With public polling finding most Texas voters set to cast their ballots in the gubernatorial election based on their allegiance to either Democrats or Republicans (and their intense dislike of the opposing party), the Abbott and O’Rourke campaigns continue to seek whatever small advantages they can among groups of voters defined by something other than their partisan identification. Suburban dwellers, Hispanics, and moderates are the most common targets of these attempts, with a different kind of attention paid to political independents.
While partisanship plays a predominant role in voters’ candidate preferences in American and Texas politics, the messaging strategies of both Gov. Abbott and Beto O’Rourke are clearly designed to target key groups of voters with messaging focused on specific issues or policy areas. Targeted messaging – in which specific communications are delivered to specific social groups – provides an opportunity, however speculative, to appeal to voters who might be persuaded to depart from their partisan positions, or simply to turn out, because they feel especially strongly about a particular issue or set of issues.
In this election cycle in Texas, suburbanites, self-described ideological moderates, Hispanics, and political independents have emerged as important to the final electoral outcome and thus, to the campaigns because of their relative size and the fact that, as we show below, each includes substantial numbers of members of both parties. One consequence of this combination of size and partisan mixture is that even if targeted messages fail to persuade voters to cross party lines, these messages still have the effect of resonating with a campaign's own voters, amplifying the overall effort to increase their turnout.
These groups each account for different shares of the electorate, as the first numerical column in the table below illustrates.
|Percent of Registered Voters||Democrats||Independents||Republicans|
Suburbanites are the largest group among those we are focused on, so it’s not surprising that they might also be one of the most fought-over groups. Once reliably Republican, these largely populated areas of Texas have become increasingly competitive over the last few election cycles partially in response to short-term forces (like Donald Trump’s presidency) and longer-term forces (like population growth and demographic change). Republicans still predominate in the suburbs, albeit by a margin that has narrowed over time as the demographic composition of the suburbs, and consequently their partisan balance, have shifted.
As long anticipated, Hispanics recently became the largest racial/ethnic group in the state’s population, though they remain the second largest racial or ethnic group in the electorate behind White/Anglo voters. The extent of Democratic dominance of the group is so frequently speculated upon and argued over that one’s views of the current disposition of Hispanics, and especially of their trajectory in the future, sometimes seems like a political Rorsharch test. A clear majority of Hispanics still identify as Democrats, though Republicans are in the midst of one of their periodic efforts to erode Democrats' advantage.
Moderates hold a special place in the electorate in a political world increasingly influenced by the more extreme ideological wings of both parties. Moderates ultimately need to decide which of two candidates, both usually painted as extreme by opposing campaigns, better aligns with their views. Candidates’ focus on issues can send direct messages to these groups about what issues or policies each candidate will look to prioritize if elected. In another reflection of the polarization of the parties, self identified moderates are also more likely to identify as true independents than are either suburban Texans or Hispanics. Half of moderates (50%) currently identify with the Democratic Party, the other 50% identify either as Republicans (24%) or independents (26%).
Political independents, having no affiliation or leaning preference towards either party, are also, at least in the abstract, up for grabs each cycle. Their numbers are small – “true” independents who don’t lean toward either party make up between 10 and 15% of most of the samples in UT/TxPP polling. But they have become potentially more consequential as Texas elections have gotten more competitive. Contesting a swing of two or three percent of the electorate wasn’t worth the effort in statewide elections in which races were routinely won by 12 to 20 points. When margins dip below 10% — as they did in a handful of statewide races in the last midterm election in 2018 (including U.S. Senate, Lt. Governor, and Attorney General) – campaigns are likely to pay more attention to a group whose overall disinterest in the political system makes them inconstant if seemingly persuadable voters. Yet however unfixed they may appear, they generally seem to reflect the conservative substrate of the state’s political culture. Those who vote tend, as a group, to lean strongly Republican. This shows up in the polling discussed below, though deducing independent voting patterns is difficult due to the vagaries of exit polling (and the political consciousness of independents).
