Data Points from the Week in Texas Politics (July 31, 2020)

This week didn’t feel as long as some have during these past months of the pandemic era, but it was certainly exhausting enough. Official economic data released Thursday confirmed what millions of Americans and Texans already knew from experience – that giant sucking sound in everyone’s ears is coming from the contraction of the economy. The same day (what a coincidence!), the president’s Tweet about delaying the November election, and the immediate frenzied responses, had a similar sucking effect. By comparison, Governor Greg Abbott’s addition of another week to the early voting period and an ever-so-slight relaxation of the vote-by-mail rules was a gentle whisper in the ear of the electorate (“I care…”). The Attorney General’s message to local health authorities was decidedly less gentle. Meanwhile, the legislature – remember them? – is getting antsy about how to manage the practical matters of what everybody realizes is going to be a miserable, fiscally strapped session in 2021 no matter how many people they have an excuse to keep out of their offices. And, well, Congressman Louis Gohmert. Read on for public opinion data on all this and more.

[Note: Items 54and 6 in this post were updated Friday afternoon. -JH]

1. Texas says, "we knew that already." The massive economic contraction in the second quarter of 2020 was foreshadowed in Texas polling data. Second quarter economic data released this week showed the extent of the meltdown that accompanied the spread of the coronavirus and first phase of the resulting shutdowns. The United States GDP contracted by 9.5% between April and June; meanwhile, closer to home, more than 3 million Texans have filed for unemployment benefits since March, with a current unemployment rate of 8.6%. University of Texas and Texas Tribune polling data captured in February, April, and June demonstrates the decay in both the personal economic conditions Texans face and their view of Texas’s economy — especially among those Texans who we know are taking the brunt of the pandemic and its economic impact

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PollBetterSame Compared to a Year AgoWorse
October 200917%39%43%
February 201017%41%41%
May 201020%42%38%
September 201020%39%40%
October 201019%38%41%
February 201120%45%35%
May 201118%40%41%
October 201116%40%43%
February 201220%45%34%
May 201219%48%32%
October 201223%43%34%
June 201325%44%30%
October 201322%41%35%
February 201425%43%31%
June 201427%42%29%
October 201427%42%30%
February 201527%44%28%
June 201526%48%24%
November 201523%45%30%
February 201625%45%28%
June 201623%44%29%
October 201627%44%27%
February 201727%50%23%
June 201725%52%20%
October 201731%47%21%
February 201838%42%18%
June 201837%42%20%
October 201839%39%19%
February 201940%39%19%
June 201940%37%19%
October 201940%38%18%
February 202041%38%19%
April 202028%34%35%
June 202024%43%31%
October 202023%44%31%
February 202118%49%29%
March 202122%49%28%
April 202121%53%23%
June 202123%49%25%
August 202120%46%31%
October 202120%43%35%
February 202221%39%38%
April 202217%37%43%
June 202214%32%53%
August 202217%38%42%
October 202213%35%49%
December 202216%36%46%
February 202316%35%46%
April 202321%33%44%
June 202319%36%42%
August 202318%35%45%
October 202319%32%47%
December 202323%35%40%
February 202427%33%39%
April 202425%32%41%
June 202422%34%42%

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A lot better off7%6%5%
Somewhat better off19%14%15%
About the same46%42%39%
Somewhat worse off18%23%25%
A lot worse off10%10%12%
Don't know1%5%4%

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A lot better off5%
Somewhat better off11%
About the same21%
Somewhat worse off36%
A lot worse off21%
Don't know6%

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PollBetterSame Compared to a Year AgoWorse
October 200924%16%59%
February 201028%19%52%
May 201028%24%47%
September 201023%21%54%
October 201022%20%56%
February 201127%30%41%
May 201122%26%49%
October 201114%25%59%
February 201229%30%39%
May 201228%29%39%
October 201232%25%42%
June 201335%31%33%
October 201325%25%49%
February 201429%28%40%
June 201431%26%41%
October 201431%30%37%
February 201536%33%29%
June 201531%33%34%
November 201532%28%37%
February 201630%27%40%
June 201626%29%40%
October 201628%29%40%
February 201740%36%20%
June 201742%30%25%
October 201743%33%22%
February 201853%26%19%
June 201851%23%22%
October 201851%26%19%
February 201949%23%24%
June 201947%23%26%
October 201945%24%24%
February 202048%25%24%
April 202021%11%64%
June 202017%10%70%
October 202017%13%67%
February 202115%20%61%
April 202131%22%43%
June 202134%19%43%
August 202130%19%47%
October 202125%18%55%
February 202224%19%53%
April 202221%15%63%
June 202214%11%73%
August 202220%17%60%
October 202217%17%62%
December 202220%18%59%
February 202324%19%53%
April 202323%19%55%
June 202323%22%54%
August 202325%19%54%
October 202323%20%55%
December 202328%21%49%
February 202433%22%43%
April 202428%23%48%
June 202428%20%50%

2. If you have to explain a joke, maybe it’s not funny enough. On Thursday, President Trump succeeded in generating a few hours of coverage that wasn’t about the botched pandemic response or the dismal economy, and continued activating his base with unsubstantiated claims of vast fraud when people vote by mail, with a Tweet about delaying the November election. According to CNN’s John Harwood, Senator Cornyn, on the ballot this year and apparently ever ready to play the straight man to the president’s Joker, explained that the President was just joking and trying to rile up the press. Trump followed up with the equivalent of an “I GOT YOU TO LOOK!” Tweet a few hours later.

