With their approval numbers sagging, Texas GOP leaders double down on their primary voters

The politics of much of the last year have found elected officials deflecting blame for the multiple crises that have beset Texas onto multiple scapegoats – from local elected officals to feckless or incompetent burueacrats in Texas to the Biden adminstration – and urging Texans to follow their lead. But evidence of declines in voters’ approval of statewide incumbents suggest that for an increasing share of voters, current Republican leadership may bear at least some responsiblity. Texans’ ratings of the job performances of statewide elected leaders in the latest UT/Texas Tribune Poll reveal how Texans' tough year has affected views of their elected officials – and set the stage for a rightward lurch in the current legislative session that prefigures the dynamics of the 2022 GOP primary elections.

For the most part, durable partisan attachments reinforced by polarization have helped shelter Republican incumbents from a greater erosion in support from their base in the wake of the global pandemic and its effects, and the comparatively localized crisis resulting from exposure of the weakness of the exalted “Texas model” by the February winter storm. Nonetheless, almost all incumbents have suffered when looking at the trends over the last 18 months. While most of the statewide officials we track have seen declines in their job approval, none have fallen farther than Governor Gregg Abbott. This is understandable given that he had the farthest to fall as the most popular Republican in the state, but also because of his decision to take the figurative if not literal position as head of the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic (just under 50,000 dead and counting) and its economic fallout (unemployment in the state still sits at 6.9% as of March).  A look at Abbott’s approval ratings over the length of his term reveals that over the last year and a half, his biggest losses came from his softest support — especially among Democrats whose approval spiked briefly during the early days of the pandemic, when prospects were uncertain and Abbott’s decision to place himself at the center of the initial response provided calm in a time of extreme uncertainty. 

Back in April 2020, in the first of five University of Texas/Texas Tribune polls measuring pandemic attitudes to date, Abbott enjoyed the approval of the majority of Texas voters, 56%, with 32% disapproving, giving the governor a net approval of +24 — his highest approval in 20 UT/TT polls conducted since 2015, his first year in the office. This resembled other, earlier upticks in Abbott’s approval, usually driven by non-GOP Texans responding to his handling of other disasters (e.g. Hurricane Harvey and the mass shooting in El Paso). Abbott’s high general approval (relative though it may be in a nominally Republican, though largely urban, young, and diverse state) was likewise seen in his handling of the COVID crisis, with a similar 56% of Texans giving him approving marks in April of last year and only 29% disapproving (net +27).

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PollApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't Know
November 201542%29%28%
February 201641%29%30%
June 201642%31%27%
October 201642%33%25%
February 201745%33%23%
June 201745%38%16%
October 201748%33%19%
February 201846%31%23%
June 201847%36%18%
October 201852%32%17%
February 201951%32%17%
June 201951%31%18%
October 201952%28%21%
February 202048%34%18%
April 202056%32%13%
June 202049%39%13%
October 202047%40%14%
February 202146%39%15%
March 202145%43%11%
April 202143%45%13%
June 202144%44%11%
August 202141%50%9%
October 202143%48%10%
February 202244%42%15%
April 202247%41%13%
June 202243%46%12%
August 202246%44%10%
October 202247%44%9%
December 202249%41%8%
February 202346%43%12%
April 202346%41%12%
June 202347%42%12%
August 202345%45%10%
October 202349%40%10%
December 202348%41%11%
February 202453%37%10%

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Strongly approve5%30%60%
Somewhat approve5%9%16%
Somewhat disapprove7%11%7%
Strongly disapprove81%37%13%
Don't know/No opinion2%13%3%

But one year later, dissatisfaction with Abbott’s handling of the pandemic and the February winter storms and subsequent power and water outages (with as many as 200 accompanying deaths) are evident in specific assessments of his handling of each. Asked in a March Texas Politics Project/UT Energy Institute poll (using the same methods) to evaluate the response to the winter storm by a range of elected officials and industrial actors, only 41% approved of Abbott’s response, with 55% disapproving – a third of voters disapproved “strongly.” Given the timing of that poll, Texans were also asked to evaluate the Governor’s recent decision to end the statewide mask mandate and business restrictions. On that count too, Abbott’s reviews were at best mixed: a majority of voters, 51%, disapproved of his decision to lift the mask mandate, while a plurality, 49%, disapproved of his decision to remove all capacity limits on businesses.

