Paxton and Trump: One of these is not like the other

Donald Trump’s sudden reiteration of his fervent support for suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton during the 11th hour of his impeachment trial in the Texas Senate (delivered, of course, via social media) reminds anyone paying attention of their entangled trajectories. But with Paxton facing his potential moment of comeuppance in the Texas Senate, it also invites attention to Paxton’s significantly weaker position among Republican voters when compared to the seemingly limitless durability of Trump’s appeal among Texas Republicans.

The coincidence of the long-anticipated criminal indictments of Donald Trump during the spring and summer with the impeachment and ongoing trial of Attorney General Ken Paxton has invited much comment on the similarities of their situations – particularly given the history of their personal political ties. But public opinion polling in Texas reveals that Paxton does not enjoy the same unquestioning loyalty of Republican voters that has helped save Donald Trump from being convicted after not only one, but two, impeachments, while simultaneously propelling him toward the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 under the cloud of four separate criminal indictments. 

Paxton still enjoys substantial support among Republicans. But as his trial has put the evidence against him on the front page of the statewide daily newspapers, in the headlines of multiple local and national political publications, and the lead stories of local newscasts, a key difference in the impact of information on Republican attitudes plays to Paxton’s distinct disadvantage: increased information about their respective legal and ethical problems tends to increase Republican support for Trump, but decrease support for Paxton.

Yet even as Paxton and his allies have drawn on messaging and political tactics echoing Trump’s own methods while grappling with his impeachment – assailing their legal reckoning as an attack on democracy, relentlessly dismissing the evidence of their transgressions as the creations of politically motivated conspiracies, delaying legal processes and using their positions to engage in misdirection or concealment, to name a few – Paxton’s position among Texas’ Republican voters is much more tenuous than Trump’s. Republicans in the U.S. Senate were infamously deferential to the hold Trump had on the loyalties of their voters. But Republican Senators’ failure to band together to dismiss the charges against Paxton at the outset of his impeachment trial was an early sign that the comparative weakness of his support among voters may have seeped into the jury pool – an under-appreciated aspect of the inherently political nature of the impeachment process. Texas Republican voters’ loyalties to Paxton, as we show below, lack the fervor of their dedication to Trump. Whether and how this impacts Texas state senators deciding Paxton’s fate will be revealed soon enough.

1. Trends in Texans’ general assessments of suspended attorney general Ken Paxton and former president Donald Trump suggest that Republicans have responded more negatively to Paxton’s legal problems than to Trump’s.

After an extended period in anticipation of possible indictments, charges against Donald Trump were announced in March, June, and August (twice) of 2023. During that period, his favorability ratings among Texas Republicans were overwhelmingly net-positive, and consistently stayed in a narrow band. In four UT/TxPP polls conducted in that period, 79% of Republicans held favorable views of the former president, with only 12% holding unfavorable views (net +67) in February; 78% favorable/16% unfavorable (+62) in April; 76% favorable/16% unfavorable (+60) in June; and 78% favorable/15% unfavorable (+63) in August. In the longer term, there has been a slight decrease in positive attitudes toward Trump since the first year after his only term, when his favorability ratings were in the low- to mid-80’s. While the drop in the range of his approval rating to the mid-to high 70’s for most of 2022 and 2023 might have consequences in a closely-divided presidential election at the national level, at this point there are no signs that Texas Republicans have abandoned Trump in significant numbers. (There is some evidence that Trump’s favorability ratings among Republicans in national polling have dropped by a similar increment from a lower baseline.)

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categoryFavorableUnfavorableNeither/Don't know
Nov. 201554%31%12%
Feb. 201647%41%10%
June 201653%32%13%
Oct. 201660%30%10%
Feb. 201781%12%6%
Oct. 202085%12%4%
Feb. 202185%9%7%
June 202186%8%5%
Oct. 202182%12%6%
Feb. 202280%13%7%
Apr. 202279%10%10%
June 202276%12%11%
Aug. 202276%14%9%
Oct. 202282%9%9%
Dec. 202275%17%9%
Feb. 202379%12%10%
Apr. 202378%16%6%
June 202376%16%8%
Aug. 202379%15%7%
Dec. 202380%13%8%
Feb. 202483%12%5%
Apr. 202484%10%6%
June 202479%14%6%

Paxton’s impeachment is more recent, so we have less data from which to impute trends; but the short-term decline evident in Paxton’s job approval numbers is much more steep than the slight erosion in Trump’s numbers over a longer period. The much lesser-known Paxton received the highest approval ratings among Republicans in our time series as recently as December of 2022 (73% approve/27% disapprove, net +46), but has since seen a steady decline, with the largest drops occuring in our two most recent polls, first in June right after his impeachment (51% approve/30% disapprove, net +21) and on the eve of his trial in August (46% approve/31% disapprove, net +14).

