With the publication of the University of Texas/Texas Tribune (UT/TT) October poll showing Greg Abbott with only 40 percent of the vote in a hypothetical contest with Wendy Davis, the speculation about the 2014 Texas gubernatorial election ramped up considerably. Could the Texas Democrat’s inability to win a statewide office in Texas finally be over? Let’s look at the possibilities.
First, a reminder that the election is twelve months away. And although campaigns are more about solidifying support among partisan supporters than converting the opposition party’s affiliates, not to mention winning over independents, there is the potential for the campaign to matter. I’m not talking about those ridiculous television commercials that every campaign runs; I’m talking about the “ground game”—good old-fashioned pound the pavement, ring the doorbell, face-to-face contacts between campaign volunteers and potential supporters, whether strong partisans, weak partisans, or partisan leaners. The “ground game” is more important for Democrats than for Republicans, and the reasons are obvious when one looks at the coalition that makes up each party. The most important factor determining voter turnout is the motivation to vote. A campaign has to give a person a reason to vote. As Ruy Teixeira pointed out two decades ago, the motivation can be instrumental—a person thinks that his or her vote will determine the outcome of the election—or expressive—a person thinks that it’s important to vote because of the meaning or significance that casting a vote has for the individual within the context of the election. The meaning can result from expressing an allegiance or affiliation with a particular group or category and be considered largely symbolic. On the other hand, the meaning can come from the person’s motivation to express their support for a set of political ideas (an ideology) or issues supported by a candidate and be considered largely instrumental. A candidate and campaign that gives people a reason for voting has a chance to win.
Second, political pundits aren't always correct. Paul Burka for example, states that the most important finding in the UT/Texas Tribune October 2013 poll is Jim Henson’s statement that the fundamentals haven’t changed, by which, Burka explains, he means that party identification in Texas hasn’t changed, and Republicans hold a distinct and presumably insurmountable lead in party identification. But is that the case? Looking at the threefold classification, 46 percent of registered voters identify as Republicans, 44 percent identify themselves as Democrats, and 10 percent are independents. [CORRECTION: the figure for independents should be 31 percent: leaners plus pure independents, which makes Burka's statement correct] With margin of error of 6 percent, I’d argue that there is no partisan advantage to Republicans. Let’s look back to the last Texas gubernatorial election to see if Burka’s correct. In the UT/TT poll taken in Oct 2009, one year before the 2010 gubernatorial election, 32 percent identified as Republicans, 32 percent identified as Democrats, and 31 percent identified as independents. In the sevenfold scale, 20 percent were strong Republicans, 12 percent were weak Republicans, and 13 percent leaned toward the Republican Party in 2009. Likewise, 20 percent were strong Democrats, 11 percent were weak Democrats, and 9 percent leaned toward the Democratic Party. Independents were 12 percent, and 2 percent were not sure (although I don’t know how to wrap my head around that response). In 2013, the seven-fold scale produced 21 percent strong Republican identifiers, 15 percent weak Republicans, and 10 percent who lean toward the Republican Party. For Democrats, 20 percent were strong Democrats, 13 percent were weak Democrats, and 11 percent leaned toward the Republican Party. Independents were 10 percent. What strikes me in the four years since the last gubernatorial election is the severe reduction in the percentage of independents. The choice between the major parties is clear, and people have taken sides. [CORRECTION: This has not taken place as I noted in the correction above] The taking of sides suggests increased interest and a willingness to choose one party or the other. There are few who have not made a commitment to one political party or the other.
Third, a real buzz kill for Democrats was the Public Policy Polling (PPP) poll released the same days as the UT/TT poll. In PPP’s poll, Abbott had a comfortable lead of 15 percent (50/35), and even if Debra Medina is included as an independent candidate, Abbott’s lead is 10 percent (47/37). As Dean Debnam, president of PPP states, “Greg Abbott starts out as a clear favorite in the Texas Governor’s race. Wendy Davis needs to win independents and pull a decent amount [sic] of Republican support if she’s going to be successful, and at this early stage she’s not doing that.” Does this really condemn Davis to defeat in November, and is Debnam correct in terms of what is necessary for Davis to win the gubernatorial contest in November 2014? According to the crosstabs in the PPP poll, Davis and Abbott both receive 44 percent of the independent vote. The partisan vote shows Abbott receiving 81 percent of the Republican vote and 18 percent of the Democratic vote. Davis, on the other hand, receives only 65 percent of the Democratic vote and 6 percent of the Republican vote. If Medina is added, Abbott’s percentage of the independent vote is reduced to 38 percent, but Davis’ percentage remains nearly the same at 43 percent. Among partisans, Medina draws from Republicans and reduces Abbott’s percentage of the Republican vote to 79 percent and the Democratic percentage of the vote to 14 percent. On the other hand, Davis’ percentage of the Democratic vote increases to 70 percent and the percentage of the Republican vote remains at 6 percent. Among Republicans, what category might increase Davis’ percentage of the vote? Given the gender gap, Republican women provide the greatest opportunity for increasing her share of the Republican vote. Among men, Abbott receives 57 percent of the vote, but only 43 percent of the female vote. In contrast, Davis receives 37 percent of the female vote and 34 percent of the male vote. Also, a greater percentage of women (20 percent) than men (10 percent) are undecided. Is there a path to a Davis victory? I would argue that the emphasis should be on turning out Democrats, including leaners for Davis. Secondly, I would make Abbott’s positions that are detrimental to women (I don’t mean just abortion) a centerpiece of the campaign in hopes of drawing some Republicans to support her. Probably, Abbott won’t commit the kind of gaffe that Williams did in the 1990 campaign against Ann Richards (remember the rape “joke”?), but his policy positions are not real favorable to women.
This leads to my final point. There has been a concerted effort by Democrats to organize partisan Democrats so that they can “turn Texas blue.” The emphasis should be on voter turnout. As Wayne in the Texas Leftist blog writes:
The urban counties are how Davis can go from the 42 percent baseline up to a 46 or 47 percent, putting her within striking distance of a win. But the only way for it to happen is through near historic turnout. Where Harris County netted a 16,000 gain for White in 2010, the net of Democratic voters has got to push near 100,000 for Davis. The good news though is this can get done by simply registering enough voters in low turnout areas. In 2008, over 700,000 registered voters in Harris County did not vote. If Democrats can focus on these and other urban centers, Davis really has a shot at being Texas' next Governor.
That’s the main point. Voter turnout in large, urban areas needs to be extremely high. Without the high voter turnout, there is no chance of a Davis victory; so targeting groups and categories of voters most supportive of Davis or opposed to Abbott in urban areas is the route to victory for Wendy Davis.
Does Wendy have a chance? For sure!
Public Policy Polling Poll, Texas Governor’s Race: http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/pdf/2013/PPP_Release_TX_1105.pdf
UT/Texas Tribune Poll: http://s3.amazonaws.com/static.texastribune.org/media/documents/uttt-201310-summary-1.pdf