Texas Voters Have Soured On Greg Abbott, But That Doesn’t Mean They’ll Vote For Beto O’Rourke

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If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Over the years, many politicians have embraced this adage when it comes to running for — and, in some cases, eventually winning — higher office, but former Rep. Beto O’Rourke has taken it to another level. On Monday, he announced his candidacy for Texas governor in 2022, which will mark the third straight election cycle in which he’s made a bid for major office (he had a disappointing run in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary but came close to defeating Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas’s 2018 Senate race).

But despite O’Rourke’s close finish in 2018, a Democrat still hasn’t won a statewide race in Texas since 1994, and given that the national environment seems likely to favor Republicans in 2022, O’Rourke might face an even more challenging campaign this time around. Still, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is not as popular as he once was, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to write off O’Rourke.

Following his 2018 reelection, Abbott’s job approval rating was clearly net positive (approval rating minus disapproval rating), but recent surveys suggest his standing has worsened to the point that more registered voters in Texas now disapprove of Abbott’s performance than approve.

Texas Voters Have Soured On Greg Abbott, But That Doesn’t Mean They’ll Vote For Beto O’Rourke 1

Abbott’s approval slide has a few causes. First, his handling of the pandemic has received a lot of criticism from all corners in the state, and a late September poll from Quinnipiac University found more Texas voters (50 percent) disapproved of his handling of the pandemic than approved (46 percent). Second, Texas voters seem to still be disappointed by his administration’s response to the winter storms this past February and the failure of the state’s power grid. Earlier this month, a survey conducted by YouGov on behalf of the University of Texas-Austin and The Texas Tribune found that 60 percent of Texas voters disapproved of how state leaders and the legislature had dealt with the reliability of the grid, which was the highest disapproval mark for any issue asked about in the poll. Finally, Abbott’s numbers may have also suffered in the aftermath of the Texas GOP’s push to essentially ban abortions and to allow the concealed carry of handguns without a permit — both being pieces of legislation that Abbott signed into law. A Dallas Morning News/University of Texas-Tyler poll from early September found that 50 percent of registered voters opposed permit-less concealed carry, while the Quinnipiac survey found 53 percent disapproved of Abbott’s handling of abortion.

It’s no surprise, then, that the launch video for O’Rourke’s campaign touched on the failure of the electrical grid, as well as Texas’s new abortion and concealed-carry laws. And these issues might be a pathway for O’Rourke to win over independent voters, who are especially displeased with Abbott’s handling of these issues. For instance, the recent UT-Austin/Texas Tribune/YouGov survey found that 57 percent of independents disapproved of Abbott’s performance, and the surveys from Quinnipiac and Dallas Morning News/UT-Tyler found a plurality or majority of independents disapproved of Abbott’s handling of the pandemic, abortion and the concealed-carry law as a whole.

But while Texans aren’t thrilled with Abbott’s performance as governor, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily inclined to prefer O’Rourke. In horse-race polls, Abbott has an early edge over O’Rourke: The UT-Austin/Texas Tribune/YouGov survey found Abbott ahead of O’Rourke by 9 percentage points, while the Dallas Morning News/UT-Tyler poll gave Abbott a 5-point edge back in September. 

However, a Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation poll conducted by Rice University in October did find Abbott and O’Rourke running about even among registered voters, and voters also disliked the two equally (47 percent said they had an unfavorable opinion of each). At the same time, though, slightly more voters had a favorable opinion of Abbott (49 percent) than O’Rourke (44 percent). And in Quinnipiac’s poll, even though just 42 percent of registered voters said Abbott deserved to be reelected, only 33 percent thought O’Rourke would be a good governor — including just 26 percent of independents.

These weaker numbers for O’Rourke underscore some of his potential vulnerabilities as a candidate. Besides being a Democrat in Republican-leaning Texas, O’Rourke has also positioned himself on some issues in ways that could hurt him in the Lone Star State. Most memorably, in response to a question on gun control at a September 2019 presidential primary debate, O’Rourke said, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” essentially writing Republican attack ads for them in a state with a large number of gun owners. And beyond issues of gun control, Abbott’s campaign has been only too happy to go after O’Rourke with clips of the Democrat’s past praise for the Green New Deal and opposition to building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. With a massive $55 million in his campaign account, Abbott will be able to more than blanket the airwaves, social media and webpages with ads attacking O’Rourke on these points of weakness, too.

