The Tale of Senator Cornyn's Poll Numbers as Democrats Line Up For the Chance To Challenge Him in 2020

The recent addition of two more names to the list of Democratic primary candidates vying to face incumbent U.S. Senator John Cornyn again raises the immediate question of Cornyn’s prospects in 2020. We focus on University of Texas/Texas Tribune Polling data to look at Cornyn’s position among the Texas electorate to assess the position of Texas' senior U.S. Senator who has held that office since 2002, a political eternity for a Texas Republican Party that took control of the state the same year. Cornyn was there at the beginning of the period of GOP dominance and has risen to one of the top positions in the Republican caucus in the U.S. Senate. Yet his standing in his home state, even through two successful reelection campaigns, has always suffered in comparison both to the political leaders that were his contemporaries and to the more recent generation of GOP elected officials who rose in his shallow wake.

Our pile of data lacks the pointed succinctness of Ross Ramsey’s lede in a Texas Tribune column last week: “Politics is full of nobodies,” Ramsey wrote, “and the Democratic field of challengers to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn is just a new example.” (To be fair to the Tribune’s executive editor, he wrote that before State Senator Royce West and Houston City Council member Amanda Edwards were formally in the race.) And while our style is decidedly less pithy than Ross’, we think it’s a virtue that we have a lot of data on Cornyn to bring to bear and to add depth to the two (ahem!) Quinnipiac Polls the Dallas Morning News’ Gromer Jeffers recently referenced in his sharp assessment of Cornyn’s position. 

The suggestion in Jeffers' piece that Cornyn is a less polarizing figure than Cruz is reflected in polling data, but the gap is likely not sufficient either to dampen Democratic turnout spurred on by President Trump or to create significant crossover voting in Cornyn’s favor. And while Cornyn’s comparatively mediocre approval ratings among Texas Republicans has improved somewhat over the last year, they remain well below more popular Republicans of more recent electoral vintage (including Cruz). Overall, Cornyn’s job approval numbers in June 2019 polling stood at 37 percent, below the president (52 percent), the governor (51 percent) the lieutenant governor (41 percent), and of course, his junior colleague, Senator Cruz (47 percent). Remarkably, thirty-seven percent is actually the second highest job approval number Cornyn has received over 9 surveys since November 2015 – through June 2018, Cornyn's job approval never broke above 30 percent.

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ApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't Know
November 201527%34%38%
February 201627%32%41%
June 201624%35%41%
October 201628%36%37%
February 201730%34%36%
June 201728%41%30%
October 201728%42%30%
February 201829%38%33%
June 201827%38%34%
October 201839%34%28%
February 201936%35%29%
June 201937%34%29%

So the fact that Cornyn is not Ted Cruz is not enough to prevent another grueling U.S. Senate reelection race. Cornyn is a Republican, and that may be all that matters in 2020 with Donald Trump on the ballot. Democrats’ overall view of Cornyn are not as negative as their views of Cruz, but are still rather negative. Overall, 59 percent of Democrats disapprove of the job Cornyn is doing in the U.S. Senate in June 2019 UT/TT polling, compared to 75 percent who disapprove of the job that Cruz is doing. Almost half of Democrats (47 percent) disapprove of Cornyn’s job performance ‘strongly’, compared to 64 percent who feel the same way about Cruz. Democrats’ negative job ratings of Cruz are more intense, lending some credence to the argument that Cruz is more reviled among Democrats. Most telling in terms of how these numbers might move as Election Day nears, Democrats' postive approval of Cruz after his relection and Cornyn before the campaign starts are roughly identical, with the share of Democrats having no views of Cornyn fifteen percent higher than the same group for Cruz. By the time the actual voting starts, the general election campaigns can be expected to polarize the state’s mostly partisan voters. Cornyn's negatives among Democrats don't have too far to travel to approximate Cruz's, and his positive approvals are unlikely to increase in that environment.

