This is the first in a series of analyses exploring the political climate of Texas entering the 2016 general election.
Generally speaking, satisfied voters tend to want to keep the status quo, because they feel optimistic that it’s working. Generally speaking, large-scale political shifts follow high levels of dissatisfaction.
Texans’ belief that the country is on the wrong track while the state is on a significantly better track has been a staple of state politics for at least a decade, and it has cemented Republicans’ hold on power at virtually all levels of government.
Heading into the 2014 general election, just 25% of Texas voters – the vast majority of whom were self-identified “strong” or “weak” Democrats – believed the country was headed in the right direction while 65% said it was on the wrong track*, according to an October 2014 UT/Texas Tribune poll (pdf). Meanwhile, 48% of voters believed the state of Texas was headed in the right direction versus 35% who thought it was headed in the wrong direction. These sentiments put strong headwinds in the path of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, who ended up losing to then-Attorney General Greg Abbott, 59%-39%.
The charts below show the net right track/wrong track sentiment of Texans for the country and the state of Texas, based on results of University of Texas polls conducted since October 2009. In all of those polls, respondents were asked about whether “things are headed in the right direction or … headed off on the wrong track” for the country and the state of Texas.
The first chart looks at the poll results for all respondents. For June 2016, 18% of Texans believe the country is headed in the right direction while 70% believe it is headed off on the wrong track, which nets to -52%, the value shown at the far right of the orange line. While the state is just barely on the right track (3% net), it is more than 50 points ahead of where voters believe the country is headed. Since June 2013, the difference between the state and the country has exceeded 50% all but once.
Riding the coattails of an unpopular Democratic president has been a losing strategy for Democrats here since 2008, when a wave of support for that Democratic presidential candidate brought them within one race of a 75-75 tie in the Texas House of Representatives. Two years later, Republicans held a 101-49 advantage, redrew the districts and are expected to hold between 95 and 99 seats in January.
A Clinton victory in November (nationally, not here) would continue this dynamic, making it harder for any Democrat running in 2018. The June 2016 poll gave President Obama an overall negative approval rating (39/52), and 45% of poll respondents “strongly disapprove” of the job he is doing. Clinton has a far more negative overall favorability rating (29/59) than Obama, and 51% of poll respondents view her “very unfavorably.”
Alternatively, a Trump presidency could boost Democrats’ fortunes here. His 31/56 favorability rating (46% “very unfavorable”) is almost as bad as Clinton’s. The UT polls did not begin until after Obama became president, but other polls from the time of the Bush administration show the predictable flip between the parties’ relative approval ratings when a Republican was in the White House. Dissatisfaction with Washington and Austin can make a potent combination for getting one’s voters to the polls.
In the second and third charts, we break out those results by party identification and include the results among Hispanic/Latino voters. We did not separate out Anglos and African-Americans because they tend to track the attitudes of Republicans and Democrats, respectively. For purposes of this analysis, “non-partisans” include self-identified independents and voters who indicated they “lean” toward one party or the other. In our view, leaners are willing to consider voting for other parties’ candidates and are not casting straight-ticket ballots.
Since 2009, the net right track/wrong track ratings for the three partisan groups and Hispanics/Latinos have never intersected or crossed (Data from two polls were not available.). They lie atop each other like layers of sedimentary rock, often moving up and down together.
Just once have more than 10% of Republicans believed the country was headed in the right direction. When it comes to self-identified Tea Party Republicans, the measure of approval of the Obama Administration lies within the margin of error of zero every time it has been asked. Non-partisans, about half of whom “lean Republican,” have a slightly less pessimistic view of the country’s path forward. At least 50% more of them think the country is on the wrong track than on the right track most of the time.
Democrats are predictably the happiest with the course set by a Democratic president, but even their ratings rarely reach stellar levels. In June 2016, Democrats had a net negative view of the country’s direction for only the second time since 2009. Since peaking just before the 2012 general election, Democrats’ optimism has been steadily shrinking, falling from 76/12 to 40/47.
With respect to the country’s direction, Hispanic/Latino voters occupy the space between the non-partisans and the Democrats. Their optimism has also declined steadily since October 2012, going from a slight net positive (49/45) to a significant net negative (21/62) in June 2016. We wonder if the Trump campaign’s negative rhetoric toward Hispanics/Latinos in the U.S. is contributing to this decline. If so, we would expect these numbers to begin recovering sometime next year if Clinton prevails in November.
The final chart is the most interesting. Again, Republicans and Democrats are far apart, albeit flipped, with respect to their relative optimism and pessimism. Those sentiments among non-partisans and Hispanic/Latino voters are seemingly intertwined and wrapped around the position that the state is either slightly on the right track or neither on the right nor the wrong track.
For Texas Democrats, this is a significant problem, as it reduces motivation for this key group of voters to get out and vote (and vote Democratic). Democrats sense opportunities to get back some of those lost state house seats and one Congressional seat, but low Hispanic/Latino turnout could derail some of those efforts. Dallas Co. is one of the centerpieces of their quest to reclaim House districts, but turnout must be greater than a disastrously low 2014 figure. In precincts where Hispanics/Latinos comprise at least 75% of the voting-age population, just 1 out of every 13 people old enough to vote cast ballots in the gubernatorial election there.
Looking ahead to 2018, Hispanics/Latinos have a slightly favorable view of Gov. Abbott as a whole (33/30) and fully a quarter “neither approve nor disapprove.” Non-partisans view him slightly better (41/35) and only a sixth “neither approve or disapprove.” For a Democrat to have any chance in 2018, we expect he or she would need the Hispanic/Latino voting population’s views of the state’s direction and Abbott’s leadership to align with other Democratic voters. The closer they hew to non-partisan voters, the likely lower the turnout rates among Hispanic/Latino voters will be and the likelier that Abbott will be re-elected by double-digit margins. A repeat of 2014 turnout, coupled with a Democrat in the White House, could put more than 100 Republicans in the Texas House as well, erasing any gains the Democrats could make this November.
* We use “direction” and “track” interchangeably, as do the pollsters we cite. Some political scientists ascribe different nuanced meanings to the terms, but we are choosing to use the same meaning for purposes of this high-level look at the political climate in Texas.