The Public Opinion Context in Texas of Beto O’Rourke’s Viral Comments on NFL Players Taking A Knee

In an increasingly familiar dynamic in the election for the U.S. Senate seat currently occupied by Ted Cruz, Beto O’Rourke is gaining glowing reviews from a national audience on social media and in the press for his explanation of his view that NFL players taking a knee are not disrespectful to the flag or to veterans and service members. But as in other episodes in O’Rourke’s campaign, the reception in Texas is likely to be much more ambiguous, given what we know about public attitudes in the state toward the NFL protests.  

A link to the tweet from the Now This website has gone viral in the last few days, though it was recorded August 10 at a Houston rally according to the description of the video at YouTube channel of “Greater Houston for Beto.” The video is embedded below. (It seems no one can resist putting Beto’s comments to music one has to suspect he wouldn’t find very punk.)

While O’Rourke’s clear-eyed assessment of the historical context of the NFL (and other professional sports) protests will appeal to partisans already drawn to him, there is also a sense that his delivery was also subtle, considerate of other points of view (“reasonable people can disagree on this issue, let’s begin there,” he says), and self-deprecating in the face of widespread dissatisfaction with the unwillingness of elected officials to take risks (the flags that those protesting are “frustrated with people like me, and those in positions of public trust and power, who have been unable to resolve this or bring justice for what has been done, and to stop it from continuing to happen in this country.”) This has fueled further murmuring about O’Rourke’s longer term political prospects at the national level should he pull off an upset victory against Cruz (or not), including to references to a former Illinois state senator who served briefly in the U.S. Senate before getting elected president.

However, O’Rourke needs to win here first, and while mobilizing Democrats with high profile comments like the ones gaining him national attention will help, it’s unlikely to do much to persuade Republicans or independents, given their attitudes on issues likely to form the context of their reception of O’Rourke’s comments.

The June 2018 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll invited Texans to share their views of the NFL. While the item did not refer specifically to player protests or the league’s response, the partisan and racial differences in response suggest that – particularly given that it was the off season and that the issue has been prominent – the protests influenced the responses.

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Very favorable13%
Somewhat favorable13%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable20%
Somewhat unfavorable19%
Very unfavorable28%
Don't know/no opinion7%

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Very favorable20%12%6%
Somewhat favorable18%15%8%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable25%18%15%
Somewhat unfavorable14%16%24%
Very unfavorable14%27%41%
Don't know/no opinion8%12%5%

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Very favorable8%25%19%
Somewhat favorable12%24%10%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable20%17%21%
Somewhat unfavorable21%14%17%
Very unfavorable33%10%22%
Don't know/no opinion6%9%11%

In October 2017, after Donald Trump had weighed in loudly on the NFL protests and other racial issues in the headlines, the UT/TT poll asked Texans whether they approved of Trump’s handling of protests by professional athletes. Similar partisan and racial dynamics were evident in these attitudes.

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Approve strongly29%
Approve somewhat11%
Neither approve nor disapprove7%
Disapprove somewhat7%
Disapprove strongly43%
Don't know3%

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Approve strongly4%36%50%
Approve somewhat2%11%18%
Neither approve nor disapprove5%16%7%
Disapprove somewhat6%5%9%
Disapprove strongly80%29%13%
Don't know2%3%4%

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Approve strongly37%2%20%
Approve somewhat13%5%10%
Neither approve nor disapprove6%6%10%
Disapprove somewhat8%7%6%
Disapprove strongly33%70%52%
Don't know2%10%2%

Finally, in October 2016, we asked Texans about their views of the Black Lives Matters movements, the most high-profile crucible of contemporary protests against police treatment of black Americans. Maybe even more than in the previous results, attitudes towards Black Lives Matter were remarkably negative among the state’s majority party, while nominally positive among the Democrats O’Rourke is trying to mobilize.  

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Very favorable11%
Somewhat favorable17%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable15%
Somewhat unfavorable9%
Very unfavorable45%
Don't know/No opinion4%

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Very favorable24%6%1%
Somewhat favorable33%13%4%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable23%18%7%
Somewhat unfavorable7%8%10%
Very unfavorable9%52%76%
Don't know/No opinion4%2%3%

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Very favorable4%46%11%
Somewhat favorable14%22%20%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable14%15%16%
Somewhat unfavorable9%5%10%
Very unfavorable56%9%38%
Don't know/No opinion3%4%4%

While it’s too soon to judge O’Rourke’s national prospects – despite the natural eagerness to discover the Next Big Thing – the response on Political Twitter illustrates that in moments like his Houston comments (and many others on a growing list), O’Rourke looks a lot like a national Democratic candidate. Relevant attitudes in Texas, however, suggest that he still has a rough schedule to get through before he graduates to the pros.