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categoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Approve strongly3%10%26%
Approve somewhat8%18%37%
Neither approve nor disapprove15%20%17%
Disapprove somewhat12%15%8%
Disapprove strongly47%17%4%
Don't know14%20%9%

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categoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Approve strongly4%18%50%
Approve somewhat8%20%31%
Neither approve nor disapprove9%22%8%
Disapprove somewhat11%8%4%
Disapprove strongly64%26%3%
Don't know4%6%4%

Cornyn also can’t rely on the wellspring of support that Cruz has enjoyed among Texas Republicans for almost his entire Senate tenure. While 81 percent of Republicans approve of the job Cruz is doing in the Senate, with 50 percent strongly approving, only 63 percent approve of Cornyn’s job performance, with just over a quarter (26 percent) approving strongly. Again, a glass-is-half-full approach would argue that Cornyn’s job approval among Republicans are near all-time highs, and hopefully (if you’re a Republican), represent a new normal – and can only be expected to go up as as result of the same forces we expect to drive his negatives higher among Democrats.

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ApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't Know
November 201543%24%32%
February 201645%20%34%
June 201641%21%39%
October 201644%18%36%
February 201752%13%36%
June 201751%21%27%
October 201746%23%31%
February 201850%18%32%
June 201846%18%35%
October 201870%8%21%
February 201962%14%25%
June 201963%12%26%

For the moment, though, these approval numbers among Republicans pale in comparison to other top GOP incumbents. In addition to Cruz, Governor Abbott (84 percent) and Lieutenant Governor Patrick (68 percent) both exceed Cornyn’s job approval numbers among the state’s Republican electorate.

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categoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Approve strongly6%17%54%
Approve somewhat12%25%30%
Neither approve nor disapprove14%23%10%
Disapprove somewhat19%14%3%
Disapprove strongly43%15%1%
Don't know7%7%2%

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categoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Approve strongly2%15%40%
Approve somewhat8%14%28%
Neither approve nor disapprove14%23%19%
Disapprove somewhat11%4%3%
Disapprove strongly49%29%3%
Don't know16%16%6%

Cornyn also remains less well-known among Texas voters than other incumbents elected on the statewide ballot. While 29 percent of Texas voters either couldn’t provide a positive or negative evaluation of Cornyn’s job performance (17 percent) or simply couldn’t register an opinion (12 percent) – similar to the lieutenant governor (29 percent) – significantly fewer voters had a problem evaluating the job of the Governor (18 percent) or Senator Cruz (14 percent). While these are small distinctions, it’s notable that someone in the public spotlight as a statewide elected official for 20 years could be unknown to almost a third of the electorate. 

One might plausibly assert that Cornyn’s weaknesses among Republicans will be remedied by the predictable heightening of partisanship as the election nears and both Democratic and Republican voters are mobilized based on their party allegiance more than their attachment to a given candidate. This raises the question of the preference of independent voters, a group that has long been largely irrelevant in statewide races shaped by lopsided Republican electoral majorities, but now, in a more competitive state, are more worthy of attention.

As a group, true independents' views of Cornyn have been consistently net-negative over the last five years. Not surprisingly, Cornyn’s job approval among self-described Republican-leaning independents has been strongly positive, while Democratic leaners have been negative. But among those independents who don’t lean towards either political party, usually about 10 percent of the Texas electorate, only 28 percent approved of Cornyn’s job performance as of June 2019, with 40 percent disapproving – and 28 percent is Cornyn’s high water mark for approval among independents going back to November 2015 over 12 surveys.

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ApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't know
November 201520%34%45%
February 201624%34%41%
June 201622%39%40%
October 201625%43%33%
February 201715%48%36%
June 201717%51%32%
October 201726%41%33%
February 201826%33%42%
June 201825%38%38%
October 201825%38%37%
February 201921%39%41%
June 201928%32%40%

Cornyn’s history of faint praise from his own partisans, skepticism from independents, and being lumped in with his more caustic Republican comrades by Democrats is a sign that he is a remnant of the old Republican order in Texas, a status that puts him in a touchy position in the present transition. Cornyn was elected in 2002, as Republicans were becoming ascendant in Texas under the banner of a very different GOP whose figurehead, President George W. Bush, had done much to establish the party’s brand at the time. Corynyn has survived and even prospered during the emergence of a new party shaped by the influence of the Tea Party revolt and the exploitation of the discontent they channeled by President Trump. Should he survive 2020, he will have done so in spite of these changes rather than because of them, and will be the last prominent Texan firmly entrenched in the old GOP order left standing.