Lastly and most fundamentally, the 2022 political environment will probably help Abbott far more than it will aid O’Rourke. When O’Rourke nearly won his 2018 Senate contest, he benefited from very favorable, Democratic-leaning electoral conditions — namely, there was a Republican president in office who was unpopular. This time around, though, the shoe will likely be on the other foot: Republicans will get to run with a Democrat in the White House and, if current trends continue, an unpopular one at that. And even if President Biden isn’t as unpopular in the fall of 2022 as former President Trump was in the fall of 2018, a midterm environment still tends to disadvantage the party that’s in the White House. This applies to gubernatorial elections, too, even though they are not quite as nationalized or polarized as federal elections. The president’s party has lost governorships in 16 of 19 midterm elections since World War II. That means it will be challenging for the president’s party to gain new governorships, especially in states that already lean toward the opposite party. 

In other words, O’Rourke will be trying to do what he couldn’t do in 2018 or 2020 — win — under arguably even more challenging circumstances. If O’Rourke is going to win higher office someday, it may have to happen sometime after 2022 — if he’s willing to keep trying.

Other polling bites

  • A survey conducted in October by Republican pollster Echelon Insights on behalf of the Center for Election Innovation and Research found that Republicans and Trump voters continued to doubt the legitimacy of the American electoral system. Almost two-thirds said they were not very or not at all confident that the results of the 2020 election were counted accurately, compared with only 7 percent of Democrats and 31 percent of independents. Even more troubling, 53 percent of Republicans and Trump voters lacked confidence that the results would be counted accurately in next year’s midterm elections, compared with 9 percent of Democrats and 27 percent of independents.
  • The latest ABC News/The Washington Post poll found that a large majority of Americans wanted the increasingly conservative Supreme Court to embrace the status quo regarding abortion rights. Sixty percent said the Supreme Court should uphold the decision in Roe v. Wade, which established a constitutional right to abortion, compared with just 27 percent who wanted it overturned. And 65 percent said the court should reject the recent law in Texas limiting abortion access to the first six weeks of a pregnancy, while only 29 percent said the law should be upheld.
  • Gallup found that Americans’ support for stricter gun laws had fallen to its lowest point since 2014. Although 52 percent still backed stricter gun laws, that represents a sizable decrease from the 64 percent who held that position in 2019. The drop in support for stricter gun laws since that time is a result from both a slide in Republican support, which was already comparably low, and a decline among independents, whose support fell to 45 percent from 64 percent in 2019.
  • Republican Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont is the most popular governor in the country, according to new data released by Morning Consult. Between late July and late October, Scott’s job approval rating was 79 percent among registered voters, 7 points ahead of the next-closest contender, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts. On the other end of the spectrum, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon had a 43 percent approval rating, the lowest of any governor. Despite Scott’s popularity, he has declined interest in running for Vermont’s open Senate seat (following the retirement of Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy), likely because Vermont remains a very Democratic-leaning state at the federal level.
  • American support for the use of the death penalty against convicted murderers is at its lowest point in nearly 50 years, according to Gallup. While 54 percent still backed the use of the death penalty in such cases, that figure differs dramatically from the 80 percent who supported its use in 1994. But as with most issues, support for the death penalty shows stark partisan divisions, with 77 percent of Republicans supporting it, compared with 55 percent of independents and 34 percent of Democrats.

Biden approval

Texas Voters Have Soured On Greg Abbott, But That Doesn’t Mean They’ll Vote For Beto O’Rourke 2

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 42.5 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 51.6 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -9.1 points).1 At this time last week, 42.5 percent approved and 51.6 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -9.1 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 44.8 percent and a disapproval rating of 49.5 percent (a net approval rating of -4.7 points).

Generic ballot

Texas Voters Have Soured On Greg Abbott, But That Doesn’t Mean They’ll Vote For Beto O’Rourke 3

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot, Republicans currently lead Democrats by 0.6 percentage points (42.5 percent to 41.9 percent, respectively).2 A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by 1.3 percentage points (42.5 percent to 41.2 percent, respectively). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats over Republicans by 2.8 points (44.3 percent to 41.5 percent).