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Q8DApproveDisapproveDon't know
Apr. 202159%11%30%
June 202158%10%32%
Aug. 202161%11%28%
Oct. 202165%12%23%
Feb. 202255%13%31%
Apr. 202262%8%30%
June 202260%15%25%
Aug. 202266%13%22%
Oct. 202265%12%24%
Dec. 202273%7%19%
Feb. 202365%9%27%
Apr. 202365%13%23%
June 202351%19%30%
Aug. 202346%23%31%
Oct. 202350%20%30%
Dec. 202358%15%28%
Feb. 202461%16%23%
Apr. 202461%14%25%
June 202458%14%27%

Put succinctly, positive net attitudes towards Trump among Republicans declined slightly from +67 to +62 through the time period of his multiple indictments, while the Attorney General’s has declined since the end of last year, punctuated by his impeachment, from +46 to +14. 

2. Texas Republicans are much more skeptical of the factual basis for the criminal charges against President Trump than they are of Ken Paxton’s impeachment.

The August poll revealed a baseline disposition among Texas Republicans that leads them to view Trump’s specific indictments and the investigations of Paxton as based “mostly on politics” rather than “mostly on facts.”

Yet here, too, Texas Republicans’ suspicions that each man’s troubles are rooted in politics are more ambiguous regarding Paxton’s legal issues compared to Trump’s. The share of Republicans who think that investigations of Ken Paxton were mostly based on the facts, 23%, was higher than the shares who thought the more specifically named investigations of Donald Trump were based on the facts, which ranged from 10% (conspiring to overturn the 2020 election results in the U.S. and in Georgia) to 19% (“illegally paying money to an adult film star”). 

Conversely, 48% of Republicans thought the investigations of Paxton were based mostly on politics, leaving more than a quarter, 29%, with no opinion. GOP views of Trump’s multiple entanglements conveyed more widespread conviction that his troubles were mostly political: the shares of Republicans who said the various criminal charges against Trump are based on politics ranged from 70% to 85% (at least 20 points more than said the same about Paxton’s issues), with shares of those reserving judgment mostly in single figures.

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Mostly based on the facts74%44%23%
Mostly based on politics10%19%48%
Don't know/No opinion16%37%29%

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Mostly based on the facts79%35%10%
Mostly based on politics14%53%85%
Don't know/Unsure6%12%5%

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Mostly based on the facts81%36%19%
Mostly based on politics11%44%70%
Don't know/Unsure8%19%11%

Even among those voters who identify as “extremely conservative,” a key constituency of Paxton in particular, the same gap in views is also evident, as the following graphics illustrate.

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CategoryLean conservativeSomewhat conservativeExtremely conservative
Mostly based on the facts45%25%17%
Mostly based on politics25%39%59%
Don't know/No opinion30%35%23%

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CategoryLean conservativeSomewhat conservativeExtremely conservative
Mostly based on the facts35%21%15%
Mostly based on politics47%66%78%
Don't know/Unsure18%13%7%

3. Different levels of skepticism about the charges against Paxton compared to those against Trump exist amidst significantly more attention to Trump’s legal problems than to Paxton’s.

Far fewer Texans, including Republicans, say they have heard a lot about Paxton’s troubles than about Trump’s, even as their attitudes are generally less supportive of him. Overall, 69% said they have heard a lot about Trump’s legal problems, including 72% of Republicans. Only 28% said they have heard a lot about Paxton’s impeachment and pending trial, including only 24% of Republicans.

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A lot28%
Not very much19%
Nothing at all14%

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A lot69%
Not very much6%
Nothing at all2%

Ironically, one of the reasons that fewer Republicans have heard a lot about Paxton’s troubles (or his unfair persecution, if you believe his defenders inside and outside the trial) is that his plight has been crowded out of the news by bigger stories – the biggest of them, our latest poll shows, being Donald Trump’s legal problems. In addition to the Trump story, other subjects that Texans report having heard more about than Paxton’s impeachment and trial are the placement of buoys in the Rio Grande (45%), the legal problems of Hunter Biden (44%), artificial intelligence (39%), and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The only subjects that fewer Texans reported having heard a lot about are Gov. Abbott’s plan for a special session on education (18%) and the possibility of a government shutdown (15%).

4. Differences in the impact of exposure to information about Paxton and Trump’s legal troubles underlines just how much weaker Paxton’s position is among Republicans than Trump’s.

In June 2023 UT/TxPP polling – after Paxton’s impeachment but before his trial in the Senate commenced – we found that, all else equal, the more people had heard about Paxton’s legal troubles and his impeachment, the more likely they were to think his impeachment by the House was justified.

Asked again in August to assess both the investigations and actions of Paxton and Trump, knowledge produced a notable difference in attitudes among Texas Republicans. Overall, the impact of knowledge on views of the basis for Donald Trump’s indictments is limited, other than the fact that those voters who have heard more about his indictments are more likely to hold views about the basis of those investigations (e.g. no more than 7% of voters who have heard “a lot” about Trump’s legal problems don’t hold a view about the basis of those investigations — i.e. based on facts or politics — while two-thirds of voters who have heard “nothing at all” hold no view). Otherwise, like the country on most highly political issues, voters look approximately split over the basis of the charges against Trump so long as they’ve heard at least “some” or “a lot” about them.

