Public Opinion Context for Partisan Efforts to Shape the 2022 Election Agenda in Texas

Public opinion data from University of Texas/Texas Politics Project polling provides ample opportunity to assess which issues and themes might resonate with voters in the upcoming 2022 general election campaigns. Results from the latest poll and other recent surveys in our polling archive suggest that the public opinion landscape – at least barring unexpected, major events that bring new issues to the fore or shift the attitudes of large blocs of voters, which is rare – adds yet another advantage to an already long list of Republican assets going into the 2022 general election. 

In this era of intense polarization and negative partisanship, we wouldn’t expect the campaign agendas of either side to produce extensive crossover voting per se, and we certainly wouldn’t expect those agendas to lead to broad change in preferences. Nor do we assume that voters make their vote choices based on their policy preferences (such as they exist). But part of the GOP advantage comes from the seemingly greater availability of issues and themes allowing Republican candidates to easily reinforce and mobilize their partisans while at the same time strengthening (or at least not weakening) their position with what we might expect to be key, fought-over groups within the electorate — independents, Hispanics, and suburban voters. For Democrats, the challenge remains greater, given both their inferior structural position in the political system and the specifics of the public opinion landscape mapped below.

Because both of the gubernatorial candidates, Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat Beto O’Rourke, were heavy primary favorites, their campaigns provided major hints about their prefered direction and messaging — even at this early stage. But looking at their respective campaigns’ messaging so far does require some caveats: (1) however strong their advantages, each still had one eye fixed on their primary electorates, particularly Abbott; (2) both campaigns can, and will, be expected to deploy targeted messages designed to fly under the general election radar and land with their party base; and (3) we remain months away from the period in which we expect most voters to really begin paying serious or sustained attention to the fall elections. 

That said, polling data can tell us where groups of voters are on the particular issues emerging in the general election campaign now, and how they might be expected to respond to associations with broader themes as the campaigns unfold and react to circumstances (or fail to do so). To assess the terrain going into the general election, we draw on polling results and the signals sent by the campaigns to find patterns of attitudes that we expect will benefit Republican and Democratic candidates, as well as issues where the patterns of group attitudes provide no clear advantage for either party – making them potential wild cards, subject to the influence of events, and the reactions of candidates and campaigns between now and Election Day.

GOP preferred agenda: The Biden Economy, the Border, Public Safety, and the Democrats

Gov. Greg Abbott’s frontrunner status in the gubernatorial contest emerges from mutually reinforcing political assets: his demonstrated fundraising capacity, the substantial advantages provided by incumbency (like name recognition and an established brand among voters), the historical advantages in Republican turnout in midterm elections, and, more broadly, the relative superiority of the resources available in the state Republican Party and allied groups compared to Texas Democrats. They will use these advantages, like any campaign, to seek to focus the attention of targeted sets of voters on issues and themes that they expect to attract likely voters’ support to give Abbott a third term as governor.

The expected composition of the electorate means that Abbott’s primary objective will be to mobilize as many of his partisans as possible – confident in the fact that the vast majority of Republican voters will cast ballots consistent with their partisanship – while also appealing to a much smaller share of persuadable independents to cushion a partisan advantage that has been gradually declining in statewide elections since Abbott was first elected governor in 2014. 

Top of the Ballot Vote Shares in Texas, 2008-2020
Year Office Republican Vote Percentage Democratic Vote Percentage Republican Advantage (R% - D%)
2020 President 52.06% 46.48% +6
2020 U.S. Senate 53.50% 43.90% +10
2018 Governor 55.81% 42.51% +13
2018 U.S. Senate 50.89% 48.33% +3
2016 President 52.23% 43.24% +9
2014 Governor 59.27% 38.90% +20
2014 U.S. Senate 61.56% 34.36% +27
2012 President 57.17% 41.38% +16
2012 U.S. Senate 56.46% 40.62% +16
2010 Governor 54.97% 42.30% +13
2008 President 55.45% 43.68% +12
2008 U.S. Senate 54.82% 42.84% +12

Hovering above these characteristics of Abbot’s political position is an issue environment that gives the incumbent governor’s campaign a lot to work with in the coming months. Foremost among these is the increasingly disrupted condition of the economy, which can be expected to remain a focus of voters with no obvious (or politically palatable) end to inflationary pressures in sight. In addition to tapping into the increasingly dire state of the economy, patterns in public opinion should also lead us to expect invocation of the perennial GOP unifiers of border security and immigration, as well as crime and public safety, all fueled by the propagation of a mixture of blame-casting and unfavorably framed comparisons of O’Rourke with President Joe Biden and national Democrats. 

"The Biden Economy"

Even allowing for the recent disruption of the economy by the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout, and more recently the Russian invasion of Ukraine, views of the economy are increasingly shaped by partisanship and partisan control of the federal government. So as the 2022 election in Texas gets closer, we should expect Republicans to rate the national economy poorly, as they have since Joe Biden took office. In February polling, 78% said that the national economy is worse off than last year. Attitudes among Democrats convey a similar partisan influence on assessments of the economy. Since Biden assumed office, Democratic views shifted quickly from dour assessments during the Trump administration that have since remained comparatively favorable.

But it’s particularly good news for Abbott and other Republican candidates that the impact of COVID-related economic ills, including inflation, illustrate the limits of partisan influences on economic assessments. Despite the presence of a Democrat in the White House, only 47% of Democrats said that the economy is better off than last year, compared to 27% who said it is the same, and nearly a quarter, 23%, who say that the economy is worse off. The economy is also currently a strong issue for Texas Republicans among independents, among whom 63% rate the economy worse off than last year. 

