October 2018 UT/Texas Tribune Poll Election Takeaways

The trial ballot in the contest between Ted Cruz and Beto O'Rourke, which found the incumbent senator leading the El Paso congressman 51 to 46 percent, provided the marquee result from the October University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll. Ross Ramsey did his usual, able job rolling out the results from the trial ballots; below, find a few related observations. 

Ted Cruz introduces the GOP to Beto O’Rourke. To be more specific, the Cruz campaign appears to have successfully introduced Congressman O’Rourke to the half of Republican voters who didn’t have an opinion of him in June, as captured in that month’s University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll. Not that the Cruz Campaign attempt to paint O’Rourke as out of the Texas mainstream and just plain dangerous to Texas Republicans’ way of life was unexpected, but it has been a major theme of the Cruz communication strategy, in both paid and earned media, since Labor Day weekend. Republicans seem to have gotten the message.

Loading chart...
Very favorable48%9%3%
Somewhat favorable25%18%5%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable11%22%18%
Somewhat unfavorable2%7%14%
Very unfavorable2%17%29%
Don't know/no opinion14%28%32%

Loading chart...
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%

Nobody introduces Lupe Valdez to anyone. Well, hardly anyone. Just a few weeks from Election Day and nearly a third of Texans, including the same share of Democrats as in June polling, expressed no concrete view of Sheriff Valdez. The O’Rourke negatives would almost be preferred.

Loading chart...
Very favorable26%4%2%
Somewhat favorable34%15%4%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable19%26%15%
Somewhat unfavorable4%14%11%
Very unfavorable1%13%48%
Don't know/no opinion16%27%21%

One of those times it might pay off to pay attention to independents (from an analytical perspective, anyway). One of the most interesting aspects of Texas polling in the 2018 election has been the enduring disparity between Greg Abbott’s lead over Valdez relative to Cruz’s much smaller margins over O’Rourke. Some of that explanation is above, but a rather interesting aspect of the discrepancy is the degree to which self-identified independent voters (who are only 8 percent of the likely voter pool) express a preference for O’Rourke. Texas’ independents as a group usually lean conservative on most issues (for example, immigration), reflecting the undercurrents in the state’s political culture, but seem split in their partisan preferences in this election. While there are likely not enough independents to sway the outcome (which is why the perpetual focus on them can be misguided), these results do present the possibility of a small opening for Democrats in future elections.

Loading chart...
Ted Cruz3%39%93%
Beto O'Rourke94%51%5%
Neal Dikeman1%5%1%
Someone else2%5%1%

Loading chart...
Greg Abbott7%59%95%
Lupe Valdez82%30%2%
Mark Tippetts3%6%2%
Someone else8%5%1%

Loading chart...
Dan Patrick7%50%91%
Mike Collier76%27%3%
Kerry McKennon5%13%3%
Someone else12%10%2%

Repeat after us: mobilization not persuasion. Despite the interesting preferences of independents, partisans have and will continue to make up the vast majority of the Texas electorate, and there is little indication of partisans abandoning their parties’ candidates. This possibility has been in the air as a result of those same divergent polling results mentioned above, but 93 percent of Republican likely voters plan to vote for Ted Cruz, 95 percent for Governor Abbott, and 91 percent for Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. Among Democrats, 94 percent plan to support O’Rourke – and here’s where that issue of name identification comes to the fore again – with only 82 percent saying that they’ll support Valdez, 76 percent Democratic Lt. Gov. candidate Mike Collier, and 77 percent Democratic Attorney General candidate Justin Nelson (incumbency has many advantages – one of which is name identification). While it’s likely that many of those Democrats will end up supporting the top of the Democratic ticket in its entirety, some of them will simply fail to cast a vote for O’Rourke’s Democratic brethren. The polarization is neatly illustrated in the partisan breakdown in the generic Congressional trial ballot (as is, per above, more generic independent inclinations.)

Loading chart...
Democratic candidate98%45%4%
Republican candidate2%55%96%

And yes, it could all be wrong. One of the hardest things to handicap in this election (or any election for that matter) is what the ultimate composition of the electorate will look like once all the votes have been cast. Cruz’s campaign has focused on the reliable Republican voting bloc that has propelled statewide GOP candidates to victory for over 20 years, and cast ballots for him numbering in the millions over 2012 and 2016 election cycles. Their voting is consistent, and tends to be rather predictable. O’Rourke, looking at this electorate, has clearly focused on expanding who participates and in turn, is attempting to produce a change in the composition of the electorate. Polls that rely on verified past voting history obtained from the state voter file are likely to reflect prior electorates more faithfully, but maybe too faithfully. Surveys that rely on the stated interest or engagement of voters are likely to model this particular electorate more accurately given the enthusiasm witnessed in surveys and in early voting – save for the fact that people universally overstate their intentions to vote. The truth will probably be somewhere in the middle, with reliable past voters voting again, and more new voters (either first time voters or those who tend to vote only in presidential elections) coming into the electorate (but less than said they would). We’re already witnessing the manifestation of this in early turnout numbers that, while looking more like a presidential year than a midterm year, are also stocked with partisan primary voters to a large degree (as of this writing). Needless to say, estimates of electoral preferences are just that, and we’re all going to have to wait and see what happens on Election Day.