014%73%
June 20208%81%
October 202013%73%
February 202122%59%
March 202120%68%
April 202119%66%
June 202116%70%
August 202113%78%
October 202112%79%
February 202220%69%
April 202217%76%
June 202211%83%
August 202213%78%
October 202212%79%
December 202216%75%
February 202315%74%
April 202318%72%
June 202321%70%
August 202316%76%
October 202318%74%

When asked to focus more specifically on the economy, Texans as a group are unable to ignore the severe downturn in the economy over the course of the pandemic, it’s economic fallout, and the coincident collapse in oil prices that have had major economic effects in Texas.

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A lot better off5%
Somewhat better off11%
About the same21%
Somewhat worse off36%
A lot worse off21%
Don't know6%

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A lot better off1%1%10%
Somewhat better off4%9%17%
About the same15%22%26%
Somewhat worse off36%39%35%
A lot worse off37%20%8%
Don't know8%9%4%

Texans report also that their personal economic conditions have worsened or stalled since the pandemic and its effects have taken hold of the state.

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A lot better off6%
Somewhat better off18%
About the same43%
Somewhat worse off20%
A lot worse off11%
Don't know2%

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A lot better off15%
Somewhat better off26%
About the same38%
Somewhat worse off13%
A lot worse off6%
Don't know3%

The long-established pattern in which the couplet of immigration and border security top the charts in Texans’ views of the most important problem facing the state has been disrupted somewhat by the pandemic. But the origin in Republican attitudes of the dominance that immigration has displayed in Texans’ minds as measured in this item remains apparent when the results are broken down by party identification. Don’t underestimate the potential for nativism and/or white ethnic nationalism to remain a force in Republican primary politics amidst the turmoil of the pandemic. The eyes of Texas remain on these issues.

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Border security9%
Political corruption/leadership7%
The economy7%
Health care6%

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Border security1%7%16%
Political corruption/leadership11%9%3%
The economy3%11%9%
Health care11%6%1%

As the country engages in the most sustained discussion of racism, history, and national identity in the U.S. in half a century, Texans as a group appear cautiously positive yet still ambivalent about whether their state’s increasing diversity should be a cause for optimism or concern.

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A cause for optimism48%
A cause for concern31%
Don't know/No opinion21%

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A cause for optimism74%41%32%
A cause for concern19%35%39%
Don't know/No opinion7%24%29%

The growth of the state’s population is one of the factors fueling more competitive races in the rapidly growing urban and suburban areas of the state – in particular, in those areas  experiencing population increases due to their proximity to one of Texas’ large cities. Many congressional and legislative districts in these areas were designed to combine slivers of urban areas with suburban and exurban neighborhoods in the aggressively pro-Republican redistricting that took place after the 2010 census, and are now more competitive as a result of population growth and the resulting Demographic changes. On the whole, Texans are somewhat ambivalent about this population growth.

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Don't have an opinion25%

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Don't have an opinion24%39%22%

John Cornyn has never enjoyed overwhelmingly positive job approval ratings in Texas, largely due to a persistent (but declining) share of voters with no opinion of him. However, as more Texans have become acquainted with the state’s senior senator, both his approval and disapproval ratings have increased, with 40% disapproving in June polling (up from 36% in April) and 36% approving.

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ApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't Know
November 201527%34%38%
February 201627%32%41%
June 201624%35%41%
October 201628%36%37%
February 201730%34%36%
June 201728%41%30%
October 201728%42%30%
February 201829%38%33%
June 201827%38%34%
October 201839%34%28%
February 201936%35%29%
June 201937%34%29%
October 201935%34%31%
February 202036%39%25%
April 202038%36%26%
June 202036%40%24%
October 202039%39%22%
February 202132%42%26%
March 202133%42%25%
April 202131%43%25%
June 202134%41%24%
August 202128%44%28%
October 202129%44%27%
February 202231%35%34%
April 202232%39%29%
June 202224%50%26%
August 202229%42%29%
October 202232%42%27%
December 202235%40%25%
February 202330%43%27%
April 202333%38%29%
June 202333%39%28%
August 202328%42%30%
October 202330%39%30%

Cornyn’s potential Democratic opponents, M.J. Hegar and State Senator Royce West, are far less known to the Texas electorate however. Among Democrats, 38% held a favorable impression of Hegar, while 29% held a favorable impression of West. Overall, 53% and 66% of Democrats couldn’t offer a positive or negative opinion of Hegar or West, respectively.

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Very favorable15%6%3%
Somewhat favorable23%8%7%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable19%20%18%
Somewhat unfavorable6%6%8%
Very unfavorable3%9%13%
Don't know/No opinion34%51%51%

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Very favorable12%3%2%
Somewhat favorable17%3%6%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable20%26%16%
Somewhat unfavorable2%4%10%
Very unfavorable2%9%13%
Don't know/No opinion46%55%53%

And of course, like everything else political in 2020, President Trump looms over even a low turnout run-off election. The partisan structure in his approval ratings have held steady, and, despite it all, there is very little erosion of his support among Republicans. It would take a lot of insensitivity to risk to break with the president at this moment, especially for local candidates with little political capital, and little ownership over statewide policy. The stakes here, however, are different for statewide candidates not on the ballot, and with constitutional responsibility to look out for the public’s health and welfare. 

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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%