Loading chart...
PollBetterSame Compared to a Year AgoWorse
February 201011%18%70%
September 20108%14%76%
October 201010%19%70%
February 201116%34%49%
May 20118%32%59%
October 20112%16%82%
February 201210%30%59%
May 201214%27%59%
October 20124%24%72%
June 201318%29%51%
October 201312%29%59%
February 201419%29%53%
June 201415%33%51%
October 201415%36%49%
February 201521%39%39%
June 201515%40%45%
November 201521%27%50%
February 20169%22%66%
June 20168%29%58%
October 20163%31%62%
February 201751%35%11%
June 201769%20%8%
October 201769%24%6%
February 201885%10%5%
June 201880%10%6%
October 201884%12%3%
February 201983%11%5%
June 201976%14%8%
October 201976%15%5%
February 202084%10%5%
April 202034%10%52%
June 202029%13%55%
October 202028%16%54%
February 202113%15%70%
April 202113%18%70%
June 202114%16%67%
August 202111%13%75%
October 20219%10%80%
February 20229%13%78%
April 20227%11%82%
June 20227%6%86%
August 20226%9%84%
October 20225%8%86%
December 20228%10%81%
February 20238%12%78%
April 202312%14%74%
June 20238%16%75%
August 20238%14%77%

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PollBetterSame Compared to a Year AgoWorse
February 201058%18%23%
September 201051%30%17%
October 201049%28%22%
February 201154%26%18%
May 201150%26%20%
October 201131%37%30%
February 201267%25%6%
May 201267%22%9%
October 201277%18%5%
June 201366%23%11%
October 201350%26%24%
February 201458%25%16%
June 201464%21%14%
October 201459%26%12%
February 201574%20%3%
June 201562%29%8%
November 201560%28%9%
February 201653%29%15%
June 201650%33%15%
October 201658%26%13%
February 201728%36%30%
June 201717%40%40%
October 201713%44%40%
February 201822%44%32%
June 201823%36%38%
October 201816%42%38%
February 201914%34%48%
June 201916%33%48%
October 201914%34%46%
February 202015%37%45%
April 202010%9%79%
June 20206%6%77%
October 20208%9%82%
February 202122%26%46%
April 202154%25%15%
June 202161%21%14%
August 202155%25%16%
October 202143%26%25%
February 202247%27%23%
April 202239%22%38%
June 202224%17%57%
August 202227%24%35%
October 202233%25%36%
December 202235%24%39%
February 202344%23%30%
April 202342%24%32%
June 202340%28%30%
August 202346%24%28%

Aside from the influence of partisanship, the rise in negative economic assessments over the last few months is almost surely due to inflation, given relatively low unemployment rates in Texas (though unemployment is higher here than in many other states). Asked in February if, based on their recent experience purchasing goods and services, they’ve noticed prices generally increasing, generally decreasing, or staying about the same: 88% of voters said that prices are generally increasing. With such a high share noticing increased prices, there were no notable group differences in responses, with this sentiment shared across partisan, ideological, racial, and geographic divisions. Among the nearly 90% of voters who noticed increasing prices, the majority, 51%, said that these price increases have had a major impact on their current household financial situation. This is a widely-noted political problem given that the Biden administration has no means of decreasing inflation in the short run, even as the war in Ukraine can be expected to increase upward pressure on prices for key commodities, most notably gasoline.

Given this economic context and the pattern of partisan identification among registered voters in Texas, it’s little surprise that 54% of Texas voters disapproved of the job Joe Biden is doing on the economy. The disapproving majority includes 86% of Republicans (77% strongly), but also 59% of independents (46% strongly). Again, approximately one in five Democrats, 21%, also disapprove of how the president has handled the economy. Biden’s poor ratings on the economy illustrate why tying O’Rourke to the Democratic president will remain a centerpiece of the Abbott campaign.

Texans’ rating of Abbott’s handling of the economy is less dismal by comparison, but sufficiently mediocre as to make reinforcing presidential ownership of the national economy an attractive strategy. Neither a majority approves or disapproves of his economic stewardship. Overall, 46% approve of the job Abbott is doing on the economy with only 33% disapproving. Three quarters of Republicans (76%) approve of the job Abbott is doing on the economy, along with the now familiar 20% of Democrats. Yet among independents, Abbott is not as strongly positioned as he is on some other issues, with a plurality, 40%, disapproving compared to 32% who approve. 

Immigration and Border security

Anyone who has followed polling in recent years, or seen any GOP campaign ads in the same period, has seen evidence that border security and immigration provide a unifying centerpiece for GOP campaigns. In February UT/TXP polling, 58% of Republican voters said that border security (36%) or immigration (22%) were the most important issues facing the state. (By contrast, only 3% of Democratic voters said the same.)

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Border security1%18%36%
Immigration2%10%22%
Coronavirus/COVID-1916%10%4%
Political corruption/leadership18%9%2%
The economy6%8%5%
Voting rights9%1%1%
Health care6%5%1%

While immigration and border security regularly top the list of state concerns among GOP voters, 28% of independents also cited immigration (10%) or border security (18%) as the state’s top issue in February polling.