Senator Ted Cruz and Governor Greg Abbott, notably not on the ballot this year, played it more solemnly with affirmations of the need “to ensure safe and fair elections” (Abbott), while affirming that the election should take place as scheduled, per team coverage in The Texas Tribune under a headline that included “Texas Republicans tell Trump ‘no’.” Put a pin in that for later. There are long term consequences beyond the daily news cycle of what was likely an impulsive feint, since Trump’s myth-making about voting by mail further prepares the ground for the rejection of the election results by Trump’s core voters if he loses in November. (They were already suspicious about the validity of U.S. elections in 2016, though when Trump unexpectedly won, these views went into remission.) Texas polling shows the strong and consistent effect of partisanship in Texans’ views about expanding eligibility for voting by mail, and might reflect a glint of method in the eye of Trump’s madness: Many more Democrats than Republicans report that they would vote by mail if the option were extended to all voters without regard for their health or disability status (see below). 

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In-person early29%41%54%
In-person on election day14%15%28%
By mail52%34%13%
Don't intend to vote0%2%1%
Don't know/Unsure6%8%4%

3. Let's just call it Election Month. In a milder development on the election front, Governor Greg Abbott extended the period for early voting by a week and made a slight adjustment to the mail-in ballot procedure by allowing voters to turn in their ballots prior to election day. While starting early voting a week earlier on October 13 and a very minor easing of voting by mail are nods to the difficulties of managing an election in the middle of a pandemic, neither involves the expansion of mail-in voting being considered or already adopted in other states. The measures are just enough to qualify as evidence of action without creating any daylight between the governor and the president – who clearly has early voting on the brain. Also note that our June poll suggests that Texas Republicans’ adjustment to safety concerns appears to be reflected in their embrace of early voting, whereas Democrats report being more likely to take advantage of mail in voting were it available. Even absent the governor’s pattern of studiously avoiding the triggering of any Trumpian outbursts, expanding voting by mail isn’t on the GOP menu, as we wrote back in May in a post entitled "Texas Republicans' Resistance to Mail-In Voting Has Strong Roots in Pre-Pandemic Politics" that was based on April polling. We'll get around to udpating with June data, FWIW.

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Don't know/No opinion5%23%7%

4. The Attorney General sends local health authorities to detention. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton threw a wrench into public schools’ efforts to plan for the fall school year with legal guidance holding that “local health authorities may not issue sweeping orders closing schools for the sole purpose of preventing future COVID-19 infections.” The letter explaining this guidance argued that local health authorities were limited to responding in limited ways to specific outbreaks, and that the relevant executive order issue by Governor Abbott (GA-28) prohibited “prophylactic orders” meant to prevent outbreaks. The baseline assumption here, per Paxton, is that “the Governor’s order allows all schools to operate (p. 5),” though schools must follow TEA guidelines. School closing decisions lie with local authorities, though the continuation of funding after 8 weeks remained in question given existing TEA guidelines and mixed signals based on previous announcements by the governor and now the AG’s epistolary guidance. Aliya Swaby and Melissa Taboada did vaillant work in The Texas Tribune and the Austin American Statesman, respectively, sorting through the zig zags from state leaders, and the frustrated reactions from education stakeholders not members of the executive branch. In the June Texas Politics Project Poll, 65% of Texans said they thought it would be unsafe to send their children to school. Public health conditions have worsened since then, and press coverage suggests parents, teachers, and school staff  continue to have reservations. Notably, partisan differences in the poll results showed less concern about safety among Republicans than among Democrats, and among white voters than among people of color.

FRIDAY PM UPDATE: In a jointly issued statement issued by the Governor, Lt. Governor, Speaker of the House, and the chairs of the Seanate and House education committees, Governor Abbott essentially confirmed the position taken by Attorney General Paxon in his letter earlier this week.The statement placed the authority in the hands of local school boards rather than health officials, and reaffirmed that any schools wanting to sustain remote instruction after the first 8 weeks of their semester needed approval from the Texas Education Agency.

