With both voting and the Pandemic Surging in Texas, Expect Republicans to Show Up on Election Day

Over the past two weeks, Texas has experienced two surges, one in early voting and one in the rate of new coronavirus cases. The surge in early voting brought more than 9 million voters to the polls, surpassing total turnout for the entire 2016 election. The COVID-19 surge continues on, ungoverned by election laws or campaign schedules.

While the political world speculates on the meaning of the early vote count, the anticipation of a continued surge in voting raises questions about how differences in people’s attitudes towards the threat posed by the pandemic might influence Election Day turnout. How much did the early turnout reflect fears about exposure to the virus at crowded voting places on Election Day? Are such fears likely to result in low Election Day turnout at odds with those projecting a Texas electorate as high as 12.5 million? Will the large share of Texas Republicans who told us in the October University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll that they planned to vote on Election Day rather than early (either in person or by mail) follow through in their stated intention (and for many, traditional pattern)?

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have for months raised questions about how elections would be conducted, especially how much the voting process should or should not be changed to accommodate the public health threat posed by the virus. These questions have been sorted out in Texas by a combination of gubernatorial fiat and judicial refereeing, with largely predictable outcomes based on recent history. Accommodations have been made, but only measured ones — like extending the early period and offering the option of submitting mail-in ballots in person. More expansive approaches — like expanding eligibility to vote by mail beyond the current limited groups — have been squelched, either via executive power or via judicial means facilitated by partisan judges or federal appellate courts populated by nearly equally partisan-minded appointed judges.

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Vote in person on Election Day26%
Vote in person early60%
Vote by mail13%
Do not intend to vote0%
Don't know1%

Over the last three weeks, with voting by mail limited and early voting extended, Texans have clearly taken to the early vote option. Responses to questions about Texans’ voting plans in the UT/TT Poll conducted on the eve of early voting in late September and early October, foreshadowed the surge in early voting. Overall, 73% of likely voters in Texas said that they intended to vote early, either in-person, or by mail. Voters’ stated plans also confirmed the continuing pattern of a larger share of Republicans than Democrats voting on election day: 33% of Republicans said that they planned to vote on election day compared with only 15% of Democrats.

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Vote in person on Election Day15%28%33%
Vote in person early59%60%61%
Vote by mail25%7%5%
Don't know1%5%0%

One might reasonably wonder if the well-publicized surge in COVID-19 cases led more Texans to vote before Election Day. But on the eve of early voting, concerns about the safety of voting in person were on the decline in Texas. Between June and October, the share of Texans who thought it was unsafe to vote in person declined by more than 20-points, from 46% to 25%. The decline was greater among Democrats than it was among Republicans, but this is partially because few Republicans thought it was unsafe to vote in June (19%), and even fewer thought so by October (9%). In contrast, three in four Democrats said that voting in person was unsafe in June, declining 32 points to 43% in October, leaving a slight majority of Democrats (57%) comfortable with voting in person.

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Unsurprisingly then, when asked whether people not voting due to the coronavirus pandemic would be a problem in this election, the vast majority of Democrats (87%) said that this would either be an “extremely serious” (48%) or “somewhat serious” (39%) problem, compared to 46% of Republicans (18% said extremely serious, 27% said somewhat serious).

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Extremely serious48%32%18%
Somewhat serious39%29%27%
Not too serious9%12%31%
Not at all serious2%13%21%
Don't know3%15%3%

There has been a small increase in the share of Democratic primary voters in the pool of early voters so far, per the helpful early voting reports being issued by Texas GOP consultant Derek Ryan. This increase and the large volume of voters with no voting record for the last four years raise questions about whether Republicans will need a large turnout of their voters on Election Day to save the day for GOP candidates in close races – a group in which we now include Donald Trump, given trends in polling of the presidential race. In this context, UT/TT polling suggests that Republicans are much less likely to be fearful of the potential public health threat posed by crowded Election Day polling places. One might expect, based on their expressed attitudes, that not many Republicans were moved by fear of COVID-19 to either change their habits and vote early instead of on Election Day, or to be reluctant to stand in line to vote indoors in busy voting centers.

This doesn’t preclude the possibility, of course, that some share of Republicans, intending to vote on election day, changed their plans. They may have done so in response to perceived increases in Democratic voting, or simply to fall in line with the efforts of other Texans to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, cast their vote in a historic election, or both. Such a shift would also be consistent with a pattern in Texas in which early voting is nearly on par with election day voting. The early voting data are, without any final voting totals, ambiguous: As a share of the early vote, Republicans look to be performing similarly to 2016; but the overall number of voters is much larger, so some of these voters may have chosen early voting as the better part of valor.

In virtually all measures, Republicans, as we’ve written previously, feel less urgency in avoiding the virus, less threatened by it, and, at the social level, perceive it as a less serious problem than independent or Democratic Texans. For example, 41% of Republicans said that they've been living their lives normally – leaving their homes as they always have — on the eve of both early voting, and the virus’ third wave in the United States, compared with 24% of independents and only 10% of Democrats who report the same “normal” behavior. This makes sense, given that only 24% of Republicans view the coronavirus as “a significant crisis” compared to 87% of Democrats and 45% of independents, and only 9% are extremely concerned about contracting the virus, compared to 41% of Democrats. This minimizing view of the virus very likely contributes to all kinds of attitudes about life under the pandemic, of which voting is one important instance. (Another example of this stark divide in feelings of safety: 49% of Republicans feel that it would be safe to attend a concert or event in an indoor arenamaybe even a rally — compared to 23% of independents and only 8% of Democrats).

The large share and raw numbers of early voters who don’t provide many clues about their partisanship because they either don’t vote in primaries or have no record of voting in Texas at all make it hard to conjure any firm predictions about the impact of attitudes toward COVID-19 on the behavior of voters as a whole. But the constellation of attitudes captured in the UT/TT poll suggest that we should expect some manifestation of the usual GOP advantage in Election Day voting, relative though it may be, unimpeded by an abundance of caution in the face of the surging pandemic.