These results among Republicans are a cornerstone of the Texas political landscape for their remarkable consistency amidst other, potentially more contentious, issues. In February 2020, 52% of Republicans said immigration or border security were the top issues facing the state; 48% said the same in February 2018; 54% said so in February 2016; and even all the way back in February 2011, 49% said so. Even though nearly half of Republicans don’t view immigration as the state’s number one issue, most endorse almost any attempt that might address the issue — including significant spending.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Too much44%25%5%
Too little16%39%62%
About the right amount23%17%25%
Don't know/No opinion18%19%8%

Despite GOP leaders’ successful efforts during the 2021 session to increase the state’s biennial border security spending to more than $3 billion, and then loudly proclaiming the achievement, 62% of Republican voters continue to believe that the state spends too little on border security. This belief is shared by a plurality of independents (39%), but only 16% of Democrats. This appetite for greater spending on border security remains largely unchanged going back to February 2019, and is the highest measured Republican preference for more spending across five measures. Abbott and other Republicans lose no support by highlighting their increased spending while continuing to promise to “secure the border” by any means necessary.

Texans’ views on Joe Biden’s handling of the immigration issue ranks among his worst, making the issue even more attractive to Republicans, especially Abbott. Overall, 57% of Texas voters disapprove of the job Joe Biden is doing on immigration and border security, including 47% who strongly disapprove. While it’s unsurprsing to find high levels of disapproval among Republicans (88%, 82% strongly disapproving), a majority of independents, 55%, strongly disapprove, with 69% disapproving overall. Making matters worse for Biden and Texas Democrats is that one in five Democrats, 21%, also disapprove of the job Biden is doing on the border. No one should be surprised that O’Rourke distanced himself from Biden on these issues shortly after formally declaring his candidacy.

Abbott’s position of relative strength on the issue compared with Biden is also evident in direct comparisons of their job approval ratings on the subject. While his approval numbers on immigration and border security are tepid overall, with 45% approving and 39% disapproving, they are far better than Biden’s, with Abbott enjoying the approval of 75% of GOP voters (43% strongly), and a near even split among independents, (38% approve and 41% disapprove). 

Immigration and the border are a unifying issue for Republicans, with the added benefit that independents as a group look more like Republicans than Democrats on most related issues. The issue is also one of only a few that are less likely to trigger Democratic voters, because it’s just not as salient an issue to them. When emphasizing border security at the intersection of law and order, there are potentially some Democrats to be peeled away in conjunction with the other prioritized issues – particularly crime and public safety. It’s a play already at work in Abbott’s promotion of “Operation Lone Star” over the last year, and one he’s used before. In the 2018 campaign, an early general election spot was filmed at the location of a murder committed by an undocumented immigrant, and the campaign remained alert to connecting illegal immigration to violent crime, as an Abbott campaign Tweet from August 2018 pegged to a murder in another state illustrates:

 

 

All of which suggests that we should expect Abbott to continue intermittently returning to the border security issue as the general election campaign unfolds. Here, too, he and Republican candidates derive an advantage from Democrats’ nominal ownership of Congress and presence in the White House. Democratic control of both branches of national government facilitates the tried-and-true approach of blaming the tangled multi-decade, multi-party, multi-administration, multi-congress situation/impasse around immigration issues and any current migrant border crossings on Biden and Congress. Blaming incumbents for the failure to solve an intractable problem is a set-piece of every national election, and the salience of imigration and border security to Texas Republicans makes this a particularly valuable tactic in the current cycle.

Public safety

Rising violent crime rates have been making news in the U.S. since 2021, and have re-energized familiar law-and-order appeals historically associated with Republican campaigns. This situation will complement the GOP’s 2020 campaign rhetoric that linked  “defund the police” rhetoric with any and all Democratic officials, and conflating that rhetoric with any calls by Democrats for attention to race and policing. The belief that this approach worked well for Texas Republicans in 2020, especially in and around increasingly competitive suburbs, is now received wisdom among Republican political professionals, but also among Democratic operatives and elected officials. Some Democrats are becoming increasingly public in their expression of this belief, which is evident in the significant increase in police spending in the budget recently proposed by the president, who couldn’t have made his position more clear:  “[T]he answer is not to defund our police departments,” Biden said in the speech rolling out the budget, “it's to fund our police and give them all the tools they need.”

Polling on Texans’ views towards police spending showed why this was likely such a good issue for Republican candidates during the last cycle. No group of Texans expressed support for a major decrease in police spending in their communities. But this issue, and especially the rhetoric of “defunding the police,” distinguished white, liberal Democrats in a telling way. The majority of Democratic voters who identify as people of color expressed much lower support for decreasing police budgets. White liberal Democrats were divided, but as a group were (at least at the time) much more open to decreasing police budgets. As we wrote at in The Texas Tribune in March of 2021: 

“In October 2020 UT/TT polling, the share of white, liberal Democrats in favor of decreasing police spending surged to 60%, but the share of non-white Democrats who endorsed that position was significantly lower, at 23%. Together, these two groups make up 91% of Democratic voters (34% white liberal; 57% non-white Democrats).”

In the wake of the 2020 election, in which Democrats made few notable gains in Texas, February 2021 polling found the share of white, liberal Democrats who said they supported reducing police budgets already declined to 41%, while opinions among non-white Democrats remained unchanged.

