Public Attitudes and Post-Orlando Politics: Texas Data Points from the Week in Politics, June 17, 2016

The week in politics has been dominated by the sad but also politically complicated aftermath of the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, FL. We’ve gathered polling data relevant to the unusually complex tangle of issues that intersect this terrible event. Which of these you think matters most (or at all) likely depends on your partisanship and political ideology – a facet of contemporary American politics made dramatically, often painfully, clear in the public discourse that has followed the bloodshed. As both public figures and the general public seek ways to think about the killings in Orlando, attitudes about a complex range of issues – terrorism, civil rights, gun violence, immigration, Barack Obama’s presidency -- offer a range of contexts in which to frame the events that were, at the same time, unambiguously terrible.

1.  Invoking the threat of terror. In the early hours of Sunday morning, as people across the country were waking to the terrible news that just took place, many probably felt a certain disjuncture in early reporting: a gunman opened fire in a gay nightclub in Orlando – a suspected terrorist attack. If you’re initial reaction was to pause and ask why it was a terrorist attack and not a hate crime, you probably weren’t alone. But how an individual continues to understand the nature of the worst mass shooting in recent U.S. history is likely to be conditioned by one’s political leanings. In February 2016, 29 percent of Republicans (a plurality of that group) said that foreign terrorist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda were the greatest threat facing the U.S. Twenty-two percent of Democrats agreed, but another 13 percent said gun violence or mass shootings, portraying some of the cross-pressures that Democrats might feel in interpreting Sunday’s massacre. In contrast, the second biggest threat that Republicans feared was illegal immigration. Through these results, one can start to understand the origins of the political responses from both sides. Both parties talk about terrorism, but Democrats default to their familiar refrain on gun control, and the Republican nominee for president (a student of polling, in our estimation, despite his occasional protestations to the contrary) focuses on the religion and background of the alleged gunman. Each partisan frame enables attacks on political opponents for facilitating terrorism while reinforcing the already existing attitudes of their partisan audiences.

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Unfriendly foreign nations5%7%9%
Foreign terrorist groups22%26%29%
Illegal immigration7%14%28%
Decaying American infrastructure12%5%7%
Polarization/partisan conflict17%12%10%
Climate change9%2%1%
Computer network vulnerabilities2%3%2%
Racial tensions7%7%4%
Gun violence/Mass shootings13%7%2%
Don't know/no opinion4%11%3%

2. The setting and victims make this a hate crime. It may very well have been, and we probably won’t know for certain until more of the killer’s background is revealed. Whether or not one is likely to focus on terrorism (the killer) or the discrimination that gays and lesbians face in society (the victims) is likely to be shaped by different perceptions of discrimination in society. In June 2015, we asked Texas voters how much discrimination each of a number of groups faces in society today. Ninety-two percent of Texans who identify as liberals said that gays and lesbians face “a lot” or “some” discrimination – similar amounts to Muslims (94 percent) and African Americans (93 percent), their top two picks. Among the state’s conservatives, a slim majority (51 percent) said that gays and lesbians face a lot or some discrimination, but 43 percent said that they face “not very much” or “none at all.” Groups that Texas conservatives felt experienced more discrimination included whites (56 percent), Muslims (59 percent), transgender people (60 percent), and Christians - the most frequent response among this group (71 percent).

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Group"A lot" or "Some""Not very much" or "None at all"Don't know
Transgender people93%6%1%
Gays and lesbians90%8%1%
African Americans94%5%1%

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Group"A lot" or "Some""Not very much" or "None at all"Don't know
Transgender people54%38%7%
Gays and lesbians54%41%5%
African Americans51%45%4%

3. The role of guns in yet another mass shooting.  A Gallup Poll out today found that nationally, 60 percent of Democrats described the events in Orlando as domestic gun violence, while 79 percent of Republicans interpreted the same events as an act of Islamic terrorism (see 1 above). While there is general, broad-based support for universal background checks on all gun purchases (even in Texas), Texas Republicans’ support for such measures are far more ambivalent than among their Democratic counterparts according to February 2016 polling. But maybe more importantly, when we asked Texans in November 2015 what factors were most to blame for mass shootings, a plurality of Democrats cited current gun laws (28 percent) compared to only 2 percent of Texas Republicans – in addition to the politics of new gun regulations, a good indication of why Republican elites are not interpreting these events as a reflection on the nation's gun laws.

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Strongly support78%46%33%
Somewhat support14%24%37%
Somewhat oppose3%7%14%
Strongly oppose4%11%13%
Don't know1%12%3%

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Mental health system25%30%34%
Current gun laws28%9%2%
Drug use3%4%4%
Violence in popular culture7%6%9%
Internet extremism8%4%6%
Security at public buildings4%13%7%
Inflammatory politlca language2%1%3%
Unstable family situations9%14%16%
Media attention on perpetrators7%10%12%
Don't know/No opinion6%10%6%

4. Blaming the President.  Donald Trump was quick to get into hot water after Orlando by implying, not so subtly, that the President might be complicit in the loss of life due to his alleged lack of seriousness about the threat posed by homegrown extremism...homegrown terrorism...Islamic terrorism...radical Islamic terrorism, or perhaps because of some dark “Something else going on,” as Trump suggested on Fox and Friends Monday morning. While this argument is ridiculous on its face and perhaps to be dismissed as just another Trumpism, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential election, on Thursday suggested that Obama was “directly responsible” for the Orlando killings. Per CNN:

"Barack Obama is directly responsible for it because when he pulled everybody out of Iraq, al Qaeda went to Syria, became ISIS, and ISIS is what it is today thanks to Barack Obama's failures -- utter failures, by pulling everybody out of Iraq, thinking that conflicts end just because you leave. So the responsibility for it lies with President Barack Obama and his failed policies," McCain told reporters on Capitol Hill.

McCain later walked back these suggestions in a series of tweets, but Trump’s response and McCain’s first heated impulse underline that there is no shortage of ill-will and negative perceptions of the President among Republican voters, with which GOP political leaders are ever-tempted to harmonize. In February 2016, 81 percent of Texas Republicans disapproved strongly of the president’s job performance with another 9 percent disapproving somewhat. So for those looking for someone to blame, the President makes a very opportune candidate.  

But the backlash against Trump’s comments and McCain’s relatively quick retreat by claiming that he “misspoke” suggests that there are limits to such a strategy. These limits are perhaps lower than they’ve been in recent memory, given the significant uptick in Obama's approval ratings in recent polls and, perhaps more proximately, his pugnacious response to Republicans and their presumptive candidate in a must-watch speech Tuesday – in which he conveyed much sadness over the Orlando killings, but also directly expressed no small amount of anger. Framing the Orlando killings in the context of attitudes toward the president was predictable, given the polarized views of him. However, Obama has proven effective in times of national loss in the role of mourner in chief – a role that is inherent in the presidency, but which Obama's persona and skills are particularly well-suited. And at the human level, he seems to feel these mass shootings acutely; coupled with his frustration with congressional inaction in response to gun violence and Trump's personal attacks, this was a questionable moment to attempt to exploit partisan opposition to him: even among partisans, in times of national loss, the guy is still the president. McCain seemed to realize this; Trump, characteristically, remains in attack mode.

Barack Obama Job Approval