A last look at things as they were: Texas attitudes on the economy on the brink of recession

National economic projections get grimmer by the day, and with oil struggling to stay above $20 per barrel, Texas isn’t going to be buffered from the crash as it was after 2008’s housing market implosion. A widely-reported J.P Morgan research note, called according to Axios “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, predicted second-quarter economic contractions of -14% and -22% in the U.S. and Europe, respectively, late last week. Things haven’t gotten any better since then.  

In Texas, Comptroller Glen Hegar shot a potent dose of reality directly into the veins of the legislature with a weekend conference call in which he reportedly used the term “recession” repeatedly, telling appropriators, according to a Quorum Report paraphrasing, that “revenues will continue to drop during the biennium and the general revenue end balance – which had previously been anticipated to come in around $2.9 billion – will instead be a negative ending balance when lawmakers meet again in a regular session in 2021.” Forty-eight hours later, the Comptroller was warning of significant increases in the state unemployment rate, and, shortly thereafter, offering short-term payment agreements and waivers of penalties and interest to businesses “struggling to pay the full amount of sales taxes they collected in February.” More theatrically and much, much less seriously, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick seemingly offered to sacrifice his life and perhaps others of his generation to save the economy from the ruin produced by social distancing.

Texans’ attitudes toward the overall trajectory of the state have been remarkably stable over the last several years, scaffolded by the state’s sustained economic and population growth, and the relatively stable and consistent policy environment created by a generation of comprehensive governance by the same political party. While the politics remain up in the air, with spring elections being postponed right and left, and the underlying political fundamentals potentially disrupted by the foundational impact of the pandemic at all levels, the structural elements of the economy that have informed Texans’ attitudes about that economy have changed drastically in the last two weeks (to say the least), and seem likely to continue to deteriorate, even if the rate of decay is slowed by fiscal and monetary policy. On the brink of change, we consider the point of departure for inevitable shifts to come in assessments of the direction of the state.

If we look back at University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling data since February 2010, the default right track/wrong direction question about Texas has been net positive for most of the decade. Only two of 33 polls between October 2009 and February 2020 found overall opinion dipping into net-negative territory (more Texas voters saying “wrong track” than “right direction”), and one is probably an outlier

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PollRight DirectionWrong Track
October 200938%39%
February 201043%37%
May 201045%38%
September 201043%38%
October 201045%37%
February 201141%41%
May 201136%48%
October 201139%43%
February 201243%38%
May 201238%42%
October 201243%34%
February 201345%39%
June 201350%32%
October 201342%39%
February 201445%35%
June 201449%33%
October 201448%35%
February 201550%30%
June 201550%32%
November 201545%36%
February 201642%37%
June 201641%38%
October 201642%40%
February 201746%36%
June 201743%40%
October 201743%40%
February 201848%36%
June 201846%37%
October 201850%35%
February 201949%35%
June 201949%34%
October 201947%35%
February 202049%37%
April 202043%43%
June 202041%47%
October 202041%44%
February 202139%41%
March 202141%46%
April 202142%42%
June 202141%43%
August 202135%52%
October 202140%48%
February 202240%46%
April 202239%51%
June 202231%59%
August 202236%52%
October 202237%50%
December 202239%46%
February 202335%51%
April 202337%50%
June 202338%49%
August 202333%55%
October 202337%50%
December 202338%49%
February 202444%44%

Partisanship influences these assessments. Among Republicans, the gap averaged +46 points in this period, and was +70 in our most recent poll in February 2020 – prior to both the oil crash and the wide recognition of the seriousness of pandemic – when 80% of Texas Republicans said the state was headed in the right direction, and only 10% said we were on the wrong track. Among Democrats, the gap averaged -38 points in the same period, and was -45 in the most recent pre-pandemic/oil collapse poll.

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PollRight DirectionWrong Track
February 201058%25%
September 201061%24%
October 201068%21%
February 201159%27%
May 201150%34%
October 201161%27%
February 201263%21%
May 201260%27%
October 201269%20%
February 201357%25%
June 201363%22%
October 201353%27%
February 201458%27%
June 201461%29%
October 201460%24%
February 201567%18%
June 201570%17%
November 201560%26%
February 201661%22%
June 201661%22%
October 201661%23%
February 201776%10%
June 201776%12%
October 201771%18%
February 201876%12%
June 201879%9%
October 201883%9%
February 201979%10%
June 201977%12%
October 201975%14%
February 202080%10%
April 202071%15%
June 202072%16%
October 202070%19%
February 202159%23%
March 202163%26%
April 202165%23%
June 202164%21%
August 202156%31%
October 202168%20%
February 202263%25%
April 202261%28%
June 202252%36%
August 202259%28%
October 202265%22%
December 202266%21%
February 202359%27%
April 202362%26%
June 202357%27%
August 202356%33%
October 202354%30%
December 202356%30%
February 202461%25%

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PollRight DirectionWrong Track
February 201026%59%
September 201029%56%
October 201017%64%
February 201121%66%
May 201113%72%
October 201117%67%
February 201226%58%
May 201216%68%
October 201226%56%
February 201325%65%
June 201331%51%
October 201323%62%
February 201426%56%
June 201428%53%
October 201426%55%
February 201531%49%
June 201527%58%
November 201527%56%
February 201631%49%
June 201626%58%
October 201626%58%
February 201716%63%
June 201711%69%
October 201715%65%
February 201822%61%
June 201815%67%
October 201817%66%
February 201918%62%
June 201920%60%
October 201920%58%
February 202018%63%
April 202014%73%
June 20208%81%
October 202013%73%
February 202122%59%
March 202120%68%
April 202119%66%
June 202116%70%
August 202113%78%
October 202112%79%
February 202220%69%
April 202217%76%
June 202211%83%
August 202213%78%
October 202212%79%
December 202216%75%
February 202315%74%
April 202318%72%
June 202321%70%
August 202316%76%
October 202318%74%
December 202320%69%
February 202430%61%

Asked about the Texas economy in the February UT/TT Poll, only 15% of Texas voters said that the state’s economy was worse compared to a year ago, but, again, there were important partisan differences in these attitudes that will bear watching in the state-level polls to come. Among Texas Republicans, 36% said they were doing a lot better off compared to a year ago, 35% said they were somewhat better off, and 22% said they were about the same. Democrats weren’t deeply negative, but they were less likely to reflect positively on the state’s economy: only 6% said a lot better off and 11% somewhat better off – and 50% said about the same. 

