The passing of a raft of new laws in Texas that polling suggests lack majority support among Texas voters led some observers to suggest that Republican incumbents in the executive and legislative branches should fear reprisal in the 2022 general election. The underlying logic of this scenario hinges, in part, on a rejection of the extremely conservative direction of GOP incumbents’ policy agenda by a meaningful minority of their partisan base sufficiently strong to inspire habitually Republican voters to vote for Democratic candidates.
While there are other conceivable mobilization scenarios in which the policy output of 2021 might endanger GOP incumbents in 2022, public opinion polling in Texas strongly suggest that unpopular policy, even extremely unpopular policy, whether coming from the left or the right, is unlikely to spur many partisans to vote for a candidate of the opposing party. The reason for this is more about voters' disdain for the other party than it is about their attachment to their own.
Negative partisanship is the tendency of some voters to form opinions and make political decisions based not on the fealty or comity they feel towards their own party, but on their negative feelings about the other party. This is not a new concept (see here, here, here, and here, for treatments of the subject), but as Texas becomes more competitive, it helps explain why Republican elected officials can govern with an eye towards their most activated and in many cases ideologically extreme primary voters without fear of a general election backlash despite an increasingly competitive electoral system. Polling data suggest that for Texas Republicans in particular, negative partisanship is likely a significant, if underappreciated, driver of this dynamic.
Measuring Negative Partisanship
Generally, negative partisanship is measured with the use of feeling thermometers, whereby a survey respondent is asked to place each of the major parties on a 0 to 100 scale, where 0 is the “coldest” (most negative) rating and 100 is the “warmest” (most positive) rating. Negative partisanship can then be identified as occurring when a respondent’s negative view of the other party (ratings below 50) is more intense than the presumably warm views of their own party (ratings above 50). Put another way, their negative view of the other party is more intense than is their positive view of their own party.
While we don’t often use feeling thermometers, polls conducted by the Texas Politics Project have asked Texas voters whether they hold a favorable or unfavorable view of the Republican and Democratic Parties eight times between November 2015 and August 2021. Using these measures, we can construct a rough estimate of negative partisanship that classifies voters as negative partisans if their negative view towards the other party is more intense than their positive view of their own (e.g. a Democrat who holds a “very unfavorable” view of the Republican Party, but only a “somewhat favorable” view of the Democratic Party), with everyone else classified as an affirmative partisan (e.g. a Republican who holds a “very favorable” view of the Republican party, but only a “somewhat unfavorable” view of the Democratic party). For the purpose of this look at the data, we consider those partisans with equally intense views (e.g. a Republican voter who holds a “somewhat favorable” view of the Republican Party and a “somewhat unfavorable” view of the Democratic Party) as affirmative partisans.
Republican and Democratic Party Affect
Republican voters in Texas hold slightly more negative, and more intensely negative views, of the Democratic Party than Democratic voters hold of the Republican Party.
Republicans are less positively predisposed towards their own party than are Democrats, both in absolute terms as well as in terms of the intensity of their opinions.
Not surprisingly, partisans tend to hold very negative views of the other party. No fewer than 84% of Republicans between 2015 and 2021 said that they held a negative view of the Democratic Party, including no fewer than 68% who said that they held a “very unfavorable” view. Democrats hold similarly negative views of the Republican Party, though they are less intense. Over the course of the same time series, at least 79% of Democrats held a negative view of the Republican Party, with no fewer than 54% holding a “very unfavorable” view.
When asked for views of their own party, no fewer than 73% of Democrats said that they hold a favorable view of the Democratic party, with at least 28% holding a “very favorable” view. Republican views of their party are far more mixed: no more than 70% hold a favorable view of the party, and as low as 46%, over the time series. The intensity of Republicans’ positive affect is also less pronounced, with between 12% and 19% of Republicans saying that they hold a “very favorable” view of the Republican Party over the time series.
|Neither favorable nor unfavorable||14%||25%||3%|
|Don't know/No opinion||1%||4%||1%|
|Neither favorable nor unfavorable||6%||15%||16%|
|Don't know/No opinion||1%||4%||1%|
Negative partisanship vs. affirmative partisanship
The most committed Democratic voters are more likely, on average, to be affirmative as opposed to negative partisans.
Among the most committed Republicans, the majority, 60%, can be classified as negative partisans.
Using the measure of negative partisanship described above, we classify Democrats and Republicans as either affirmative partisans or negative partisans. On average, across the eight measures taken between 2015 and 2021, approximately 60% of Democrats can be classified as affirmative partisans, with the remaining 40% as negative partisans. Among Republicans, we find the inverse: 59% can be classified as negative partisans, 41% as affirmative partisans.
|Negative Partisan||Affirmative Partisan||Negative Partisan||Affirmative Partisan|
Looking at these data among Democrats and Republicans based on the strength of their partisan identification illuminates further differences. We classify partisan strength (the intensity of identification as a Democrat or a Republican) in three categories: strong, weak, and leaning. Among strong Democrats, on average, 66% can be classified as affirmative partisans, almost identical to the weak partisans (65%). In contrast, 59% of leaning Democrats can be described as negative partisans, on average, with 41% identifying as affirmative partisans.