Despite no evidence that Texans feel unsafe in the areas where they live, April 2021 UT/Texas Tribune polling found 42% of voters wanting police budgets increased; 30% wanting them left at their current levels, and only 17% supportive of decreasing their police budgets either a little or a lot. Among Republicans, 61% wanted police spending increased, and 31%, left at current levels. Among independents, 30% wanted budgets increased (a plurality), 26% wanted them left at current levels. Even among Democrats, 24% wanted budgets increased, while 32% wanted them left at current levels (a plurality). Less than a third, 30%, wanted them decreased.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Be increased a lot7%11%33%
Be increased a little17%19%28%
Stay about the same32%26%31%
Be decreased a little12%9%2%
Be decreased a lot18%9%2%
Don’t know/No opinion15%25%4%

When asked in April whether they supported or opposed requiring local governments to hold elections before reducing or redirecting any funds from their police budget in response to some local attempts to do so (notably in Austin), 64% of Texans expressed support, including 83% of Republicans, 56% of independents, and, consistent with the attitudes in the spending item, a plurality (46%) of Democrats. While this formulation of the issue potentially pits many attitudes against each other (and recontextualizes the issue among Democrats from one of racism in police practices to public safety and police budgets), that tension is strongest among Democrats, making the issue a potent one for GOP candidates. There’s little to no division among Republicans, and majority support for GOP preferences among independents.

Should the issue of crime become a driving narrative in the national campaign, Abbott currently benefits from significantly higher job approval ratings for his handling of crime and public safety than does Biden. While Abbott’s numbers are, like most of his job approval ratings, tepid – 43% approve and 34% disapprove – they are far better than Biden’s, with only 26% approving compared to 51% expressing disapproval.

Directing voters’ attention to Joe Biden and national Democrats

Midterm elections are almost uniformly challenging for the incumbent president’s party, and 2022 looks to be no different. Biden enters the year with 52% of Texans disapproving of the job he’s doing and only 36% approving. Biden’s brief honeymoon period is over. Republican disapproval is unsurprisingly intense, with 82% strongly disapproving and another 9% merely somewhat disapproving. Biden also receives the disapproval of 63% of independents, including 46% who disapprove strongly. Democrats remain behind the president, with 76% approving – but only a third of Democrats approved strongly.

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categoryApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't know
February 202145%44%11%
March 202144%43%12%
April 202144%46%11%
June 202143%47%10%
August 202140%51%9%
October 202135%55%11%
February 202236%52%11%
April 202237%54%9%
June 202235%55%11%
August 202240%52%9%
October 202239%52%10%
December 202242%50%8%
February 202341%50%10%
April 202340%49%11%
June 202338%50%12%
August 202338%52%9%

In the competitive battle for vote share in the Texas suburbs, 54% disapprove of Biden’s job performance compared to 33% who approve — not a helpful margin for Democrats hoping to remain competitive in suburban counties where the few remaining contested legislative and congressional seats will be fought over in the general election. 

The Abbott campaign has many options in the issues it may raise in prosecuting the case against Biden while trying to persuade voters to find O’Rourke guilty by association. The President was underwater in all of the eight issue areas in which voters assessed Biden’s job performance in the February UT poll. The president’s highest rating came in response to his handling of COVID, where 40% of voters approved, but 48% disapproved. No more than 35% of voters approved of the job he was doing on the economy, transportation, voting and elections, foreign policy, climate change, crime and public safety, or immigration and border security. The 57% of voters who disapproved of Biden’s handling of the border and immigration provide a lot of scaffolding for the Abbott campaign’s longstanding efforts to associate O’Rourke with Biden’s record on an issue that Abbott and other Republican candidates are accustomed to making a set piece of their own campaigns.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
The coronavirus75%29%10%
Transportation & infrastructure67%21%8%
Voting & elections62%18%7%
The economy59%22%5%
Foreign policy58%19%7%
Climate change59%17%7%
Crime & public safety54%15%5%
Immigration & border security51%13%5%

Invoking Abbott’s stewardship of the state

For all the talk of a Carter-like malaise among voters writ large, Texas Republicans’ assessments of state conditions remain reasonably positive, given the major problems that have arisen since the last midterm election. A majority of Republican voters, 63%, think that the state is headed in the right direction, with Governor Abbott entering the year with the approval of 74% of Republicans (31% strong support). Independents, as a group, were relatively split on Abbott in February, with 42% approving and 43% disapproving. Efforts to tell voters that Texas is headed in the right direction despite all the macro level problems in the national economy are unlikely to persuade many Texas Democrats, among whom 75% disapprove of the job Abbott’s doing (65% strongly). The negative consensus among Democrats has driven the overall numbers down, but it has also masked lingering Republican positivity (buoyed, no doubt, by the partisan contrast provided by having a Democrat in the White House during a time of major economic disruptions and price inflation).

As Abbott touts his accomplishments, expect him to highlight those issues that animate both Republican and independent voters, though the latter group is a tougher audience than his base. On eight issue areas where voters were asked to rate the performance of Greg Abbott in February polling, independents expressed net negative evaluations as a group on each of the eight issue areas (including the economy, crime, immigration and border security, voting and elections, the coronavirus, public education, and the electric grid). But Abbott’s foundation remains reliable: Three-quarters of Republican voters expressed approval on every issue, with the exception of public education, which Republican elected officials and opinion leaders are feverishly working on reframing to their advantage. It’s too soon to tell what the impact of these efforts will be in the immediate term. (We return to this subject below.)

