Trends in Partisan Ideological Identification in Texas Illuminate McCain's Past, Trump's Present, O'Rourke's Future

Today, we took great interest in the Tweet below by Carroll Doherty at the Pew Research Center, highlighting increasing conservative identification among Republican voters over the timespan between John McCain's first presidential campaign in 2000 and today. Pew's data show conservative idenfitication in the GOP increasing by 12 points, from 56 percent to 68 percent. 

The Pew data got us wondering about whether these trends manifest themselves in Texas, so we pulled together polling data from over 30 University of Texas / Texas Tribune polls to see if and how ideological identification in Texas has changed since 2008 (the inaugural year of our data). The data series is represented in the graphics below.

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PollLiberalModerateConservative
July 20082%25%73%
October 20082%20%78%
March 200913%16%71%
June 20096%12%82%
October 20091%15%84%
February 20102%9%89%
May 20101%10%89%
September 20100%9%91%
October 20102%8%90%
February 20113%14%84%
May 20112%11%87%
October 20112%11%87%
February 20121%12%86%
May 20121%22%77%
October 20121%23%76%
February 20132%12%87%
June 20131%14%85%
October 20133%20%77%
February 20141%19%79%
June 20142%12%86%
October 20142%13%85%
February 20151%16%83%
June 20154%16%81%
October 20152%14%85%
February 20162%17%82%
June 20161%15%83%
October 20161%18%81%
February 20173%23%74%
June 20172%11%87%
October 20172%14%83%
February 20184%10%86%
June 20183%13%84%
October 20183%11%85%

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PollLiberalModerateConservative
July 200835%55%10%
October 200844%36%19%
March 200955%30%15%
June 200949%34%17%
October 200941%48%10%
February 201044%45%11%
May 201045%40%15%
September 201052%34%14%
October 201049%34%17%
February 201143%38%19%
May 201145%45%9%
October 201154%36%10%
February 201254%34%13%
May 201238%51%11%
October 201243%45%13%
February 201352%34%14%
June 201353%36%11%
October 201343%43%14%
February 201446%38%16%
June 201447%40%13%
October 201453%36%11%
February 201545%40%15%
June 201548%38%14%
October 201552%37%10%
February 201638%49%13%
June 201644%48%8%
October 201643%47%10%
February 201744%44%11%
June 201765%25%10%
October 201763%27%10%
February 201856%29%14%
June 201864%28%9%
October 201860%28%12%

Looking at the changes and consistencies over time led us to three hot takes, with more reflection and analysis pending.

1) While Republican identifiers have grown more conservative as a group nationally, Texas Republicans' ideological self-identification has held remarkably consistent over the last 10 years. There are explicable ebbs and flows to the rate of conservative identification among Texas Republicans. Conservative identification surged around the 2010 Tea Party electoral wave, then dipped heading into the 2012 Election, when Mitt Romney stood on the precipice of losing to Barack Obama, and dipped again in the immediate aftermath of the Trump Election. Nonetheless, moderate identification has stayed in a narrow band, and in what should be a surprise to no one, conservative identification among Republicans has hovered consistently above 80 percent, and never gone below 70 percent. In the wake of his death, it's worth noting that John McCain experienced this in Texas in 2008. Though McCain was already the presumptive nominee by the time of the 2008 Texas presidential primary, he won barely half of the votes in the that election. The runner-up was conservative, Christian stalwart Mike Huckabee, who received over 500,000 votes (McCain got just over 697,000). As we've written elsewhere, if national conservatives have embraced Trump's most reactionary rhetorical appeals on immigration and race relations, the market for these appeals was well developed in the Texas GOP long before Trump used them to become the national party's figurehead. 

2) Liberal self-identication among Democrats as a group has increased sharply since Donald Trump became president. It's long been a baseline assumption that, whether you're looking at public opinion or the profiles of candidates and elected officials, Texas Democrats tend to look more conservative than their northern counterparts. For most of the time series this is true, with the plurality choice among Texas Democrats oscilating between "liberal" and "moderate" for most of the period the data covers. But since October 2017, liberal identification has taken a commanding lead among the identification choice of Texas Democrats, reaching as high as 65 percent – 19 percentage points higher than the mean percentage (46 percent) between June 2008 and February 2017, right after Trump's inauguration. Whether this increase is durable and whether it reflects more liberal policy preferences rather being another manifestation of intense opposition to the president can't be readily determined at the moment. But it does illuminate why Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke's seeming embrace of a campaign agenda that makes him look far more like a national Democratic candidate than previous high profile contenders has been so warmly greeted by attentive Democrats. While critics (and, of course, the Cruz campaign and allied forces) have pondered whether O'Rourke has moved too far to the left for Texas, it may well be that O'Rourke is meeting his own market in an effort to maximize Democratic mobilization. The election will in part provide a crucial measure of which of these two positions was accurate. The obvious risk for the O'Rourke campaign is that both are correct, but the GOP advantage is too large to overcome this cycle, even if the candidate is ideologically in tune with a base that can't be turned out in sufficient numbers to overcome the existing GOP advantage in Texas.

3) There have been hints of Democratic change in other survey items. From time to time, the UT/TT poll asks partisans about the ideological orientation of their party in state government. Republicans are asked whether their elected officials are too conservative, conservative enough, or not conservative enough, and Democrats are asked if theirs are too liberal, liberal enough, or not liberal enough. The origins of this item, ironically, come from the observation that ideological infighting among Republican elites may not emanate from the Republican electorate, and polling data illustrates this point. Overall, only 10 percent of Republicans say that Republican elected officials in Texas are too conservative, while 30 percent say that they are not conservative enough. The remaining 50 percent are happy with the Republican Party's ideological orientation. But it's also revealed that among Texas Democrats, a slim pluarlity (37 percent), say that their elected officials aren't liberal enough, with slightly less saying they're liberal enough, and only 10 percent saying they are too liberal.

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categoryTotal
Conservative enough50%
Too conservative10%
Not conservative enough30%
Don't know/No opinion9%

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categoryTotal
Liberal enough36%
Too liberal7%
Not liberal enough37%
Don't know/No opinion20%