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April 202091%56%48%
June 202088%52%29%
October 202087%45%24%
February 202085%48%26%
April 202185%46%24%
June 202177%37%23%
August 202188%41%24%
October 202176%37%15%
February 202266%46%19%
April 202236%26%8%
June 202241%19%11%
August 202238%14%6%
October 202237%11%10%
December 202242%18%5%

Both decisions were extremely unpopular among Democrats who, on the whole, continue to perceive the coronavirus as a much more significant threat than do Republicans. While more Democrats disapproved of Abbott’s overall job performance than approved in April of last year, their initial reviews were less uniformly negative than one might expect. But the deterioration in their evaluations over the past year has been dramatic, and helps to explain the decline in Abbott’s overall rating.

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PollApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't Know
November 201513%56%23%
February 201618%50%33%
June 201612%60%27%
October 201612%62%26%
February 201713%61%27%
June 20179%70%20%
October 201714%64%21%
February 201812%59%29%
June 201814%67%18%
October 201812%67%21%
February 201916%63%22%
June 201918%62%21%
October 201924%51%24%
February 202013%64%24%
April 202024%59%16%
June 202013%74%13%
October 202013%70%17%
February 202113%73%14%
March 202111%81%8%
April 20217%83%9%
June 20218%82%9%
August 20216%90%4%
October 20215%85%9%
February 202214%75%12%
April 202212%79%9%
June 20226%86%7%
August 202211%84%6%
October 20229%81%9%
December 202213%78%9%
February 202314%78%8%
April 202319%74%8%
June 202314%76%10%
August 202313%78%9%
October 202315%77%8%
December 202319%73%7%
February 202427%67%6%

One year ago, 24% of Democrats approved of Abbott’s job performance, while 59% disapproved (net -35), which was tied for the highest positive rating from Democrats during Abbott’s governorship. The other was in October 2019, in the wake of the El Paso and Midland-Odessa mass shootings. In the most recent April polling, 7% approve while 83% disapprove (65% strongly), a 24-point increase in disapproval and a 41-point change in the wrong direction in his net approval, from -35 to -76 (not to mention a 30-point increase in those who disapprove strongly). This is not to say that Greg Abbott needs the votes of Democrats to secure reelection in 2022, but it’s likely that he has enjoyed the passive support of a reliable share of the opposition party to pad his election and re-election victories in 2014 and 2018.

(While exit polls have to be taken as provisional measures of the composition of the electorate, they report Abbott with 7% of the Democratic vote in 2014 and 11% in 2018.)

While the return of Abbott’s Democratic support in the last year to the range registered in the exit polls looks like a reversion to his baseline were it not for the newfound intensity in Democratic displeasure, Abbott has also experienced declining evaluations among Texas Republicans – a potentially more significant development with a fractious 2022 primary season likely in the cards. 

Republican governance, whether here or elsewhere, face more difficult intra party pressures  than their Democratic counterparts in responding to the pandemic. Republicans’ default suspicion of large scale government intervention and public spending (however inconsistently applied) fed a baseline suspicion of the aggressive measures necessary to fight the spread of COVID-19. Managing these reflexes among GOP voters was made more difficult by national leadership that consistently downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic to Republican voters. Abbott’s job was harder still, given Texas’ mix of large urban and rural populations, as well as its large non-white and poor populations disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus. This resulted, as we wrote earlier in the pandemic, in Abbott taking incoming fire from all sides over his lack of response, or his overreaction, depending on whom you ask — a situation that clearly has not been entirely resolved despite Abbott’s high-profile reversal of his statewide orders.