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
The economy20%32%76%
Immigration & border security16%38%75%
The coronavirus17%43%73%
Voting & elections16%29%74%
Crime & public safety15%35%74%
Public education17%26%63%
The electric grid in Texas14%23%54%

The Democratic agenda: Critiquing GOP Stewardship

The Democratic strategy for shaping the election agenda is rooted in their fundamental weakness in the political system. Completely removed from access to the levers of power and policy in the state for twenty years, they are left to assail Abbott and Republican candidates for their stewardship of the state, and to attempt to persuade voters to punish them for any and all of the problems the state has experienced (especially recently). There are problems aplenty to point to, from the overall loss of faith in politics and government accelerated by the presidency of Donald Trump (actively reinforced by most Republicans running statewide), to the economic blowback of the state’s rapid growth and the COVID pandemic, and, of course, the convergence of these miseries in the statewide power failures in 2021 and the muddled public discussion that followed. 

So the agenda will be to question Abbott’s accomplishments and leadership, and connect the state’s leadership to the dour outlook many (though not all) Texans are expressing to their friends and family, on social media, and to pollsters. But Democrats’ prospects of exploiting these issues are hurt by the increasing salience of economic concerns, which Republican candidates will at the same time be forcing national Democrats to own – and hanging around the necks of their Texas allies.

Mobilizing negative sentiment about economic conditions and the trajectory of the state

Polling certainly illustrates an increase in discontent with the path the state is on. A plurality of Texas voters, 46%, think that the state is on the wrong track, including 69% of Democrats, 51% of independents, and 25% of Republicans. It appears as though the pandemic really impacted the trajectory of these attitudes, among others. More Texas voters said that the state is headed in the right direction than said things are on the wrong track in every survey from October 2012 through February 2020. In April of 2020, as the early stages of the pandemic were becoming more widely recognized, equal shares said right direction and wrong track; since then, Texans have evaluated the direction of the state negatively. 

Loading chart...
PollRight DirectionWrong Track
October 200938%39%
February 201043%37%
May 201045%38%
September 201043%38%
October 201045%37%
February 201141%41%
May 201136%48%
October 201139%43%
February 201243%38%
May 201238%42%
October 201243%34%
February 201345%39%
June 201350%32%
October 201342%39%
February 201445%35%
June 201449%33%
October 201448%35%
February 201550%30%
June 201550%32%
November 201545%36%
February 201642%37%
June 201641%38%
October 201642%40%
February 201746%36%
June 201743%40%
October 201743%40%
February 201848%36%
June 201846%37%
October 201850%35%
February 201949%35%
June 201949%34%
October 201947%35%
February 202049%37%
April 202043%43%
June 202041%47%
October 202041%44%
February 202139%41%
March 202141%46%
April 202142%42%
June 202141%43%
August 202135%52%
October 202140%48%
February 202240%46%
April 202239%51%
June 202231%59%
August 202236%52%
October 202237%50%
December 202239%46%
February 202335%51%
April 202337%50%
June 202338%49%
August 202333%55%

The economic fallout of the pandemic has since taken on something of a life of its own, and evaluations of the Texas economy continue to trend negative. Only 23% of Texas voters say that the Texas economy is better than last year, 37% say it’s worse, and 34% say that it remains the same. Looking at evaluations of one’s personal financial situation compared to the previous year over the life of the UT poll shows the unevenness of the COVID recovery, with approximately only one in five voters able to say that their financial situation is improving since February 2021, and an increasing share saying that their personal economic situation is worsening.

Loading chart...
PollBetterSame Compared to a Year AgoWorse
October 200917%39%43%
February 201017%41%41%
May 201020%42%38%
September 201020%39%40%
October 201019%38%41%
February 201120%45%35%
May 201118%40%41%
October 201116%40%43%
February 201220%45%34%
May 201219%48%32%
October 201223%43%34%
June 201325%44%30%
October 201322%41%35%
February 201425%43%31%
June 201427%42%29%
October 201427%42%30%
February 201527%44%28%
June 201526%48%24%
November 201523%45%30%
February 201625%45%28%
June 201623%44%29%
October 201627%44%27%
February 201727%50%23%
June 201725%52%20%
October 201731%47%21%
February 201838%42%18%
June 201837%42%20%
October 201839%39%19%
February 201940%39%19%
June 201940%37%19%
October 201940%38%18%
February 202041%38%19%
April 202028%34%35%
June 202024%43%31%
October 202023%44%31%
February 202118%49%29%
March 202122%49%28%
April 202121%53%23%
June 202123%49%25%
August 202120%46%31%
October 202120%43%35%
February 202221%39%38%
April 202217%37%43%
June 202214%32%53%
August 202217%38%42%
October 202213%35%49%
December 202216%36%46%
February 202316%35%46%
April 202321%33%44%
June 202319%36%42%
August 202318%35%45%

The context of the pandemic years and Greg Abbott’s response to them have been accompanied by a hardening of Democratic attitudes. Trend data going back to the beginning of Abbott’s governorship finds Democratic attitudes that previously ranged between 50% and 70% disapproving between November 2015 and April 2020 increased to between 80% and 90% disapproving across nine surveys conducted since June 2020. 

Democratic disapproval became more intense over the same period, too. Between June 2015 and February 2021, over the course of 19 surveys, the share of Democrats strongly disapproving of the job Abbott was doing as governor only surpassed 50% twice (February 2021, 53%; June 2017, 58%); but since March 2021, over the course of 6 surveys, no fewer than 65% of Democrats have expressed strong disapproval, reaching a high of 83% in August 2021 polling. While polling suggests several issues which Democrats might invoke to mobilize their voters in 2022 (discussed below), differences in the composition of the most engaged segment of voters and the overall Democratic electorate suggests that disapproval with Abbott’s leadership is likely to hit the largest target among the base. Emphasizing a disliked incumbent sidesteps a problem that has plagued Democrats for decades: no single issue or set of issues captures the Democratic political imagination in the way that Republicans rally around the issues of immigration and border security.

