Is the Texas Governor's Race as Close as It Looks?

Gov. Rick Perry at a Texas Association of Broadcasters conference in Austin on Aug. 12, 2010
Gov. Rick Perry at a Texas Association of Broadcasters conference in Austin on Aug. 12, 2010

The new University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll shows Rick Perry with a 6-point lead over Bill White, 39 percent to 33 percent. Make no mistake: a Democrat running in a statewide race in Texas who is not losing by double-digits is doing relatively well. But this raises the larger question: Can Bill White actually win?

While the data from the survey provide some support for both sides of the argument, it remains extremely difficult to see how White makes up his deficit (remember, early voting starts in about five weeks). But let us review the main points, pro and con, for a White shocker.

The “White has a shot” camp would undoubtedly point to the fact that their candidate is within 6 points, which is technically within the poll’s margin of error (with a +/- 3.46 point margin of error, the correct interpretation of our poll is as follows: If we conducted 1,000 probability samples, 950 of them would yield trial ballot results that show Perry between 35.5 percent and 42.5 percent and White between 29.5 and 36.5). They could also point to the high percentage of voters who have yet to decide (22 percent) and the fact that Perry is polling under 50 percent (traditionally a sign of trouble for an incumbent). It is also the case that White has the financial organizational backing of the Obama White House, which desperately wants to have a Democrat in the Texas governorship to complicate Republican redistricting plans (the state will gain between three and four congressional seats after the apportionment is completed).

The “White has no shot” camp has some formidable ammunition as well. Initially, one could correctly observe that Perry may be under 50 percent because the poll did not ask undecided voters which way they lean (many polls do this, but not ours). This fact also makes the relatively high percentage of undecided voters less impressive; many probably lean toward one candidate and really aren’t in play. They could also argue that the data reflect a one-sided campaign that is about to change: White has been on the air for a while now, while the Perry campaign is only now unleashing its television ads. And then there is the enthusiasm gap. Among the 53 percent of registrants who say they are “extremely interested” in politics, Perry has an 18-point lead. In other words, White needs comparatively uninterested voters to show up and vote.

It is instructive to examine Perry’s current standing against what one would expect given the distribution of partisanship across a variety of political and demographic groups. In political science, the idea is called the "normal vote." Based on Converse (1966) and Petrocik (1989), you use hundreds of elections to calculate the average vote for each category of partisans within the 7-point party ID scale. For example, the "normal" Republican vote among strong Democrats is 12 percent, weak Democrats 17 percent, leaning Democrats 19 percent, etc. So if I want to calculate the "normal vote" among seniors, for example, I just need to know what proportion are strong Democrats, weak Democrats, etc. Then I plug in the respective normal vote numbers and sum the totals. This gives one a sense of whether and where Perry is really underachieving.

As seen on the chart below, the average Republican can expect 54.4 percent of the two-party vote (for an 8.8-point margin) in an election in which party allegiances are “normal.” (That Republican candidates have been averaging 12-point margins in recent statewide elections shows that they are overachieving given the underlying partisan distribution in the state.) Perry is currently garnering 53.6 percent of the two-party vote, so his margin is 1.6 points under what he “should” be getting.

The data suggest he is underachieving with blacks (-9.8 points), non-churchgoers (-7.8 points), post-grads (-10.9 points) and those under 30 years of age (-7.4 points). Perhaps most notably, he is also having some trouble in the major cities, where collectively he is running about 6.3 points under the expected Republican vote (Perry is 11.4 points under the normal Republican vote in San Antonio, for instance). Conversely, he is overachieving with weekly churchgoers (+5.7 points); voters in areas outside the Metroplex, Houston, San Antonio and Austin (+9.6 points); rural voters (+2.8 points); those making under $25,000 a year (+6.2 points); and those with a high school degree of less (+3.8 points).

Finally, remember that Perry doesn’t have to get the expected vote to win. He only needs 50 percent.

 Normal VotePerry VoteDifference
Overall 54.4% 53.6% -0.8%
       
Men 57.7% 56.9% -0.8%
Women 51.5% 50.5% -1.0%
       
White 64.2% 63.8% -0.4%
Black 18.9% 9.1% -9.8%
Hispanic 45.4% 46.5% 1.1%
       
Urban 46.2% 43.3% -2.9%
Suburban 57.3% 56.0% -1.3%
Rural 59.2% 62.0% 2.8%
       
Houston  57.8% 49.7% -8.1%
Dallas-Ft.Worth 49.3% 46.0% -3.3%
San Antonio  59.6% 48.2% -11.4%
Austin  40.2% 37.7% -2.5%
Rest of state 59.4% 69.0% 9.6%
       
More than once a week 65.8% 71.5% 5.7%
Once a week 58.4% 54.9% -3.5%
A few times a month 58.7% 54.9% -3.8%
Once or twice a year 55.6% 53.0% -2.6%
Never 41.5% 33.7% -7.8%
       
Less than high school 56.2% 60.0% 3.8%
High school grad 56.6% 61.8% 5.2%
Some college 51.2% 47.0% -4.2%
College 57.1% 54.0% -3.1%
Post-grad 52.0% 41.1% -10.9%
       
Under $25k 41.0% 47.2% 6.2%
$25k-$50k 49.8% 46.4% -3.4%
$50k-$100k 58.1% 57.3% -0.8%
$100k+ 61.9% 58.2% -3.7%
       
18-29 42.3% 34.9% -7.4%
30-49 55.1% 56.1% 1.0%
50-64 56.7% 54.2% -2.5%
65+ 59.8% 53.7% -6.1%

UT/Texas Tribune Poll

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