Does conservative support immunize Abbott from business resistance after latest vaccination order?

Governor Greg Abbott on Monday issued an executive order banning any entity in Texas, most notably any business, from compelling the “receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine by any individual, including an employee or a consumer, who objects to such vaccination for any reason of personal conscience, based on a religious belief, or for medical reasons, including prior recovery from COVID-19.” In the same order, Gov. Abbott added the issue to the in-progress third special session of the Texas Legislature, currently focused on redistricting and scheduled to end October 19.

Abbott’s latest foray into limiting the latitude of entities other than the governor’s office to enact responses to the pandemic is triggering criticism from business-oriented groups generally simpatico with the governor. The Dallas Regional Chamber issued a statement Tuesday supporting “the choice of each individual employer to do what is best for their company, whether that includes a vaccine mandate with reasonable exceptions, or giving the option of regular testing for those not vaccinated to ensure businesses can operate safely and effectively,” as reported by the Dallas Morning News. In a closely related development, as Tweeted by Patrick Svitek and noted by Harvey Kronberg’s Quorum Report, Texans for Lawsuit Reform’s Lee Parsley sent a letter dated October 12 to members of the House State Affairs committee objecting to HB 155, State Rep. Oliverson’s bill creating broad exceptions to vaccine requirements (i.e. “reasons of conscience, including a religious belief”) and providing for civil action against employers who violate the bill’s provisions for exceptions.

Abbott’s ratcheting-up of COVID-19 policies that are demonstratively more attentive to limiting the autonomy of organizations (particularly businesses) to set health policies in the context of COVID than they are to public health writ large seems to be rankling some of the business-friendly groups allied with Texas Republican governance. But public opinion polling throughout the pandemic suggests that there remains a strong audience for Abbott’s approach among the Republican rank and file, even as independents can be expected to have mixed responses, and Democrats are widely and deeply opposed.

In August 2021 University of Texas / Texas Politics Project polling, 53% of Texas voters said that they supported allowing “private employers to require their employees to either provide proof of vaccination or submit to frequent COVID testing,” with only 36% in opposition. However, this semi-lopsided result was driven primarily by Democrats, among whom 90% expressed support, with 77% expressing strong support. Among Republicans, opposition was less intense, but a majority, 62%, were still opposed (53% strongly), with a not insignificant 27% expressing support for employer mandates. Independent voters expressed skepticism on balance, with 44% in opposition and 37% in support.

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Strongly support41%
Somewhat support12%
Neither support nor oppose9%
Somewhat oppose5%
Strongly oppose31%
Don't know/No opinion1%

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Strongly support77%26%15%
Somewhat support13%11%12%
Neither support nor oppose6%17%9%
Somewhat oppose1%5%9%
Strongly oppose3%39%53%
Don't know/No opinion0%1%1%

Shifting the focus to customers, Texas voters were asked whether they support or oppose “allowing business to require their customers to either provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test.” Overall, the results were more mixed, with 46% expressing support and 42% expressing opposition. The partisan breakdowns were similar, with 84% of Democrats supportive of allowing businesses to screen customers, and 69% of Republicans in opposition. Independents were, again, skeptical, with 49% in opposition and 34% supportive.

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Strongly support36%
Somewhat support10%
Neither support nor oppose11%
Somewhat oppose7%
Strongly oppose35%
Don't know/No opinion2%

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Strongly support68%25%12%
Somewhat support16%9%6%
Neither support nor oppose8%16%12%
Somewhat oppose3%6%10%
Strongly oppose5%43%59%
Don't know/No opinion1%2%2%

There were also notable differences in the response patterns to this pair of questions by race/ethnicity. While 72% of Black and 61% of Hispanic respondents supported allowing businesses to require vaccinations or negative tests for their employees, this was true of only 47% of white Texas voters. Likewise, while 70% of Black and 56% of Hispanic voters supported allowing businesses to screen customers for vaccination status or a negative test, only 37% of white voters expressed support, with 51% in opposition.

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Strongly support35%59%48%
Somewhat support12%15%13%
Neither support nor oppose7%10%13%
Somewhat oppose7%3%5%
Strongly oppose38%12%21%
Don't know/No opinion1%0%0%

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Strongly support28%54%45%
Somewhat support9%16%11%
Neither support nor oppose10%11%14%
Somewhat oppose7%8%6%
Strongly oppose44%11%21%
Don't know/No opinion1%0%2%

Geography tends, in the current politics, to be a pretty consistent differentiator of opinion on many issues (buttressed by geographic, partisan sorting as well as geographic, racial/ethnic sorting), but here, and in particular with respect to employer mandates, there appeared to be significantly more ambivalence than one might expect in rural areas. While allowing business to screen customers was opposed by 55% of rural voters, with only 29% in support (compared to 61% support among urban voters), support for employer mandates was nearly split among this group, with 47% of rural voters in opposition and 40% in support. Among urban voters, employer mandates were supported by 68% (with 22% in opposition), while among the suburban voters among whom Texas political competition appears increasingly focused, 51% expressed support, 40% expressed opposition.

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Strongly support53%39%31%
Somewhat support15%12%9%
Neither support nor oppose9%8%10%
Somewhat oppose5%6%5%
Strongly oppose17%34%42%
Don't know/No opinion1%1%2%

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Strongly support48%34%22%
Somewhat support13%10%7%
Neither support nor oppose11%10%13%
Somewhat oppose7%7%7%
Strongly oppose20%38%48%
Don't know/No opinion1%1%3%

To the extent that the governor’s order is at least consonant with well-established conservative opposition to vaccine mandates and, in many instances (per our polling), skepticism of the public health benefits of widespread vaccination against COVID-19, the order also adds another element to the increasingly national discussion of the sharp ideological shift to the right in Texas policy in recent months. While this is a complicated phenomenon with lots of contributing factors, no explanation can leave out the ongoing focus on the deeply conservative Republican primary electorate. If we sort attitudes toward employer mandates and screening of customers, it’s not surprising to find liberals and conservatives intensely polarized on the expected, opposite sides. But drill down a little further into ideological intensity, and, as the graphics below illustrate, opposition is clearly if not overwhelminlgy strongest among those who identify as “extremely conservative.”

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CategoryLean conservativeSomewhat conservativeExtremely conservative
Strongly support13%11%18%
Somewhat support18%11%4%
Neither support nor oppose11%13%9%
Somewhat oppose9%11%6%
Strongly oppose48%54%63%
Don't know/No opinion1%1%1%

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CategoryLean conservativeSomewhat conservativeExtremely conservative
Strongly support10%10%14%
Somewhat support12%5%2%
Neither support nor oppose13%10%9%
Somewhat oppose7%10%6%
Strongly oppose56%62%68%
Don't know/No opinion1%2%1%

The differences between the attitudes of the most conservative Texas voters and the emerging response of the business groups aligned with the party, suggest that the current stage of the pandemic is adding significantly to the tensions that have been fueled ever-increasing intraparty conflict in the Texas GOP over the last decade. Elite stakeholders in the party have generally succeeded in working together to manage the conflicts between the ideologically driven cadres who shape the primary electorate and hover influentially over legislative elections, and the business and trade groups who form the party's financial backbone and, historically, had a huge influence over the party's regulatory and broader policy agendas. No doubt those stakeholders are hard at work this week seeking to manage this latest point of tension. But like so many other political problems in a world where fundamental structure and policies have been shaken by the combination of Trumpian politics in the GOP and the impact of the pandemic, they're likely to find it harder to adminster the usual cures.