Loading chart...
PollApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't Know
November 201513%56%23%
February 201618%50%33%
June 201612%60%27%
October 201612%62%26%
February 201713%61%27%
June 20179%70%20%
October 201714%64%21%
February 201812%59%29%
June 201814%67%18%
October 201812%67%21%
February 201916%63%22%
June 201918%62%21%
October 201924%51%24%
February 202013%64%24%
April 202024%59%16%
June 202013%74%13%
October 202013%70%17%
February 202113%73%14%
March 202111%81%8%
April 20217%83%9%
June 20218%82%9%
August 20216%90%4%
October 20215%85%9%
February 202214%75%12%
April 202212%79%9%
June 20226%86%7%
August 202211%84%6%
October 20229%81%9%
December 202213%78%9%
February 202314%78%8%
April 202319%74%8%
June 202314%76%10%
August 202313%78%9%

The attitudes of independents vary more than those of their partisan brethren due to their lack of partisan moorings guiding or strongly informing their attitudes, and their lower levels of attention to politics. The same trend data finds Abbott in relatively new territory since he last faced the voters. Going into the 2018 election, more independents approved of the job Abbott was doing than disapproved in each of three surveys conducted that election year after recovering from higher levels of disapproval during the 2017 legislative session. Abbott will be looking for a similar recovery this time around, with more independents disapproving of his job performance than approving in each of the last six surveys going back to March 2021.

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PollApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't Know
November 201542%29%28%
February 201641%29%30%
June 201642%31%27%
October 201642%33%25%
February 201745%33%23%
June 201745%38%16%
October 201748%33%19%
February 201846%31%23%
June 201847%36%18%
October 201852%32%17%
February 201951%32%17%
June 201951%31%18%
October 201952%28%21%
February 202048%34%18%
April 202056%32%13%
June 202049%39%13%
October 202047%40%14%
February 202146%39%15%
March 202145%43%11%
April 202143%45%13%
June 202144%44%11%
August 202141%50%9%
October 202143%48%10%
February 202244%42%15%
April 202247%41%13%
June 202243%46%12%
August 202246%44%10%
October 202247%44%9%
December 202249%41%8%
February 202346%43%12%
April 202346%41%12%
June 202347%42%12%
August 202345%45%10%

While negative partisanship likely ensures very few Republican voters will cross-over in support of Beto O’Rourke, the challenges of governing through the Trump presidency and a pandemic has tarnished the luster of the Abbott brand among Republican voters. Between February 2017 and June 2020, no fewer than 49% of Republicans expressed strong approval for Abbott’s job performance; since October 2020, over 8 surveys, no more than 43% have expressed strong approval, with a low of 31% as we enter the election year. As Abbott spends much of the year reminding Republican voters why they should be more satisfied, the O’Rourke campaign can be expected to attempt to exploit the patches of GOP dissatisfaction highlighted by Abbott’s primary challengers. The challenge is a steep one, given the difficulty of exploiting GOP discontent amidst mission-critical efforts to rally Democratic base voters with messages likely to push Abbott skeptics in the wrong direction.

Holding Abbott accountable for the grid failure and pandemic response

Political opponents of the governor in both parties have spent the last year attempting to connect the uptick in general dissatisfaction in the electorate with two key issues: the widespread failure of the electric grid last year and its subsequent reliability, and the state’s response to the pandemic and its economic and even social fallout. So far, this pattern has continued in the general election campaign. While polling data strongly suggests that this connection exists in the universe of Texas voters’ attitudes, whether these connections remain direct and active enough to do the work Democrats need them to do remains the central unanswered question of the campaign. By the time general election voting begins in October, it will have been 18 months since Winter Storm Uri knocked the lights out, and more than two years since COVID-19 landed in the U.S.

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categoryTotal
Approve strongly12%
Approve somewhat21%
Neither approve nor disapprove17%
Disapprove somewhat12%
Disapprove strongly33%
Don't know5%

Skepticism among voters about the effectiveness of the governmental response to the 2021 winter storm remains a persistent feature of Texas public opinion as we begin the 2022 campaign, though evidence suggests that Abbott and the GOP likely benefited from the state’s ability to handle a significantly weaker weather occurence earlier this year. Confidence in state leaders’ and the legislature’s efforts to safeguard the grid from future disruptions has remained persistently low. In February polling, the plurality of voters, 28%, said that they were “somewhat confident” that new laws enacted by the legislature would be effective in preventing future disruptions to utility service, with 18% either “very confident” (12%) or “extremely confident” (6%), but 43% either “not very confident” (22%) or “not at all confident” (21%). A majority of both Democratic (63%) and Independent voters (51%) were either not very or not at all confident. Asked to rate Greg Abbott’s handling of the electric grid in Texas, 45% disapproved (33% strongly) compared to 33% approving. Among the eight issue areas in which the UT/TXP poll rated Abbott’s job performance among the electorate, the grid was by far his worst overall rating.

Voters’ negative opinions about the handling of the grid extend beyond Abbott. In October 2021 polling, asked to assess how “state leaders and the legislature” performed across 13 issue areas, Republican handling of the electric grid received the lowest grade by far: 60% of Texans disapproved and only 18% approved. While large majorities of Democrats (78%) and independents (61%) disapproved, the plurality of Republicans, 45%, also expressed disapproval, with only 31% approving.