These partisan divisions illustrate why candidates and parties continue to fight over these groups in an increasingly competitive but still Republican-dominated Texas – particularly for suburbanites, who among these four groups make up the largest share of the electorate (though are also the most heterogenous). The gubernatorial candidates and other campaigns continue their attempts to land messages on issues with these groups that might resonate beyond merely partisan appeals. Poll results enable us to see where these groups currently align on some of the major issues that Texas candidates are talking about in their speeches, ads, and other attempts to communicate with voters.
Back in April, in a preview of the issues likely to be emphasized by Governor Greg Abbott and his challenger, Beto O’Rourke, we identified the economy, border security and/or immigration, and public safety as the issues we most expected Abbott and his fellow Republicans to emphasize. For O’Rourke, we expected a general critique of Republican stewardship of the state, rating the issues of abortion and gun violence/gun safety as “wild cards,” before the mass shooting in Uvalde and the Dobbs decision thrust both centrally into Democratic messaging.
The latest UT/TXPP poll, following the thinking that informed the April post, asked voters to reveal what issues are most important to their 2022 vote choice. The results uncover a wide-ranging and varied priorities. Among most of the key electoral groups (with the exception of independents, by definition), none of them align lopsidedly with one party over the other, though one party clearly does better than the other among each group. Overall, the results once again reflect the candidates’ emphases on issues that seem to work to their comparative advantage.
|Immigration / Border security||26%|
|The state economy||13%|
|Voting & elections||6%|
|The state's electric grid||4%|
|Don't know / No opinion||4%|
Immigration and, in particular, border security, remain the pre-eminent issues for Republican candidates because it remains the pre-eminent issue not only for GOP voters, but also for significant shares of some of the groups that both parties are competing over in November.
Asked to choose the most important issue facing the state of Texas in August polling, 54% of Republicans said either immigration or border security, but so too did 38% of independents, 33% of suburban voters, 21% of Hispanics, and 18% of moderates.
Immigration and border security was also the issue chosen by a plurality of Texas voters, 26%, when asked which issue would be most important in their 2022 vote choice. (Voters chose from a list of 10 emphasized by candidates of both parties.) Asked who would do a better job on this issue, 48% said Abbott, while 36% said O’Rourke.
|Don't know/No opinion||7%|
In addition to the deficit in trust O’Rourke faces on the issue relative to Abbott, the plurality of suburban voters (29%), independents (27%), and Hispanics (19%) all chose immigration and/or border security as the most important issue influencing their vote. Trust in Abbott on the issue outpaces O’Rourke among suburban voters (52% to 33%) and independents (56% to 14%), but not among Hispanics (36% to 47%). Among moderates, gun violence tops the list (17%) of most important issues conditioning their 2022 vote, but immigration and the border is nearly indistinguishable (15%), with moderate voters roughly split on who would do a better job (36% say Abbott while 33% say O’Rourke).
|The most important issue in 2022 vote choice||"Very important" issue in 2022 vote choice||
Trust Abbott to better handle
|Trust O'Rourke to better handle|
While it might be tempting to think that the state’s ever-increasing expenditures on the border, including very expensive bus rides for asylum seekers to destinations outside of Texas, might raise fiscal concerns, there’s little indication that either issue is creating much bother for these key groups. Asked whether or not Texas spends too much, too little, or the right amount on border security, a majority of suburban voters (57%), independents (55%), and moderates (54%) all say that the state either spends the right amount or too little, while among Hispanics, slightly fewer say the same (43%), while the plurality, 33%, have no opinion.
|Too little||Too much||About the right amount||Don't know/No opinion|
On the governor’s much-discussed busing policy, 52% of Texas voters express approval of the plan compared to only 35% in opposition and 14% without an opinion. Among two of the key groups, results broadly resemble overall views: 51% of suburban voters express support compared to 35% in opposition, 50% of independents express support (26% opposition).
Reactions to the busing policy are more mixed among Hispanics and moderates: 43% of Hispanics are opposed while 39% express support. Among moderates, 40% expressed opposition compared to 37% who expressed support. While these results might not be overwhelmingly positive for Republicans, given the 80% GOP support (including 62% of Republican voters who “strongly” support the policy), there’s little downside in continuing the busing policy politically for Abbott, even if it doesn’t remain his central message.