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5. Meanwhile, over in the legislative branch, where there’s a lot less going on...anxiety is building about how the legislative session will take place amidst the pandemic. The last few weeks have seen guidance for interim hearings from the Speaker of the House, rumblings of soundings being taken from some members, columns about the subject by Ross Ramsey in The Texas Tribune and, this week, lobbyist turned Quorum Report columnist Jon Fisher, not to mention (anecdotally speaking here), rampant speculation about just how much (really, how little) can be done during the session, and how. (Fisher doesn’t go too far out on a limb in advising, behind the QR paywall, “lobbyists would be well advised to tell clients to pare down their wish list and prepare to get nothing.”)  Early signs suggest that the GOP leadership of the legislature, responsible for figuring out how the legislature will actually operate (in consultation with the members, of course), appear to be taking the pandemic a whole lot more seriously as a practical manner than the leader of their national party – at least where their workplace is concerned. Amidst talk of controlling access to the building and to offices, fewer bills and meetings, and lots of plastic shielding, it seems like the citizen legislature and their staff don’t differ much from the non-legislative citizenry in Texas in their assessments of how safe they feel about doing legislative business. Among voters, majorities would not attend indoor events, go to a bar, eat at a restaurant, go to a movie, or fly on an airplane. Now imagine some rough legislative equivalents. Who feels safe gathering indoors with people from all over the state? About joining dozens of staff, legislators, reporters and the public in big, high-ceilinged rooms? About working in offices while lobbyists, constituents, and whoever wander in and out? Attending tightly packed committee hearings? Eating at restaurants, drinking at bars (or makeshift equivalents, not that this would ever happen)? It’s not going to be business or pleasure as usual this session, but the specifics remain very much TBD. And by the way, as the Lt. Governor reminded everyone this week, with the probable delay in the delivery of the Census data needed for Constitutionally mandated redistricting and the fiscal crisis of the state, special sessions seem guaranteed. It’s hard not to sense a little schadenfreude in the Lt Governor’s reminder of what’s what. At least we know not everything has changed.

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Go grocery shopping72%
Get a haircut59%
Go to work55%
Vote in person54%
Stay in a hotel50%
Eat at a restaurant49%
Attend church41%
Go to a shopping mall36%
Send child to school35%
Attend an outdoor event30%
Go to a gym29%
Fly on an airplane27%
Go to a movie theater27%
Go to a bar or club23%
Attend an indoor event21%
Go to protests16%

6. What can you say? Finally, Congressman Louis Gohmert tested positive for COVID-19, though he remains asymptomatic, after making a show of defying mask wearing protocols (at least). We’ll spare you the replay of all the tomfoolery surrounding both the run up to Gohmert’s health update and its aftermath, but suffice it to say his situation is further fuel for the discussion of the impact on public health of the emerging defiance of the reality of the pandemic as a marker of social and political identity. This discussion also includes the death of Herman Cain from COVID-19, who reportedly contracted the virus after pointedly declining to wear a mask when he attended Trump’s pandemic-defiant rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 20, and Republican CD-7 candidate Wesley Hunt, who also learned he had contracted COVID while on his way to the president’s Texas event. These are only three cases, but they point to the patterns in attitudes we see among significant shares of two social groups – Republicans and men – when it comes to both taking the virus seriously and engaging in accordingly cautious (or incautious) behavior.

ANOTHER FRIDAY UPDATE: The Texas Tribune's Cassandra Pollock broke the story that State Rep. Tony Tinderholt, a Republican who represents the Arlington area, is the first known Texas legislator to test positive for the coronavirus. While the headline goes with Rep. Tinderholt saying he feared for his life while in the hospial, he retierated that he still thinks "Closing the entire economy and halting business as well as illegally taking people's freedoms are absolutely the wrong things to do to Texas, Texans and our nation." Rep. Tinderholt is fortunately recovering, per the story.

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Washing hands more frequently96%88%84%
Staying away from large groups97%89%80%
Wearing a mask when outside your household96%75%69%
Avoiding other people95%82%67%
Avoiding touching your face83%75%67%

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Washing hands more frequently84%95%
Staying away from large groups83%92%
Wearing a mask when outside your household76%84%
Avoiding other people75%85%
Avoiding touching your face69%80%

P.S. "I'll be back." With President Trump dragging a stick across the news media’s picket fence, Governor Abbott working on the appearance of being accommodating about elections, and Senator Cruz beginning to position for the post-Trump era, Lt Governor Patrick told KFYO’s Chad Hasty that he intends to run for re-election in 2022 but that it will be his last time. No cases of shock reported. And while plans can change in these uncertain times, negative views of the Lt. Governor have been climbing – an ascent that began before the pandemic, as the graphic of trend data of his job approval ratings illustrates

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PollApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't Know
November 201529%26%44%
February 201627%27%46%
June 201631%30%39%
October 201631%31%38%
February 201732%31%38%
June 201734%36%29%
October 201736%31%32%
February 201836%33%31%
June 201836%34%30%
October 201844%31%25%
February 201942%31%26%
June 201941%31%29%
October 201939%32%29%
February 202039%35%25%
April 202040%36%24%
June 202039%38%23%
October 202037%37%25%
February 202137%36%27%
March 202137%37%27%
April 202135%39%26%
June 202136%37%27%
August 202133%42%25%
October 202135%39%25%
February 202233%34%32%
April 202237%36%26%
June 202235%40%25%
August 202238%37%25%
October 202237%39%24%
December 202243%36%21%
February 202338%39%22%
April 202342%36%23%
June 202338%35%27%
August 202335%40%26%
October 202340%35%25%
December 202340%34%26%
February 202442%34%24%
April 202444%33%24%
June 202439%34%28%

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