While Abbott’s response to COVID is likely to play a lesser role as case rates recede, it could become a salient issue again should a new variant require the kind of restrictive public health response that the Governor has largely rejected since coming under fire during the summer of 2020. Vaccine requirements remain a divisive issue in Texas across multiple contexts, but basic public health measures, like mask wearing, remain broadly popular as means of combating surges of the virus. One can expect each side to portray the other as taking extreme, intransigent positions on each of these issues should COVID make its way back to center stage in the political campaigns.

Democrats might be forgiven for assuming that science, reason, and public health concerns generally support the broad policy approach Democratic elected officials and candidates might be expected to take should the issue return. But partisan differences on these issues long ago transcended the factors that might seem to advantage Democrats. GOP candidates sensitive to perceptions of voters shaped by more than a year of loud conservative denial of the fundamental facts of the pandemic remain very unlikely to decide that an election year is the time to attempt to lead public opinion in a different direction. However harmful that dynamic has been and might be again in the future, the potential for this critique to land in Texas races in 2022 in a way that works to Democrats' advantage appears small.

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categoryDemocratOverallRepublican
April 202076%54%36%
June 202074%47%23%
October 202069%40%19%
February 202177%49%28%
April 202161%36%16%
June 202149%27%10%
August 202178%47%23%
October 202162%36%15%
February 202260%39%18%
April 202242%28%13%
June 202243%27%14%

Wild card issues with uncertain risk and reward for both statewide candidates

The issues and themes that play to the comparative advantages of the gubernatorial candidates and their respective parties’ candidates don’t include several policy areas that will likely draw the attention of media, amidst efforts by advocacy groups, as the election approaches. We’ll close by highlighting four that received significant attention during the 2021 legislative session and provide some opportunities but also significant uncertainty for both groups. All four issues – abortion, guns, K-12 education, and voting rights/election laws – are subject to different contexts potentially created by events beyond the control of the candidates that are likely, in turn, to trigger divided public opinion in both parties.

Abortion

It seems highly likely that the United States Supreme Court will either greatly curtail the protections in, or outright nullify, Roe v. Wade’s guarantee of a woman’s largely unfettered right to a legal abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. Should this happen, it will finally test the expectation that revoking abortion access would generate a political backlash. We’ve already examined abortion attitudes here in Texas at length elsewhere, but as of February, a majority of Texans, 53%, opposed automatically banning abortion in Texas should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade. Only 34% of Texans supported a total ban on abortion, and this likely overstates the case because the vast majority of Texans support access to a legal abortion in the case that the mother’s life is endangered (81%), or the pregnancy is the result of rape (72%) or incest (73%) — factors that the trigger bill passed by the Texas Legislature does not allow for. 

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Never permitted2%14%21%
Permitted in cases of rape, incest, danger to mother16%28%47%
Permitted in cases other than rape, incest, danger to mother12%6%14%
Always permitted64%43%14%
Don't know6%10%5%

Additional data further illustrates oppostion to a total ban on abortion access. Asked about abortion laws in a different item in February 2021, only 13% of Texans, including only 21% of Republicans, said that abortion should never be legal. In fact, the plurality of those Republican voters, 47%, said that it should be legal specifically in cases in which the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or carrying the fetus to term would endanger the mother’s life.

While we shouldn’t expect either campaign to want the abortion issue to be center stage in 2022, a Supreme Court decision is likely to move it there. Expect O’Rourke to highlight the lack of access for universally accepted reasons like rape or danger to the life of the woman, and Abbott to paint O’Rourke as an abortion extremist in order to hang on to Republican voters who oppose total prohibition but are tolerant or even supportive of severly curtailing abortion otherwise.

If the election is close, either the Supreme Court or the candidates push the issue to the fore, expect Abbott to have some trouble with this issue among independents. In February 2022 polling, a majority of independents, 56%, opposed automatically banning abortion in Texas if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, while the plurality, 39%, said abortion laws should be less strict in Texas. In October 2021 poling, at least 72% of independents said that a woman should be able to obtain a legal abortion if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest or if carrying the fetus to term would endanger the mother, with another 60% saying that a woman should be able to obtain a legal abortion if there is a strong chance of a serious fetal defect.  

Gun safety and the Second Amendment

Gun safety is an issue that could enter prominently into the election should another mass shooting happen in Texas — and especially should this shooting plausibly be tied in some way to the state’s recent loosening of gun restrictions. But any expectations that such an event would fundamentally shift the grounds of an election-year debate should be tempered by historical experience. We have, sadly, a lot of historical precedents for assessing whether mass shootings result in widespread attitude change — they don’t (see: here, here, and here, for example).

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
More safe7%29%67%
Less safe72%33%9%
No impact on safety15%24%16%
Don't know/No opinion6%14%8%

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categoryTotal
Strongly support19%
Somewhat support19%
Somewhat oppose13%
Strongly oppose42%
Don’t know/No opinion7%

In the event of another high-visibility, gun-related tragedy, Abbott will likely note O’Rourke’s pledge to take Texans’ AK-47’s during the 2020 presidential campaign. O’Rourke will likely highlight Abbott’s unfulfilled pledge to reform gun laws in Texas in the wake of the mass shooting in O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso that spurred the candidate’s gun grabbing comment, and note that Abbott instead passed a permitless carry bill that 55% of Texans opposed. As of this February, in the wake of the permitless carry bill, a plurality of Texans, 43%, said that they wanted gun control laws in the state made more strict

Should this issue become more prominent in the campaign, recall that Texans continue to overwhelmingly support universal background checks (71% of them in our most recent asking of the question, including 61% of Republicans). And even on O’Rourke’s supposed Achilles’ heel on this issue, 59% of Texas voters said that they would, in fact, support a nationwide ban on semi-automatic weapons in October 2019 UT polling.

