Public Opinion and Governor Abbott's Choices on Operation Jade Helm 15

On April 28, Governor Greg Abbott sent a widely publicized letter to the Commander of the Texas State Guard directing the force to monitor the US military training exercises to take place partially in Texas because "it is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed," presumably by the training operation, dubbed (for some reason) Operation Jade Helm 15. The operation had raised concerns in the areas where they are to take place, which were expressed at a Commissioners Court meeting in Bastrop County. In recent weeks, the exercise had also been publicized by fringe conspiracy groups who perceive sinister purposes in the maneuvers. Much of the media coverage of the Governor's letter portrayed him as responding to anxieties stoked by these conspiracy theories. Others seemed to think the Governor chose a more measured response to local concerns.  

After directing the guard to both facilitate communication as well as to "protect Texans," Abbott's letter also expresses his "utmost respect for the deep patriotism of the brave military men and women who put their lives on the line to fight for and defend our freedom," and his certainty that "our military members will keep America the freest and strongest nation the world has ever known." 

The governor's hailing of the members of the US military even as he registers concern about potential threats to Texans rights and liberties seems to be waving toward two sets of attitudes among his conservative base that were evident in the most recent UT/Texas Tribune Poll. Based on patterns in public opinion, the governor's most reassuring response would have been to frame the maneuvers in the context of support for the military, which polling suggests is one of the most highly regarded institutions among Texans, and especially among Abbott's conservative base. While the governor's letter certainly invoked respect for military personnel, the fact that it opened with concerns about safety, security, and protection against the infringement of rights and liberties suggests that he was also seeking to frame his response around Texans' – and conservatives' – negative attitudes toward the federal government. Many of the fringe suspicions about the purposes of the maneuvers speculated that they were in fact related to preparations for the declaration of martial law.

He appears to be acknowledging or invoking widespread dissatisfaction with the federal government, which was particularly evident among conservatives, in our battery of questions about American institutions. Among self-identified conservatives, 53 percent had a strongly unfavorable view of the federal government; another 23 percent disapproved somewhat.  

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Very favorable9%6%3%
Somewhat favorable32%21%11%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable24%26%9%
Somewhat unfavorable26%17%23%
Very unfavorable8%27%53%
Don't know/no opinion0%4%1%

Drilling down a little further, not surprisingly, more intensely conservative respondents were also more likely to be more intensely unfavorable toward the federal government.

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categoryLeaning conservativeSomewhat conservativeExtremely conservative
Very favorable2%2%5%
Somewhat favorable8%12%12%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable13%9%6%
Somewhat unfavorable28%26%14%
Very unfavorable48%51%61%
Don't know/no opinion0%1%2%

Not surprisingly, attitudes toward the military are overwhelmingly positive by comparison, especially among these same conservatives. In fact, conservatives are more positively inclined toward the military than they are negatively inclined toward the federal government.  

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Very favorable29%38%68%
Somewhat favorable32%31%23%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable22%18%6%
Somewhat unfavorable11%5%1%
Very unfavorable5%5%1%
Don't know/no opinion1%4%1%

Of the broad range of institutions we asked Texans to rate in February, the military was by far the most positively viewed among Texans of all political persuasions, though most positively by Republicans. Governor Abbott does seem to have had the option of invoking respect for and trust of the US military as his primary response to some Texans' concerns about Operation Jade Helm 15.  He chose, however, to also, perhaps even primarily, invoke fears of an intrusive federal government. Polling suggests there was a receptive audience for this tact, though if the goal was to reassure the public, it doesn't seem to have been necessary given his ability to draw on the huge reservoir of good will toward the men and women of the US armed forces.

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categoryFavorable Attitude
Texas State Government47%
Local Government47%
Federal Government23%