Polling data illustrates why O’Rourke is so quick to criticize Biden on border security in early stages of Texas governor’s race

One of the interesting steps in the choreography of Beto O’Rourke’s long-awaited entrance as the presumptive Democratic candidate in the 2022 Texas governor’s race was a clear and early move to put some distance between himself and Democratic President Joe Biden on border security and immigration, signature issues for his almost-as-presumptive opponent, two-term incumbent Greg Abbott.

O’Rourke shared the following in an interview with Jack Fink of the Dallas-Ft. Worth CBS affiliate:

“It’s clear that President Biden could be doing a better job at the border, it is not enough of a priority for his administration. We’ve got to have predictability, order, and the rule of law and that means honoring our asylum laws when someone has a credible asylum claim. That also means, and this is not popular amongst all Democrats, but it means that when someone comes here and doesn’t have a credible asylum claim and has entered in between ports of entry, they should be deported back to the country from which they came.”

Data from the Texas Politics Project polling data archive, including results from the most recent entry, the October 2021 UT/Texas Tribune Poll, illustrates why separating from Biden on border policy is a good defensive move for O’Rourke. A look at Texas voters’ views of Biden's job performance on the border and of Abbott’s approach, particularly attitudes among partisans, suggest that, in this case, a good defense won’t necessarily make for good offense, at least as things stand now.

Texas reviews of Biden’s job performance are dismal, and heading in the wrong direction. At the start of Biden’s presidency, in February 2021 polling, 45% of Texas voters approved of his overall job performance, 44% disapproved; today, only 35% approve, with 55% expressing disapproval. And while Republican disapproval was and remains high (80% in February, 91% in October), Democratic approval over the same time period has declined from 89% to 75%. Independents, as a group, are more volatile in their opinions, but here, too, the share disapproving of Biden, after dropping to a low of 40% in March 2021 polling, has increased to 57% in October polling.


As bad as Biden’s numbers are in Texas, the public reaction to his handling of the border is even worse, with 63% of Texans disapproving, including 92% of Republicans, 64% of independents, and 27% of Democrats. All the more reason for Abbott to raise the issue, and O’Rourke to do his best to deflect it.


Approval of Abbott’s handling of immigration and border security is more positive than Biden’s — 46% approved, 43% disapproved in the October UT/TT Poll –  buttressed by 79% approval among Republicans. Democratic disapproval is as high as Republican approval, but more intensely negative: while 47% of Republicans approve strongly, 68% of Democrats disapprove strongly. Abbott is also in net negative territory among independents: only 27% approve of his handling of the border, while 36% disapprove, 33% strongly. O’Rourke is thus free to offer mild criticism of Biden’s border policies secure in the knowledge that he’s unlikely to push his partisans toward Abbott, and that there are large shares of independents generally unhappy with the performance of both the Democratic President and the Republican Governor on these issues.


At first blush, the border policies Abbott can be expected to showcase in his campaign are polarizing among partisans, though they earn plurality support among independents. Overall, 53% of Texans said that they support “Governor Greg Abbott’s plan to use state money to add more barriers on the border between Texas and Mexico.” This majority is built largely on the overwhelming support of Texas Republicans, 91%, with 81% saying that they strongly support this plan. Among Democrats, 83% oppose the plan, 71% strongly. And while the price tag for Abbott’s great wall might make some blanch, there’s little evidence of that reaction among Republicans: 57% say that the state spends too little on border security, compared to 55% of Democrats who say that the state spends too much. Remarkably, this result among Republicans is largely unchanged from the 61% who said that the state spends too little during and before the most recent legislative session.


While there was a time in which one might have legitimately wondered if there was a fiscal angle of attack here given the amount of money Abbott, with the enthusiastic support of the legislature (at least publicly), has spent on the border (nearly $3 billion for the next biennium), now isn’t that time. Republicans are all in, and independents, while less lopsided in their support, are on balance supportive. This is likely the result of a combination of the salience of border security and immigration among Republicans with the fact that there isn’t a whiff of fiscal scarcity in the air right now, given that the state is awash in federal money. While there is a very slight hint that a slightly larger share of Texas Republicans might be experiencing at least a slight pause at the amount of state money being spent on meeting a responsibility of the federal government, it’s nowhere near enough at this point to change the dynamic. Biden’s poor reviews on border policy enable defenders of the huge increases in state spending to use the familiar invocation of the failure of the federal government to assuage doubts.


Nor are there  concerns about the Legislature's profligate approach to the border apparent in evaluations of how state leaders and the legislature handled the issues, with 73% of Republicans expressing approval compared to only 16% who disapproved — up 11 points from the 62% who approved at the end of the regular session in June polling.


The seemingly overdetermined nature of this race from the perspective of these early days invites being alert to big, unexpected events that might change the dynamic of the race, but O’Rourke’s triangulation between Abbott and Biden on border policy isn’t one of them. Abbott has doubled down on an aggressive border policy that meets the Republican market, but is also likely to appeal to a large share of independents and perhaps even a few loosely attached Democrats. O’Rourke’s early gestures signal a recognition that deflecting Abbott’s attempt to saddle him with Biden’s baggage on the border is likely the best he can do, given that public opinion on the policies and people implicated here are already so strongly set.

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