K-12 education

Many Republicans are making sustained efforts to take public education, an issue that has traditionally been a strength for Democrats, and, if not generate some advantage for themselves (as the GOP gubernatorial campaign in Virginia did), at least turn the issue into a draw. Looking at Texas attitudes, education politics usually elicit a mixture of negative systemic evaluations mixed with positive local evaluations of schools and teachers. In general, people believe that more money should be spent on public education and that teachers are underpaid. This combination of opinions, local, highly evaluated public servants and institutions, and a desire for more public spending, lend themselves to Democratic politicians and campaigns.

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categoryTotal
Excellent7%
Good41%
Not very good30%
Terrible10%
Don't know/No opinion11%

As we enter this election cycle, Republican efforts and messaging on education have muddied the waters so as to turn what is usually a “good” issue for Democrats into a challenging one. Instead of talking about increasing teacher pay, provisioning more technology to schools, or closing achievement gaps in a state in which only 7% of voters rate the public education system as excellent, the focus of recent Republican-led discussions have been over parental control in education, the teaching of racism, gender, and sexuality, the presence of books in public school libraries that may offend some, and the sports teams that transgender students can play on. While these issues take a normally-Democratic strength and make things more dynamic, it’s not clear at this early stage whether or not GOP candidates and public figures are overreaching on issues that the public does not appear to have fully understood or internalized just yet. But however uncertain the likelihood of success with this agenda, Republican opinion leaders continue to stake their claims in this territory. (There are examples aplenty, but a good recent one is Senator Ted Cruz using the collected works of Ibram X. Kendi as props during Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing in March.)

While patrolling school libraries for books around race and gender gets a mixed response from Texans, the shift from specifics to the broader umbrella of parental involvement/input is likely a wise one for Texas Republicans. In February polling, 62% of Texas voters disapproved of attempts to remove books from public school libraries, while 50% opposed efforts to limit the teaching of the role of racism in U.S. history by public school teachers (37% supported these efforts). The more generally-posed role of parental involvement finds Texas split: 44% think that parents have enough influence over what their children are taught, 41% disagree. The majority of voters (51%) only “somewhat” agree or disagree.

Like other issues seemingly unlikely to top the agenda, education doesn’t provide a clear path forward for either party in the current environment, and that may be one of the main benefits to Republican candidates on this issue, at least in the short-run, as they attempt to invest for the longer-term in efforts to till new ground on an issue that has largely been disadvantageous for their party — or for the donors with boutique issue interests in this realm, like diverting public funds for parents to spend in private schools.

Voting Rights and the 2021 GOP offensive.

New election laws passed in the wake of widespread, though completely unsubstantiated, allegations of election fraud in a state Republicans haven’t lost a statewide election in more than two decades, dominated the 2021 regular and special sessions of the Texas Legislature.  That so much attention was paid to this issue during 2021 in the wake of the former president’s denial of the legitimacy of the 2020 election indicates the intensity of the GOP’s focus and how it might be used to mobilize Republican voters in an election year. 

However, this might be difficult for the GOP.  Republican candidates may attempt to channel Trump’s criticism of “rigged elections”, and take credit for their efforts to batten down the hatches in Texas against the resistance of Democrats – who many Republican voters have been conditioned to view as habitual cheaters. At least some Republican cadres expressed concern during the 2020 election that the former President’s constant attacks on the integrity of the election system might have actually reduced GOP turnout by affecting either motivation (“why participate in a rigged system?”) or by inadvertently suppressing the vote of Republicans accustomed to voting by mail under less stringent requirements now made more difficult by SB 1. There is ample evidence that Trump has conditioned many Republicans to be skeptical of the functioning of democracy in the US, but their skepticism about Texas (where Republicans have been winning elections regularly) is much less pronounced.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Extremely well5%1%2%
Very well21%12%9%
Somewhat well32%19%19%
Somewhat poorly22%22%25%
Very poorly11%15%18%
Extremely poorly5%22%20%
Don't know/No opinion5%8%6%

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Extremely well5%5%8%
Very well8%13%26%
Somewhat well25%29%37%
Somewhat poorly26%20%15%
Very poorly17%9%4%
Extremely poorly17%15%3%
Don't know/No opinion4%10%6%

For Democrats, expect the issue of disenfranchisement to be a regular feature of most Texas campaigns. But it will continue to compete with the necessary laundry list of Democratic activators (think: climate change, gun control, minimum wage, etc.) required of a party that, as discussed above, isn’t overwhelmingly focused and united by any single issue. 

The unfortunate reality is that the issue of voting and elections is likely a set piece for Republican and Democratic candidates going forward, with both sides accusing the other of cheating to win elections. This regrettable situation creates something of a draw (regardless of the available support for either side’s claim), one unlikely to shift the electoral landscape dramatically in the short-run. But should we hear an uptick in the discussion about fraud, on the one hand, or disenfranchisement, on the other, during the Fall campaign, it will likely be in response to closer than expected races in which either or both sides will be either actively looking, or indirectly continuing, to lay the groundwork for skepticism about the outcome. As with much of the discussion above, just how the toxic discourse around elections makes manifest remains highly contingent at such an early phase of the campaign, the fact that the the gubernatorial general election campaign began to take shape in late 2021 notwithstanding.