Texas Tea Party Voters' Cool Embrace of Donald Trump

The release of a video of Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush urging a meeting of state Republican activists to support Donald Trump’s candidacy raised yet again the murky politics of Trump in Texas. The political success in Texas of figures like Senator Ted Cruz and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick made Trump's political stew of resentment, nostalgia, and hostility toward political elites old news to the GOP here, and even amidst Trump's national surge in the GOP primaries, there was never any real doubt that Cruz would carry Texas. Cruz's high-profile snubbing of Trump at the convention notwithstanding, most signs point to Trump's status as the Republican presidential nominee being more than enough to ensure his collecting of Texas' electoral votes in November. However, the skepticism of Tea Party identifiers in Texas toward Trump, taken with the different elite responses to his emergence as the presidential nominee, suggest just how much he has made more waves in the already roiled waters of Republican Party politics in Texas.

Prior to Trump’s rise, the primary storyline of internal GOP politics, however frequently oversimplified, revolved around the Tea Party’s electoral challenges to established Republican interests and the reinforcing effects of opportunistic attempts by elite Republican groups seeking to remove out-of-favor candidates. While the Tea Party versus establishment plot didn’t (and doesn’t) explain all of the conflict in the party – in no small part because of the ways in which the Tea Party label has evolved into both a brand and a shorthand label rather than a clear set of commitments – this cleavage was certainly evident in many GOP primary races as well as in the last legislative session.

But Trump’s candidacy has cut across the right–far ideological presentation of the Tea Party brand that has helped define acolytes in Texas and frame the internecine fights in the Texas GOP as a battle for the mantle of “true conservative.” On one hand, Trump’s populist antipathy toward Washington D.C. and elites in power echoes the early days of the Tea Party’s rejection of the federal government, as does his birther-ist disdain for Barack Obama and the strident tone of his attacks on the President. Even the ways in which Trump’s populist politics of resentment in response to the perceived loss of whites’ political and economic dominance echo some of the antinomies evident in surveys of Tea Partiers who call for limited government, while also taking exception to threats to entitlement programs that benefit them.

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Pro-life16%57%73%
Pro-choice68%29%15%
Neither9%11%5%
Don't know7%4%7%

Yet there are many sources of friction between Trump and Tea Party identifiers based on their mostly unshared political and demographic profiles. Trump’s urban sensibilities lead him to positions on social issues – from his conversion on abortion to his liberalism on LGBT issues – that cannot sit well with most Tea Party identifiers, whose own social conservative leanings are often under-appreciated. The significant overlap between Tea Party identification and extremely conservative social attitudes produces no small amount of friction with Trump's decidedly secular persona.

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Their birth gender.27%72%83%
Their gender identity.51%17%8%
Don't know/No opinion22%11%9%

The disruptive effect of Trump’s inconsistent embrace of the conservative side of the center-right/far right divide is evident in the poses that Texas Republicans have chosen to take toward his candidacy. Most visibly, Senator Ted Cruz, whom Trump vanquished in the presidential primary, has declined to endorse the GOP nominee – one of the few things he has in common with Speaker of the Texas House Joe Straus, who has (in a characteristically much less prominent way) declined to endorses Trump. At the other end of the Trump-support spectrum, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, after vowing fealty in the primary to Ted Cruz, has nonetheless urged Republicans to vote for the less ideologically pure Trump in order to forestall Democratic gains in Texas. (Governor Greg Abbott has placed himself squarely in the middle – one of only a few times that one is likely to write that sentence – not eschewing the candidate, but doing little more than expressing light comity and heavy party loyalty.)

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
I want Donald Trump to be elected president43%54%35%
I don't want Hillary Clinton to be elected president57%46%65%

In more direct measures of the Trump-Tea Party relationship, polling shows that Tea Party identifiers in Texas – who largely support Patrick and Abbott by large margins – had not warmed to Trump as of June. Cruz led Trump 56%-26% among Tea Party identifiers in the pre-primary February 2016 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll. Tea Party tepidness toward Trump wasn't and still isn’t surprising, given that Cruz’s rise was part and parcel of the development of the Tea Party/dissident GOP faction in Texas. The timing of these numbers should qualify our view of just how fixed Tea Party views of Trump are – Trump had yet to be formally nominated, and the impact of Cruz's non-endorsement aren't registered in these numbers. Nonetheless, there is a strikingly suggestive evidence of Tea Party skepticism toward Trump in many results from the June University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Poll.

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Very favorable3%38%17%
Somewhat favorable2%25%34%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable4%14%13%
Somewhat unfavorable5%10%16%
Very unfavorable85%12%19%
Don't know/no opinion1%1%1%

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
1 - Extremely liberal5%2%6%
21%3%4%
32%6%13%
4 - In the middle10%29%31%
514%19%23%
613%17%15%
7 - Extremely conservative27%16%6%
Don't know28%7%2%

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Great president2%32%10%
Good president2%31%39%
Average president4%19%22%
Poor president13%6%12%
Terrible president78%12%17%

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Great president2%17%45%
Good president5%30%25%
Average president11%21%15%
Poor president16%15%5%
Terrible president59%13%9%
Don't know7%3%1%

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Donald Trump5%83%66%
Hillary Clinton79%3%5%
Someone else11%11%23%
Haven't thought about it enough to have an opinion6%3%5%

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Ted Cruz1%24%54%
Donald Trump4%54%24%
Hillary Clinton58%1%4%
Bernie Sanders29%4%4%
Someone Else3%13%7%
No one/Don't Know/Don't Remember6%4%7%

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Very favorable0%24%3%
Somewhat favorable3%44%22%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable7%15%20%
Somewhat unfavorable21%14%32%
Very unfavorable63%2%21%
Don't know/no opinion5%1%2%

In Texas, this ambivalence towards Trump likely won’t sink him in the general election this November. Tea Party identifiers are skeptical of Trump, though they share in his dim view of the Republican Party – and many should be expected to vote for him by the time election season peaks. However gray the zone occupied by Trump in their eyes, Hillary Clinton remains a question of black and white for most, if not all, of them. The only public post-convention poll, the KTVT-CBS 11/Dixie Strategies Poll, with a sample of "1,018 likely voters across Texas who were contacted and surveyed over the phone" (the extent of the disclosure we could find from the sponsoring media outlet) on August 8-9, found Trump leading Clinton by 11 points, a three percentage point increase from the June University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

But the moment the votes in the 2016 election are counted, we enter the 2018 statewide election cycle in Texas. Enterprising politicians and the political entrepreneurs that work in their orbit will be alert to gaining advantage from the 2016 positions taken by elected officials as we enter the next set of inter-GOP skirmishes. It wouldn’t necessarily be the first time that the political class chose collective amnesia over confronting unfortunate choices made during the presidential campaign. But as more and more people are recognizing, Donald Trump’s success in Republican primaries is best understood as an effect of the attitudes and mood of the party, not its cause. This is particularly true in Texas, where raging against government and the establishment, including that of your own party, predate Trump’s rise – and will certainly continue beyond his decline.