Guest Column: GOP Understands Texas Voters — For Now

The convergence of the legislative endgame on the 2012-2013 budget and the May UT/Tribune poll have directed a lot of attention to the seeming contradictions in public opinion regarding spending and revenue.  Among critics of the Legislature’s budget, many discussions, including some in the Texas Tribune, have fed criticism that the Legislature has suffered from a lack of leadership in the face of a confused public, particularly in defense of those who are likely to feel the brunt of the budget cuts most: families with children in public schools, local school districts, and Texans who depend on social services, particularly healthcare coverage.

But this broad analysis fails to pay enough attention to the underlying partisan characteristics of public opinion on budgetary matters. Aggregate public opinion may give us a proximate overall picture of the competing impulses among the public. But the overall numbers can be distracting, even misleading, in the effort to predict or understand how public opinion should be expected to shape legislators’ actions during the 82nd Legislature and now in the special session. Seeming contradictions become less pronounced when considering the partisan patterns within the polling results. A large Republican majority favors budget cuts, with little or no increase in revenue; a smaller Democratic minority is only mildly open to increasing revenue. Within the large Republican majority, an intense minority is strenuously, and vocally, in favor of cutting the budget and the size of state government, particularly social services and education

Framing the budget the Legislature has produced in the context of Republican public opinion presents a more coherent picture, whether or not you agree with the politics of the Republican voting majority. A large but potentially fractious Republican legislative majority in the Legislature is focused on intense constituencies within its own party, with particular, if sometimes begrudging attention to the Tea Party and similar groups that have gained political strength over the last two or three years. With the groups that dominate Republican primaries mobilized and connected to the process in this way, reconciling the competing interests of the broader electorate is of secondary importance, at best, to Republican legislators, who, like most legislators, maintain a steady focus on the Republican voters who will determine their reelection.

How different is the Republican electorate from the overall universe of self-reported registered voters?  

The skew in public opinion among Texas registered voters toward limiting revenue (not just taxes) has clearly informed the boundaries of the debate that have taken place in the Legislature since January, an expression of the impact of opinions among Republicans.  Both the February and May surveys asked respondents to express a general orientation toward addressing the budget shortfall in this item:

In attempting to deal with the budget shortfall, state lawmakers have two basic options at their disposal: cutting spending and increasing revenue. Please choose your preference for how state lawmakers should close the budget gap on a 0-10 scale, where 10 indicates that you prefer that state lawmakers close the gap entirely through revenue increases, and 0 indicates that you prefer that state lawmakers close the gap entirely through spending cuts.

As with the questions about specific means of raising revenue and budget cutting, there was little change in the aggregate responses between the early and late phases of the legislative session: The mean score — basically, the average— of all responses was 3.86 in February and 3. 73 in May — a little more than 1 point to the budget cutting side of the midpoint, decisively but not extremely to the right of center, which seems a reasonable approximation of aggregate public opinion

If we stop there, it’s plausible to say that the public seems reflexively conservative, but open to listening to some hypothetical courageous Republican who might stand up and make the case for a less severe approach to the budget than the one we’re seeing.

But if we break these numbers down further to look at the means of the responses to the budget scale broken down by party self-identification, the problems with this scenario become clearer, as the table below illustrates:

Closing the Budget Through Cuts (0) or Revenue Increases (10):  Mean Scores by Party Identification

 February 2011 (n=716)May 2011 (n=719)
Democratic 5.38 5.78
Independent 4.08 3.61
Republican 2.61 2.29
Average 3.86 3.73

The mean Republican positions  (2.61 in February, and even lower in May, 2.29) leaned much more toward the extreme on the budget-cutting position (0) than the mean Democratic positions (5.38 in February, slightly higher at 5.78 in May) leaned toward the extreme of the revenue increasing position (10).  The Democrats were less than a point to the revenue side of the center of the scale, while Republicans were more than 2 points to the cutting side of center.

If legislators are paying attention to the those who most likely to reelect them , we should have little expectation that any Republican leaders would stand up and “do the right thing” in terms of calling for fewer budget cuts. Their voters clearly aren’t likely to share the conception of the “right thing” implied by calls to moderate cuts and/or increase revenue, not by a long shot. Organizations like Empower Texans stand ready to remind Republican primary voters of any votes that don’t hew the party line here, and these numbers suggest that these particular voters are likely to punish incumbents presented as soft on the budget if given an alternative primary candidate.

Accounting for the presence of Tea Party consciousness in the Republican electorate makes the notion that Republican legislators might sort out a confused and contradictory “public” seem even less plausible.   

The May survey featured an item offering respondents the hypothetical choice of voting for a Tea Party candidate in a Congressional election:

“Suppose the Tea Party movement organized itself as a political party. When thinking about the next election for Congress, would you vote for the Republican candidate from your district, the Democratic candidate from your district, or the Tea Party candidate from your district?”

If we use the generic Tea Party results to look at the budget cutting scale item, we see even more reasons why Republican legislators are hewing to the revenue reduction line.

I grouped into budget cutters (0-4), responses right in the middle (5), and revenue increasers (6-10), and sorted them by the item with the Tea Party preference in the hypothetical match-up. The results illustrate the stark differences between the two major parties, as well as the intensity of the hypothetical Tea Party voters (85% of whom were Republican) compared to those who stick with the Republican label even when offered the Tea Party option.  (When offered the hypothetical choice of a Tea Party labeled candidate, 41% of Republican identifiers defected to the Tea Party.)

 DemocraticRepublicanTea PartyDKTotal
Spending cuts (0-4) 17% 63% 86% 53% 50%
In the middle (5) 23% 18% 8% 20% 18%
Revenue increase (6-10) 49% 12% 5% 13% 23%
Don't know 11% 8% 1% 14% 9%

This probably conforms to the common sense of anyone paying attention to the elections and the session, but the starkness of the numbers are still striking.  There is no center in the Republican ranks, and even less so in the Tea Party faction of the Texas GOP.  Because Republican and Tea Party positions are skewed so far to the cutting end of the scale, any Republican office holder who wants to talk about revenue increases at all is moving far away from the orientation of Republican voters — and even farther from the orientation of the most vocal and mobilized wing of the party. 

Any assertion that Republican legislators might be expected to assume the role of a stern parent guiding their errant children, or somehow become heroically moderate leaders correcting an ignorant electorate who don’t really know what they want, seriously misconstrues the current state of the Texas electorate, not to mention the incentives that guide legislators.

There may come a moment when some action of Republican voters, surprised by the effects of the changes being put in motion by legislators trying to follow their current preferences, change their tune and relent on budgetary matters. 

For now, Republican legislators attentive to their reelection prospects are giving voters in their party what they seem to want. This, in itself, doesn’t make it good or bad public policy. But it is the way the institutions work, with the assumed uncertainty that these voters may change their minds down the road, or that the actions of legislators may equally well have unanticipated consequences. These consequences include getting the attention of folks heretofore not paying a lot of attention to the momentous changes that are being attempted in the name of the current crop of voters. Any such mobilization, and any effort to reframe the issue in the eyes of existing voters, however, requires a capable, coherent, and resourceful political alternative to the current Republican dominance of all levels of the state’s politics.

James Henson directs the Texas Politics Project in the Department of Government at the University of Texas. He also is co-director of the UT/Texas Tribune poll with Daron Shaw.

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