Among Republicans, however, between 34% and 56% say that the charges against Trump are based on politics if they say haven’t heard very much in the news, but jumps to at least 70% among those who say they’ve heard some, and at least 72% and as high as 89% among those who say they’ve heard “a lot” (depending on the specific charge).

Evaluation of Basis for Donald Trump's Indictments Among Texas Republicans by Amount Heard about Trump's Legal Problems
(August 2023 UT/TXP Polling)*
  A lot  Some Not very much

Mishandling classified documents upon leaving office is...mostly based on politics.

85% 71% 56%
...mostly based on the facts. 13% 22% 16%
Illegally paying money to an adult film star is...mostly based on politics is...mostly based on politics. 72% 70% 34%
...mostly based on the facts. 18% 17% 36%
Conspiring to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia...mostly based on politics. 88% 75% 58%
...mostly based on the facts. 8% 13% 28%
Conspiring to overturn the 2020 election results in the United States...mostly based on politics. 89% 81% 62%
...mostly based on the facts. 9% 10% 18%


Paxton doesn’t enjoy the same benefit of the doubt among the electorate – most importantly, among the GOP electorate – as Trump. Overall, the share saying the House was justified in impeaching Paxton increases from 13% among those who have heard nothing at all about his legal problems, to 33% among those who say they haven’t heard very much, to 53% among those who have heard some, and peaks at 73% among those who say they have heard a lot. Likewise, the share thinking Paxton committed actions that justify removing him from office increases from 12% among the least knowledgeable, to 28%, to 51%, to 70% among the most knowledgeable.

Among Republicans, Paxton actually receives more deferential attitudes among those voters who know less. Asked whether the House was justified in impeaching Paxton, those GOP voters who say they haven’t heard very much are most likely to withhold judgment (56%), with the remainder giving the benefit of the doubt to Paxton (26% not justified, 18% justified). Among those who have heard “some”, 31% think the House was justified while 36% say it was not. And among those GOP voters who have heard “a lot,” 40% think the house was justified in impeaching Paxton, 41% think it was not justified.

Evaluation of Ken Paxton's Impeachment by Texas House Among Republicans by Amount Heard about Paxton's Legal Problems
(August 2023 UT/TXP Polling)
  A lot  Some Not very much Nothing at all
Impeachment justified 40% 31% 18% 5%
Impeachment NOT justified 41% 36% 26% 13%
Don't know/No opinion 19% 33% 56% 82%

This pattern continues, though adjusted for different baselines, in Republican views on Paxton’s removal from office. One in 20 Republicans (5%) who haven’t heard anything think Paxton has engaged in activities that justify removing him from office, increasing to 14% among those who haven’t heard very much, to 25% among those who have heard some, and up to 38% among those who have heard a lot – though, and importantly, 44% of this group think he shouldn’t be removed from office. In response to questioning about the basis for the charges against Paxton, the share viewing the investigations as fact-based increases from 8%, to 16%, to 21%, to 36% as attention to Paxton’s legal troubles increases among Republicans.

Evaluation of Basis of investigations into Ken Paxton Among Republicans by Amount Heard about Paxton's Legal Problems
(August 2023 UT/TXP Polling)
  A lot  Some Not very much Nothing at all
Based mostly on politics 50% 56% 42% 24%
Based mostly on facts 36% 21% 16% 8%
Don't know/No opinion 15% 23% 42% 68%


Based on what you know, do you think that Ken Paxton took actions while Attorney General that justify removing him from elected office? Presented Among Republicans by Amount Heard about Paxton's Legal Problems
(August 2023 UT/TXP Polling)
  A lot  Some Not very much Nothing at all
Yes 38% 25% 14% 5%
No 44% 37% 22% 7%
Don't know/No opinion 18% 38% 64% 88%

Their history of mutual political support reinforces the tendency to see Trump and Paxton’s current predicaments as parallel. Paxton’s rise amidst the Tea Party wave of the early Obama years predates Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party, but Paxton was quick to latch onto Trump after he remade the party in his own image by tapping into similar impulses among Republican voters – culminating in his speaking slot at Trump’s January 6th Stop the Steal rally in Washington. Neither Attorney General nor Senator Paxton joined the march on the Capitol, but the AG had already demonstrated his loyalties by joining efforts to halt the certification of the 2020 election.

Yet however successful Paxton’s efforts to meld the base of support he built prior to Trump’s presidency with Trump’s fervent following in his reelection efforts in 2018 and 2022, the strength and durability of that support has not proven as durable as their fervent attachment to Trump. One of the most striking features of Trump’s political career has been his ability not just to survive scandal and clear evidence of violating both laws and democratic norms to strengthen his political position among voters, but to leverage the the fact that, so far, as his core supporters learn more about his acts, their support solidifies. The evidence of declining support for Paxton among Republican voters as they learn more about his behavior in office suggests that his association with Trump, however fervent, has not given him the same political advantage.

*Graphic excludes those Republican respondents who had heard "nothing" about Donald Trump's legal problems due to extremely small share of Republican voters who had heard "nothing (2%).

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