This distribution of affirmative and negative partisanship makes intuitive sense: as a voter’s identification with their party becomes stronger, that voter is more likely to hold more intensely positive views of the party. Democratic leaners, in contrast, first identify themselves in the survey as “independents,” and only upon asking if they lean towards one party or the other do they become classified as leaning partisans. It also makes sense that among these leaners, their orientation towards the Democratic Party might be conditioned more on their negative views of the Republican Party than on their positive views of the Democratic Party, both of whom they decided not to identify with initially in the survey.
Texas Republicans display a different dynamic. As a group, they are defined more by their negative partisanship: 60% of strong Republicans can be classified as negative partisans in Texas, with their negative feeling towards the Democratic Party more intense than their positive feelings towards the Republican Party. These are, by definition, the most committed Republicans, and on average, that commitment may be defined more by negative views of Democrats than by positive views of Republicans.
In many ways, this finding explains much of why Republican elected officials can pursue policies with significant minority opposition within their own party without fear of electoral reprisal: the nature of their voters’ attachments are heavily conditioned by their negative view of the only major opposition party. For example, 26% of Texas Republicans would support limiting the size of outdoor gatherings in response to the coronavirus, 27% would leave Texas voting laws unchanged or make them less strict, 34% oppose unlicensed carry, 79% would allow for abortion to take place in at least some circumstances. But none of this opposition to their party’s agenda is likely to overcome strongly entrenched negative views of Democrats, views that have become even more negative of late (see below).
Among the less intensely committed partisans, leaning Republicans are, like leaning Democrats, more likely to be defined by their negative view of the Democratic Party than their positive view of the Republican Party: 67% could be classified as negative partisans over the course of the time series, on average, and 33% as affirmative partisans. Weak Republicans are split, with 51% classified as negative partisans and 49% as affirmative partisans.
Changes Over Time
The shares of Democratic and Republican voters holding “very unfavorable” views of the other party is increasing. In recent measurements, intense, negative views among Democratic voters now rival long-held, intense, negative views among Republican voters.
While the distribution of affirmative and negative partisanship has been stable over time within each party, there are some interesting, notable changes over the time series. One such change has been the increased intensity in Republican voters’ negative attitudes towards the Democratic Party, with the share saying that they hold a “very unfavorable” view increasing by 8-9 points between measurements taken between 2015 and 2018, and those taken in 2019 and 2020.
This increased negative intensity is mirrored in Democratic attitudes. The share of Democratic voters holding “very unfavorable” views of the Republican Party have increased substantially since 2019, with 72% holding a very unfavorable view in February 2019 and 77% holding a “very unfavorable” view in August of 2021, after 65% said the same in two measures in 2018, and no more than 60% said the same in either of the two measurements each in 2015 and 2016.
This is probably an underappreciated facet of the partisan polarization that has made much of American and Texas politics feel toxic to most people, regardless of their partisan affiliation: it can have the effect of creating less broadly responsive parties. When there’s little to no chance that an elected official’s partisans will even consider casting a vote for the opposing party, it further entrenches the importance of satisfying the demands of primary voters, whether they be of the conservative or liberal variety. These dynamics pull candidates of both parties away from proposals and issue areas where moderate, bipartisan compromise might be possible, given the minimal likelihood that such an approach would lead a candidate of either party to overperform among partisans of the other party.
We shouldn’t expect a consequential defection of Republican voters concerned about the extremity of the GOP’s policy agenda to the Democratic party or some of its candidates in 2022. But that doesn’t mean that the negative reaction to many of Texas’ new laws won’t have an impact. It is also reasonable to consider that the extreme policy agenda of the 2021 session might inspire a disproportionate mobilization among alarmed Democrats. This is no small consideration in a Texas that has become increasingly competitive over the last few election cycles (however much state-level Democrats were stalled in the 2020 election). For Democrats to oust GOP incumbents on a large scale, a mobilization of Democratic voters would have to net more votes than the expected GOP counter-mobilization, a phenomenon evident in statewide elections in 2018 and at the presidential level in 2020. The questions, given the available evidence, are whether the GOP’s policy agenda has a disproportionate impact on Democratic mobilization, and whether it is enough to deliver a victory or victories to Democratic candidates; and whether Republican antipathy towards Democrats and the Texas GOP’s practiced ability to mobilize its voters are enough to maintain the status quo.