Peculiar Partisan Patterns Persist in Lukewarm Views of Constitutional Revision

Legislation clearing the way for Texas to join the call for a Convention of the States aimed at considering amendments to the U.S. Constitution appears poised to hit the Senate floor for debate this week, as early as Tuesday. The general expectation seems to be that the Senate will send to the House a pet project of Governor Abbott’s, which he deemed an emergency item this session. Statewide polling, however, continues to show patterns of support among Texans that don’t necessarily correspond to a project favored by the state GOP’s standard bearer. For the third survey in a row, the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll showed support among Republicans so tepid that the idea was more warmly greeted by Democrats in the state – who, given the ultimate goals of constitutional revision's most fervent advocates, are unlikely the target audience for the proposal.

This unevenness in Republican support has been evident in some of the public conversation, including in some of the testimony from conservatives in hearings on Senate Joint Resolution 2, authored by Senator Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury), which would officially express Texas’ call for a convention of the states, in the Senate State Affairs Committee on February 17. The primary concern appears to be fear of the potential problem of a “runaway convention” hijacked, presumably, by delegates and/or interest groups that could lobby for changes that depart from the conservative amendments Abbott and other convention advocates use as the rationale for constitutional revision. These ideas, featured in Abbott’s 90-page call for “restoring the rule of law” via constitutional revision, released a little over a year ago, include a balanced budget amendment, Congressional terms limits, and enabling states to overrule Supreme Court decisions by a two-thirds majority. Birdwell has also sponsored Senate Bill 21, a “faithless delegate” law that seeks to hold delegates accountable to instructions from the legislature.

These fears may actually have some basis in the partisan responses evident in the survey data. Some Democrats and liberals perhaps do see a convention as the opportunity to make some changes almost certain to be wholly different than what conservatives are after. But whatever the reason – and the poll didn’t attempt to probe the reasons for people’s responses – the partisan patterns in attitudes toward constitutional revision don’t align with the Governor in the ways one would expect. Depending on question wording (more on this below), GOP support ranged from 16 to 24 percent, with Democratic support ranging from 19 to 31 percent. Put another way, between 65 and 71 percent of Republicans said that the constitution has held up pretty well as is, compared to between only 39 and 51 percent of Democrats.

Not to get too arcane on an already boutique topic, but the constitution can be amended in different ways, and we tried to probe these differences by splitting our survey sample in half, asking one half a question that we have asked previously on the topic:

Would you say the United States Constitution has held up well as the basis for our government and laws and is in little need of change, or would you say that we should hold a new constitutional convention to update the Constitution?

The other half was asked a slightly different question:

Would you say the United States Constitution has held up well as the basis for our government and laws and is in little need of change, or would you say that we should hold a convention of the states to consider amendments to the U.S. Constitution?

The UT/TT Poll has asked the first version of the question in June and October of 2016, and again in the most recent poll – finding similar results in all three polls. Some have pointed out that asking about a constitutional convention, as opposed to a convention of the states, is likely to garner less support for amending the constitution than is really there (likely, these are supporters of amending the constitution per Abbott’s push). So, we tried asking it both ways, with the split-sample allowing us to make comparisons. This also seemed prudent given Governor Abbott's embrace of the "convention of the states" language in his emergency declaration.

Presumably, the thinking goes that the “convention of states” frame would increase conservative/Republican support for the idea, because talk of devolving federal power to the states, the 10th amendment, and generally negative attitudes toward the federal government have been consistent talking points on the right since at least the New Deal. But in point of fact, Democratic support for amending the constitution increases slightly more, and continues to outpace Republican support, when one moves from the “constitutional convention” frame to the “convention of the states” frame.

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Held up well58%71%71%
Hold a new constitutional convention19%22%16%
Don't know/No opinion23%8%14%

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Held up well39%57%65%
Hold a convention of the states31%22%24%
Don't know/No opinion30%21%11%

So while the wording matters some, it doesn’t do so in the way that we, and probably many other people, might have expected. One caveat should be mentioned: in both questions we lead by asking people whether the “United States Constitution has held up well as the basis for our government and laws and is in little need of change.” There is almost certainly a primacy effect that leads people to hold the first argument as stronger – especially if they have no opinion on the subject.

At the same time, saying that the constitution has an almost sacred quality in the eyes of many Americans is not controversial, and further, to find that Republicans, and conservatives in particular, are more likely to endorse a view that aligns with this, should be unsurprising. What is perhaps more surprising is how literally conservative most Republicans are in the context of the constitution, and how much persuasion remains to be done to convince them to trust the process they are being urged to consider to the end of achieving established conservative policy goals. So far, the risks of the process appear to be outweighing the possible but uncertain returns of policy changes among Texas Republicans.

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Held up well59%63%68%
Hold a new constitutional convention23%14%19%
Don't know/No opinion18%23%13%

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Held up well49%40%66%
Hold a convention of the states34%28%25%
Don't know/No opinion17%32%9%