It’s hard not to be struck by the spike in political stories coming out of Texas making national news, and we shouldn’t expect the national spotlight to stop shining on the state any time soon. While it’s not hard to understand why national news outlets across the political spectrum have found plenty of material for clickbait stories and acerbic chyrons, understanding which issues and events are actually breaking through and grabbing voters’ attention is at least as important as the balance of positive and negative reactions to the issues elevated by political coverage of the extended legislative session in Austin and the politics surrounding it. But how do we know what issues Texas voters have actually been paying attention to during a noisy and widely disconcerting summer?
Attention is a limited resource, including, if not especially, when it comes to public policy, and most people allocate that attention to the things that really matter to them (their families, their jobs, their health, their entertainment, etc.). Voters can’t be expected to devote scarce time and attention to every political story that passes through their news feeds or local newscasts.
|Not very closely||29%|
|Not at all closely||11%|
|Not very much||16%|
|Nothing at all||9%|
We see this dynamic in the attention that voters reported paying to the regular legislative session along with the uptick in attention paid to the special session — unsurprising given the national attention on Texas when a majority of House Democrats left in order to deny the legislature a quorum. After having been in session now for most of 2021, the part-time, “citizen legislature” returns for a third special session to address redistricting and other issues added by the governor next week, with looming Spring primary elections hovering over the proceedings. More voters are paying attention to the legislature now than were paying attention for the first half of 2021, with the 15% of voters who said that they were paying “a lot” of attention to the legislature at the end of June in line with historical trends, much more so than the 35% who said the same of the second special session in the August UT/Texas Politics Project poll.
Given this relatively high degree of reported attention, the question remains what issues, conflicts, or controversies are attracting voters’ focus given the long list of possibilities. Knowing whether voters are focused on COVID or immigration, for example, gives us a better sense of how we might begin to handicap the upcoming election season as the end of the legislative season gets mercifully closer. All else equal, what issue or issues the candidates and electorate jointly decide an election is “about” will provide advantages or disadvantages to one party’s candidates over the other’s. Democrats — presumably — are acutely aware of this after a 2020 election in Texas in which a campaign focused on defunding the police dashed their hopes of continued gains after the successes of 2018. Looking at the summer of 2021 and ahead to 2022, Democratic candidates might feel better positioned if the upcoming elections are focused on issues like voting rights or abortion access relative to alternatives that may benefit Republican candidates – who have clearly signalled a desire to focus voters’ attention on border security, rising crime rates, and Democratic governance under the Biden adminisration. While the stories grabbing voters attention now may or may not be what occupies voters’ attention next year, particularly given recent reminders of just how unpredictable the political environment can be, the stories garnering attention now might still provide some leading indicators of what different groups of Texan’s are responding to as the extended 2021 legislative session merges into the 2022 election environment.
Overall, from a list of 10 political stories garnering a significant amount of coverage as summer’s end neared, the two stories that received the most attention from voters included the exodus of Texas Democrats to delay consideration of legislation on voting and elections, receiving “a lot” of attention from 63% of voters, and Governor Abbott’s executive order prohibiting local government entities from enacting mask requirements in response to the coronavirus pandemic (62%).
|Democrats leaving the state of Texas to delay new legislation on voting & elections||63%|
|Gov. Abbott’s executive order prohibiting mask requirements in response to the coronavirus||62%|
|Gov. Abbott’s decision to call multiple special sessions||50%|
|Gov. Abbott’s executive order prohibiting limitations on businesses in response to the coronavirus||49%|
|School districts implementing measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus||49%|
|New legislation on voting & elections||47%|
|Local governments implementing measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus||41%|
|The number of migrants detained crossing the U.S.-Mexico border||41%|
|Gov. Abbott’s plan add more barriers on the border between Texas and Mexico||38%|
|Gov. Abbott’s veto of legislative funding||37%|
At the bottom of the list was the Governor's veto of legislative funding – 37% reported paying “a lot” of attention – unsurprising given this is inside baseball to most voters. More surprising, and a reflection of the oversaturation of the political environment, is that the next-least-attended-to story is Governor Abbott’s plan to use state funds to build comprehensive barriers across the Texas-Mexico border, with 38% paying “a lot” of attention.
In that same August polling, 64% of Republicans said that immigration and/or border security is the most important problem facing the state, compared to 9% who said the coronavirus. However, only 42% of Republicans say that they’re paying a lot of attention to news about Abbott’s border wall plan, compared to 37% of Democrats, and 51% of Republicans who also said that they are paying a lot of attention to “the number of migrants detained crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.” The raw political calculus of 2022 requires the governor to try, though so far with limited success, to make Republican voters as aware of his efforts to address immigration as they are of “the problem” by promoting his solution that, however unoriginal, is known to resonate with Texas Republicans. It’s not hard to imagine that if there were a Democratic candidate running for governor, that candidate would have likely spent much of the summer, defined for many by the rise of the Delta variant, emphasizing the pandemic for voters — even as Governor Abbott and legislative Republicans attempted to steer attention to immigration and border security.
|Democrats leaving the state of Texas to delay new legislation on voting & elections||63%||51%||68%|
|Gov. Abbott’s executive order prohibiting mask requirements in response to the coronavirus||72%||57%||57%|
|Gov. Abbott’s decision to call multiple special sessions||54%||38%||52%|
|Gov. Abbott’s executive order prohibiting limitations on businesses in response to the coronavirus||58%||45%||45%|
|School districts implementing measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus||58%||38%||45%|
|New legislation on voting & elections||49%||44%||48%|
|Local governments implementing measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus||50%||39%||34%|
|The number of migrants detained crossing the U.S.-Mexico border||31%||37%||51%|
|Gov. Abbott’s plan add more barriers on the border between Texas and Mexico||37%||28%||42%|
|Gov. Abbott’s veto of legislative funding||43%||27%||36%|
Democratic voters are significantly less attentive to the numbers of migrants crossing the border (31% versus 51%), and are instead most attentive to the Governor’s executive order prohibiting local mask mandates (72% paying a lot of attention), a reflection of their continued concern about the coronavirus (a plurality, 39%, say this is the most important problem facing the state) and opposition to how the governor has handled it.
We should expect Gov. Abbott to continue his efforts to focus state government attention, and, in turn, voters’ attention towards the Southern border. Democratic candidates will have a difficult time campaigning on an issue that Republican voters expect to be a top priority. Democrats are likely to see advantages in highlighting the state’s mediocre at best coronavirus response for as long as it remains a major concern. The issue, at this point, is less where voters stand on these issues (we know that Republican voters are supportive of almost anything to address immigration, and that Democrats support the efforts of local governments to contain the COVID pandemic), than what they’re paying attention to given a full plate of options. It’s a lot cheaper and easier for candidates and campaigns to remind voters of what they already think and know than it is to teach them something new or tell them what to think.