Six Points Separate Perry and White — or Is It More?

Looking beyond the horse race numbers in the governor’s race, the track still looks muddy for Democrats. The University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released early Monday that showed Gov. Rick Perry leading Bill White by 6 points, with 22 percent still undecided, intensified the chatter about whether White is actually turning the tide in the governor’s race.

These numbers show the familiar pattern of tepid plurality support for the governor, leading to the usual invocations of “conventional wisdom” about incumbents polling under 50 percent and wishful thinking about the Perry and the seemingly talismanic number 39. [Editor's note: Perry won the 2006 race with 39 percent of the vote.] But the underlying patterns of party preferences in Texas, and the national political environment seeping into campaign, can be expected to offset some of Perry’s apparent vulnerability if public opinion and the campaign stay on their current trajectories.

The pattern of partisan preferences evident in the latest polling suggests that the Republican Party still holds a substantial baseline advantage over the Democrats in Texas. In our standard generic ballot question that asks, “If the 2010 election for U.S. Congress in your district were held today, would you vote for the Democratic candidate, the Republican candidate … ”, Republicans enjoyed a 15-point advantage, with fewer "don’t knows" (14 percent) than in most of the candidate matchups. The Republican advantage was the same in generic state legislative match ups. These 15-point Republican advantages suggest that there are some reserve votes out there to supplement Perry’s 6-point lead when people start actually voting (as opposed to responding to poll questions). These votes are not guaranteed Perry votes, but it’s a reach to think that the lion’s share of this non-Perry Republican support is within White’s grasp.

Nor does the partisan structure of the "don’t knows" in the polling on the governor’s race suggest much of a reversal in White’s fortunes, even as it suggests some reluctance to commit to Perry in a survey. Independents — the holy grail of electoral politics, of course — hold out some hope for White (and he’s campaigning that way). White edged Perry out among independents 25-18 percent, with 15 percent choosing Libertarian Kathie Glass. That left 41 percent of independents undecided. If White can maintain his success rate with these undecided independents, he gains some ground (though not enough). In Texas, however, independents are by and large a conservative (if libertarian-leaning) lot — in 2008, exit polling suggested they preferred John McCain to Barack Obama, 62-36 percent.

Looking beyond the partisan landscape within the state, the national political environment is exerting a powerful influence on state politics that also should be expected to help Perry on Election Day. Texans’ views of President Obama loom over this election. The president has been a persistent negative presence in the governor’s campaign attacks on White throughout the summer, and our numbers suggest that is good reasoning from a tactical point of view. The president’s job approval numbers are remarkable not only because they are unfavorable, but also because of the intensity of the disapproval: Only 34 percent approved of the president's job performance, with 58 percent disapproving and (notably) 50 percent disapproving strongly. Among independents, Obama’s disapproval number is 55 percent, 44 percent strongly, again suggesting that this bloc of voters may not be such a goldmine of votes for White.

(Matt Bai has a piece in today’s New York Times arguing that the more extreme attacks on Obama, like the recent “Kenyan anticolonialism” meme started by Dinesh D’Souza and propagated by Newt Gingrich, serve not only to fan broader Obama dislike, but also to provide common ground for fractious conservatives.)

By comparison, the corresponding job approval numbers for Perry were 40 percent approval and 42 percent disapproval, with 25 percent disapproving strongly. The governor may well be subject to some of the discontent with elected officials nationwide, particularly among conservatives and independents, but the Texas version of this anger seems much more directed at Washington, D.C., than at Austin. The Perry campaign can be expected to continue to link White and Obama as working side by side to perpetrate Democratic perfidy in the Lone Star State. (As I’m writing this, Jay Root of the Associated Press is reporting on the first barrage of Perry negative ads attacking White in part by linking him to the president.)

The state of the national economy also presents a contrast that the governor is exploiting to the hilt. Perry’s mantra-like insistence that things are great in Texas (thanks to him) is facilitated by the contrast with a slow national recovery that is still generating intense pessimism about the state of the country — and making Texas look good by comparison, despite slow growth and mediocre overall employment numbers in the state.

Public opinion in Texas is primed for the contrast the Perry campaign constantly invokes: 63 percent of Texans in our last poll said the country was on the wrong track, compared to only 38 percent saying Texas was on the wrong track. Texans are guarded, to be sure, and not exactly brimming with optimism: Only 43 percent said the state was on the right track, and 42 percent thought economic conditions in the state were getting worse, with only 36 percent saying they were getting better and 22 percent saying they didn’t know.

Insiders and close observers in both parties are racking up sleepless nights worrying about the Incredible Skyrocketing State Budget Shortfall (“see it grow to $21 billion before your very eyes!"), and Bill White is trying to make an issue of it. But it’s not on the public radar in a definitive way. Only 2 percent opted to identify the state budget shortfall as the most important issues facing Texas.

We can pile on more numbers from the UT/Trib poll that also suggest how national politics give and give to the Perry campaign: support for the Texas Attorney general’s suit against the national health care legislation (63 percent, 53 percent strongly supportive), the focus on immigration and border security as the most important problems facing Texas (yes, I know, federal issues). And while the Tea Party has roiled statewide Republican races elsewhere, as we witnessed earlier this week in Delaware and New York, we’ve already gone through that here, and Perry basically got in front of it. He talked about secession on Tax Day over a year ago. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn got booed by a home crowd a couple of months later, and U.S. Kay Bailey Hutchison got unceremoniously sent back to Washington in March. Almost a third of the Texans in our sample said they considered themselves to be “part of the Tea Party movement.” Guess whom they’ll be voting for in November?

You get the point: Perry may be leading by 6, and the gaps in the polls as summer wanes did seem close to a little overall. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been following this race closely, and perhaps this seems like a major development, whomever you’re pulling for. But taken as a whole, the latest UT/Trib poll suggests that if the election were held tomorrow, a lot of Texans would show up to vote against Barack Obama, against the congressional Democrats and for the Republican label. And, almost coincidentally, for Perry, a two-term incumbent looking to spend 14 years as governor — unless, of course, he decides to seek another government job in a couple of years.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2010/09/16/six-points-separate-perry-and-white--or-is-it-more/.