The economy in general, “Joe Biden’s economy” in particular, feature prominently in the Fall campaigns of every Republican candidate. Election history strongly suggests that the economy is likely to have the greatest ability to trump all other issues, and that the party in power is almost uniformly punished for a bad economy, real or perceived. While economic evaluations have improved slightly from late spring and early summer, nearly identical shares of voters said in both April and August that they have noticed price increases for goods and services, and nearly identical shares say that those price increases have had an impact on their household finances, a majority of them saying that those price increases have had a “major impact.”
These views about the direct impact of inflation occur within slightly less negative views of the overall economy that still tilt overwhelmingly negative. Six in ten voters view the national economy as worse than last year, including 68% of independents, 62% of suburban voters, 52% of Hispanics, and 51% of moderates.
Economic concerns trail only the border among Texans’ views of the top issues conditioning their 2022 vote choice, with 63% saying that the economy is “very important” to their vote, more than any other issue, and only trailing border security and immigration as the top issue when voters were asked to choose which is issue is most important.
|Don't know/No opinion||10%|
On the economy, O’Rourke finds himself both in a deficit against Abbott, and facing headwinds from evaluations of President Biden’s handling of both the economy and inflation. When asked who they trust to do a better job on the state economy, 46% of voters chose Abbott, 35% said O’Rourke (with the remaining either unsure, 10%, or trusting neither, 9%). Among independents and suburbanites, O’Rourke trails Abbott badly on the issue of the economy (51% to 14% among independent voters, 49% to 32% among suburban voters). Among Hispanics, 44% trust O’Rourke to handle the economy compared to 34% who trust Abbott, while among moderates, 34% trust O’Rourke, 32% trust Abbott.
Asked to rate the job that president Biden is doing on the economy, 52% of voters disapprove, including 67% of independents, 54% of suburban voters, 45% of Hispanics, and 39% of moderates. Asked the same question about inflation, 54% disapprove, including 72% of independents, 57% of suburban voters, 47% of Hispanics, and 44% of moderates. In no case do more of any of these groups express a positive evaluation of the president’s economic job performance than express a negative evaluation.
|Inflation: Approve||Inflation: Disapprove||The Economy: Approve||The Economy: Disapprove|
Finally, crime and public safety have been appearing in Republican candidates’ advertising and messaging in Texas and in other states.
Overall, public safety is not high on voters’ radars. While a large share, 60%, say that public safety is very important to their 2022 vote choice, only 2% said it was the most important issue in that decision. But asked who they trust to do a better job on the issue of public safety, 46% say Abbott compared to only 38% who say O’Rourke. In a now familiar pattern, 44% of independents choose Abbott over O’Rourke (21%), while suburban voters express more trust in Abbott by a margin of 49% to 36%. Hispanics (44% to 36%) and moderates (39% to 29%) place more trust in O’Rourke.
|Greg Abbott||Beto O'Rourke||Neither||Don't know/No opinion|
But critically, when asked whether or not they hold a favorable view of the police, the majority of Texas voters, 56%, hold a favorable view (22% unfavorable), including 81% of Republicans and 58% of suburban voters, compared to 44% of moderates and 36% of independents and Democrats, respectively. Slightly more Democrats, 39%, hold an unfavorable view of the police than hold a favorable one, making messaging on this issue a challenge for O’Rourke and other Democrats on the ticket.
On the Democratic side, negative evaluations of the direction of the state, the state economy, and the historic grid collapse of 2021 combined with GOP dominance of the ballot box for more than two decades are all feeding a Democratic messaging strategy that attempts to focus voters’ attention on the job Republicans have done as sole stewards of state government. While negative attitudes were particularly notable in late spring and early summer, they have (like national evaluations) softened in the intervening months, providing some potential respite to GOP candidates who might have been worried that broadly negative evaluations, widespread and intense enough, could turn the election into a referendum on GOP leadership.