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A lot better off6%8%36%
Somewhat better off11%25%35%
About the same50%38%22%
Somewhat worse off20%15%1%
A lot worse off6%3%1%
Don't know7%12%4%

Some of this difference is likely attributable to the different class compositions of each party’s constituencies – we should expect a larger share of Democrats to be less prosperous and thus less likely to see their situations improving. But some of this gap is likely attributable to a familiar dynamic in which, all things being equal, partisans take a more positive view of economic conditions when their party is in power and “owning” the economy, and are more skeptical when their party is out of power and has no (surface) accountability for the current conditions. This dynamic is most starkly evident in partisan assessment of the national economy, per the charts below.

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PollBetterSame Compared to a Year AgoWorse
February 201011%18%70%
September 20108%14%76%
October 201010%19%70%
February 201116%34%49%
May 20118%32%59%
October 20112%16%82%
February 201210%30%59%
May 201214%27%59%
October 20124%24%72%
June 201318%29%51%
October 201312%29%59%
February 201419%29%53%
June 201415%33%51%
October 201415%36%49%
February 201521%39%39%
June 201515%40%45%
November 201521%27%50%
February 20169%22%66%
June 20168%29%58%
October 20163%31%62%
February 201751%35%11%
June 201769%20%8%
October 201769%24%6%
February 201885%10%5%
June 201880%10%6%
October 201884%12%3%
February 201983%11%5%
June 201976%14%8%
October 201976%15%5%
February 202084%10%5%
April 202034%10%52%
June 202029%13%55%
October 202028%16%54%
February 202113%15%70%
April 202113%18%70%
June 202114%16%67%
August 202111%13%75%
October 20219%10%80%
February 20229%13%78%
April 20227%11%82%
June 20227%6%86%
August 20226%9%84%
October 20225%8%86%
December 20228%10%81%
February 20238%12%78%
April 202312%14%74%
June 20238%16%75%
August 20238%14%77%
October 20239%16%75%
December 202313%16%72%
February 202412%19%68%

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PollBetterSame Compared to a Year AgoWorse
February 201058%18%23%
September 201051%30%17%
October 201049%28%22%
February 201154%26%18%
May 201150%26%20%
October 201131%37%30%
February 201267%25%6%
May 201267%22%9%
October 201277%18%5%
June 201366%23%11%
October 201350%26%24%
February 201458%25%16%
June 201464%21%14%
October 201459%26%12%
February 201574%20%3%
June 201562%29%8%
November 201560%28%9%
February 201653%29%15%
June 201650%33%15%
October 201658%26%13%
February 201728%36%30%
June 201717%40%40%
October 201713%44%40%
February 201822%44%32%
June 201823%36%38%
October 201816%42%38%
February 201914%34%48%
June 201916%33%48%
October 201914%34%46%
February 202015%37%45%
April 202010%9%79%
June 20206%6%77%
October 20208%9%82%
February 202122%26%46%
April 202154%25%15%
June 202161%21%14%
August 202155%25%16%
October 202143%26%25%
February 202247%27%23%
April 202239%22%38%
June 202224%17%57%
August 202227%24%35%
October 202233%25%36%
December 202235%24%39%
February 202344%23%30%
April 202342%24%32%
June 202340%28%30%
August 202346%24%28%
October 202344%23%31%
December 202347%26%23%
February 202458%26%15%

The rapid slowdown in the economy – triggered by the conjunction of a collapse in oil prices as a result of maneuvers by Saudi Arabia and Russia along with the huge reduction in economic activity resulting from efforts to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus – is triggering a huge shift in most Texans’ economic situations that will provide a challenging test of the degree to which partisan perceptions can offset the combination of personal experience with an objectively crashing economy and multiple signals from media and elites about dire conditions. In addition to the string of bad news from the Comptroller, the Texas Workforce Commission reported Wednesday that "more than 800,000 people have been trying to contact the agency, including over 100,000 calls on March 22", and that "TWC has processed 150,000 claims this week," according to Dom DiFrio's coverage in the Dallas Morning News.  

The most pressing overarching policy question is how effectively both the national and state political leadership can respond to a crisis of unprecedented proportions. (And this is not alarmism, despite the increasingly desperate Pollyannaism and blatant misdirection going around. Unemployment claims this week topped 3 million, shattering previous records, while confirmed deaths from the virus in the U.S. are increasing at an alarming rate.)

Texas government responses will be shaped by public attitudes, and in particular whether these deep partisan influences over perceptions prevail as disaster sweeps over the state and the nation. In Texas, the combination of partisan polarization, so deep that it colors even the most objective facts, and the dominance of one party for so long, have narrowed the range of potential policy responses into a small box dominated by expectations of growth, relative prosperity, and the enforcement of policy bounds by a de facto monopoly party. The first two economic expectations are no longer being met. The fundamentals of the third are about to be severely tested – and the leading indicator of those tests will be how much public perceptions shift beyond the comfort zone that has cushioned the current set of statewide leaders for the entirety of their political careers.

Keywords: economy, coronavirus