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PollApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't Know
November 201570%8%23%
February 201669%8%23%
June 201673%7%21%
October 201675%5%21%
February 201780%5%15%
June 201783%8%10%
October 201779%5%14%
February 201881%5%14%
June 201880%7%14%
October 201889%4%8%
February 201983%6%10%
June 201984%4%12%
October 201979%6%15%
February 202084%8%12%
April 202088%6%7%
June 202083%7%9%
October 202081%13%7%
February 202179%10%11%
March 202179%13%8%
April 202177%13%10%
June 202177%12%11%
August 202173%18%9%
October 202179%15%6%
February 202274%14%12%
April 202280%10%11%
June 202278%11%12%
August 202280%12%8%
October 202286%8%6%
December 202287%6%8%
February 202383%7%10%
April 202379%9%12%
June 202381%10%8%
August 202381%11%8%
October 202379%10%11%
December 202378%10%12%
February 202483%8%10%

As Abbott attempted to respond to the sometimes vertiginous ups and downs of fighting the pandemic, Republicans’ approval of the job he was doing decreased in both quantity and quality: his overall approval has declined while becoming more faint. In April of last year 88% of Republicans approved of the job Abbott was doing (54% “strongly” approving), in April of this year, that number was down 11-points to 77% (with only 37% “strongly” approving). Disapproval over the same time period more than doubled from a miniscule 6% to 13%, resulting in a net approval shift among Republicans from +82 to +64. This was also evident in GOP approval of Abbott’s handling of COVID, where net approval over the same time period declined 20 points, from +79 to +59, with 17% of GOP voters disapproving of his handling of the pandemic.

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Approve strongly7%16%54%
Approve somewhat17%18%34%
Neither approve nor disapprove13%13%4%
Disapprove somewhat24%19%4%
Disapprove strongly35%22%2%
Don't know3%12%3%

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Approve strongly3%8%37%
Approve somewhat4%26%40%
Neither approve nor disapprove7%22%9%
Disapprove somewhat18%13%8%
Disapprove strongly65%24%5%
Don't know2%6%1%

These shifts were evident among other Republican statewide leaders for whom we have the same trend data, though to a significantly smaller degree at least partially in line with their significantly lower prominence in voters’ minds, not to mention their significantly lesser roles in the state’s pandemic response compared to Abbott’s. For example, Lt. Governor Patrick’s net approval among all voters over the last year shifted from +4 to -4, with a similar shift among Republicans — +60 to +53 — and among Democrats — -55 to -70.

The shifts in Texans’ approval of the jobs the Governor and other statewide officials have done during an unprecedented period of crisis in the state provide a critical context for understanding the trajectory of state politics as we enter a key interlude in the intertwined legislative and election cycles. In the midst of a triple witching hour in state politics — the coincidence of the final weeks of a legislative session, looming statewide elections, and the drawing of new legislative maps in the delayed redistricting process — Republican politics are laser-sighted on the internal dynamics of the 2022 Republican primaries. The conflicts brewing in those primaries have been foreshadowed by the vocal pushback against Abbott’s efforts to fight the pandemic in its early months – and in his steadily declining commitment to doing so amidst vocal dissent from a dizzying array of political opportunists situated on the right wing of his own party. The decay in Abbott’s public support has been noticeable but not earthshaking, but it has been amplified by idiosyncratic but well funded and media-friendly figures like Shelly Luther and Allen West, who have shown no signs of being willing to tone it down during the primaires. If anything, expect the opposite.

The noticeable decay in the once overwhelming GOP approval for the Governor and for other statewide officials can be expected to further increase the gravity being exerted by the most ideologically extreme wing of the party in recent months. The impact of these reliable stalwarts in otherwise low-turnout GOP primaries looms large. 

Their presence is already exerting a powerful influence over a legislative agenda increasingly taken by causes like leading the fight against legal abortion, securing the unlicensed carry of firearms, along with continued attempts to decrease ease and access to the ballot and firing various symbolic shots across the bow of the Democrat-led national government. Exhibit A in this dynamic is the game of hot potato played by the Governor and the leaders of the House and Senate as they attempt to grapple with a “constitutional carry” bill public opinion shows is unpopular with a majority of Texans and that all three leaders attempted to avoid committing to. Having abandoned the possibility of maintaining even nominal bipartisan support, the need to shore up the erosion of Republican support is now front and center. For Abbott, at least for the next year until the likely delayed primary elections, this will mean a relentless focus on the issues most likely to inoculate him and his fellow travelers from small groups of primary voters whose discontent is always a moment away from mobilization. For all the friction this tactic might seem to cause in the legislature and with the public at large, from a purely political perspective, it's likely to be the most successful damage control implemented after a year of at best mixed efforts.