One can see the value of this strategy most clearly in response to two items: evaluations of the direction of the state, and voters’ approval or disapproval of Abbott’s job performance.
|Poll||Right Direction||Wrong Track|
Overall, a majority of Texas voters, 52%, say that the state is on the wrong track, including 59% of Hispanics, 56% of moderates, 54% of suburban voters, and 50% of independents. Asked to rate the job Abbott is doing as governor, 44% disapproved in the latest poll compared with 46% who approved. Suburban voters and independents were nearly evenly split in their ratings of Abbott’s job performance, with 42% of independents approving compared to 43% who disapproved, and 43% of suburban voters approving compared with 41% who disapprove. Among Hispanics and moderates, evaluations are more negative, with 48% of Hispanics expressing disapproval compared to 35% approving, and 43% of moderates disapproving, compared to 32% who approve.
The problem for O’Rourke and Democrats is that evaluations of their standard bearer are hardly any better, and in most cases, are worse than those of the incumbent, making it difficult for anti-incumbent framing to take hold, however central it remains to Democratic messaging. Among all voters, 48% hold a negative view of O’Rourke compared to 41% who hold a positive view. O’Rourke has his head above water among Hispanics (50% favorable, 37% unfavorable) and moderate voters (45% / 33%), but is underwater among independents (23% / 60%) and suburban voters (41% / 52%).
|Abbott: Favorable||Abbott: Unfavorable||O'Rourke: Favorable||O'Rourke: Unfavorable|
O’Rourke now comes to the election with the double-edged sword of near universal name recognition, but also the reality that, in American politics, universal name ID is almost always informed by significant shares of negative perceptions.
Our April piece previewing the 2022 Texas issue environment flagged abortion as a wild card that has emerged as a major theme of Democratic campaigns. The Dobbs decision is widely credited with stirring depressed, demobilized Democrats heading into the summer. As the Fall campaign unfolds, Democratic candidates both within Texas and beyond are seeking to mobilize voters using the issue of abortion access.
|Don't know/No opinion||9%|
Overall, 52% of Texas voters said that abortion was “very important” to their vote choice in 2022, but only 12% said it was the most important issue in determining that vote. Texas voters gave O’Rourke a slight edge over Abbott on the issue, 42% to 38%, a result that should stand out to those watching the election closely. While abortion is being prioritized in Democratic messaging and mobilization efforts, in Texas, O’Rourke begins the fall campaign with only slightly more trust on the abortion issue among the Texas electorate than Abbott.
Asked in August polling whether abortion laws should be more or less strict, or left alone, the purality, 49%, said they should be less strict, while 21% said they should be left alone and 20% said they should be made more strict.
Among the key groups being described, the majority of moderates, 54%, and Hispanics, 52%, said that the laws should be made less strict, with only 15% and 21%, respectively, saying the laws should be more strict. Only 16% of independents wanted the laws stricter, with the plurality, 36%, saying less strict. The plurality of suburban voters, 48%, said the laws should be less strict.
|More strict||Less strict||Left as they are now||Don't know/No opinion|
One final issue we expected to be part of the campaign was guns based on the assumption that gun violence would once again befall Texas before November without knowing how horribly true that prediction would become. As we wrote at the time:
Gun safety is an issue that could enter prominently into the election should another mass shooting happen in Texas — and especially should this shooting plausibly be tied in some way to the state’s recent loosening of gun restrictions. But any expectations that such an event would fundamentally shift the grounds of an election-year debate should be tempered by historical experience.
That conclusion still holds. In August polling, 54% of Texas voters said that gun laws should be made more strict, continuing a trend in responses to this question in which a plurality or majority of voters express a desire for stricter gun laws in Texas. This desire for stricter gun laws includes 66% of Hispanics, 61% of moderates, 53% of suburban voters, and 48% of independents.
|More strict||Less strict||Left as they are now||Don't know/No opinion|
Because of this underlying dynamic, guns remain a wild card dependent on external circumstances to shift, but not shatter the electorate. The August/September UT/Texas Politics Project Poll illustrated that the specific circumstances of the Robb Elementary School killings have likely helped those who want to deflect attention away from the focus on gun laws or, even more specifically, the type of guns and amount of munitions used by the Uvalde perpetrator. Clear majorities among all groups and partisans agreed that the law enforcement response to the situation contributed “a lot” to the severity of the incident, far exceeding the shares who thought other prominent factors, including the type of gun used by the perpetrator, contributed to the same extent.