In Texas, the Tea Party hasn't lost its grip

This post originally appeared in TribTalk.

Last week we gave our five takeaways from the electoral results in the new University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll. Today, five quick observations about Texans’ views on the issues:

1. Texans who identify with the Tea Party are now the driving force behind Republicans’ views on almost every issue. Tea Party Republicans are consistently more conservative than non-Tea Party Republicans across the policy spectrum. As a group, they're less likely to support abortion exceptions for rape and incest; have more restrictive views on illegal immigration; are less supportive of spending on public education; are less likely to recognize the well-documented wage gap between men and women; and are more likely to favor a complete repeal of health care reform. In some areas, the gaps between Tea Party and non-Tea Party Republicans are not exceptional. For example, 86 percent of mainline Republicans support more restrictive immigration policies compared with 96 percent of Tea Party Republicans. Still, it’s hard to get 96 percent of any group to agree on anything in politics. This unique uniformity of opinion, coupled with its adherents' high levels of engagement, is what is giving the Tea Party its impact in Texas politics.

2. Rising higher education costs and student debt and a slowly recovering job market appear to have increased skepticism about the value of a college degree. The percentage of Texans who think a college degree is necessary to succeed in life has dropped 14 points in the last four years, from 42 percent to 28 percent. While a tinge of anti-intellectualism is nothing new in American politics, this shift in attitudes is striking given thesolid evidence that a college degree remains a good investment, even in the face of rising costs. Skepticism about the value of college is strongest among conservatives, 20 percent of whom said a college education was necessary for success, compared with 42 percent of liberals. Only 7 percent of Tea Party identifiers thought a college education was necessary, compared with 33 percent of mainline Republicans and 39 percent of Democrats. This question wasn’t intended to capture nuanced views on the benefits of higher education, including the value associated with exposure to art, literature and philosophy. Rather, we were trying to gauge the credence of the old American proposition that a college education opens the door to a successful life. It turns out that many Texans now think that door lies elsewhere.

3. Despite recent events, support for the death penalty remains one of the few points of broad consensus in Texas. High-profile stories of prosecutorial misconduct, shabby defenses, false imprisonment and, most recently, a grimly botched execution in Oklahoma haven’t resulted in more than the slightest dent in enthusiasm for the death penalty here — notable in comparison to the steady drop in support nationally. In the new UT/TT Poll, support for the death penalty stood at 71 percent, a slight decrease from February 2010, when support was at 78 percent. But the death penalty has retained majority support among Democrats (53 percent) as well as Republicans (87 percent). For death penalty opponents, it’s notable that even when Texans are offered a hypothetical alternative to the death penalty — life imprisonment with no possibility for parole — support is still above 50 percent.

4. Texans appear to be more tolerant of abortion than the state’s political leadership. The decisiveness with which state Sen. Dan Patrick and his now-vanquished competitors in the GOP primary for lieutenant governor embraced a prohibitionist stance on abortion — allowing for no exceptions for rape or incest — is at odds with public attitudes on the subject. In the June poll, we asked a more detailed version of the standard abortion question that allowed respondents to indicate under which of seven potential circumstances they thought abortion should be permitted. The share of Texans unwilling to allow for any exceptions at all was consistent with previous findings: A very small percentage of Texans think abortion should be completely prohibited. As for exceptions for rape and incest, 72 and 70 percent of Texans, respectively, think that abortion should be allowed in these circumstances. These results suggest that while there is a constituency for Patrick’s position, it is a narrow one made up primarily of — wait for it — conservatives, especially Tea Party identifiers. But even the groups with the most restrictive views would each still allow, on average, 2.7 exceptions to an otherwise complete prohibition on abortion.

5. No one thinks women earn more than men in the workplace, but lots of people seem to think women earn as much as men in the same job, especially the most conservative Texans and — not shockingly — men. Conservatives and Republicans are evenly split between recognizing that men generally earn more in the workplace and thinking that both earn about the same amount. In a result many women may view as only a silver lining, more men recognize that a man generally earns more than think men and women earn the same amount — but just barely, 47 percent to 44 percent. The margin is much larger among women, 69 percent of whom think men earn more while 25 percent think earnings are equal. Government intervention on this front seems unlikely, as 66 percent of Republicans, 63 percent of conservatives and 83 percent of Tea Party Republicans (there they are again) think that the state government is already doing enough or doing too much.

Looking at public opinion on policy issues during election season helps shed light on how candidates are making campaign decisions. The new poll results should leave no doubt about who is driving the politics of the moment in Texas.