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The Polling Center: Voter Empathy

Whether he crosses the 50% threshold or is forced into a run-off when the polls close next Tuesday, the results of the last UT/Texas Tribune Poll suggest that Rick Perry's synchronous orbit over a big chunk of the Republican primary electorate has helped him prove many observers — not to mention KBH boosters and donors — very wrong.

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"You've been in my life so long, I can't remember anything else," the beleaguered Ellen Ripley says wearily to one of the salivating creatures with whom she's realized a perversely intimate relationship (if you don't know, don't ask) in a scene in the third "Alien" movie. The Republican gubernatorial primary, now mere days away from a result, begins to feel like that.

It's been a long grind. Both publicly and privately, at first a lot of observers thought Perry unlikely to succeed in winning an unprecedented third gubernatorial election. Whether he crosses the 50% threshold or is forced into a run-off when the polls close next Tuesday, the results of the last UT/Texas Tribune Poll suggest that Rick Perry's synchronous orbit over a big chunk of the Republican primary electorate has helped him prove those observers, not to mention KBH boosters and donors, very wrong. The insiders may have thought the Senator was, as the well-traveled meme went, the most popular politician in Texas. Turns out Perry knew his target audience better than the Senator — and better than her supporters in the Republican donor pool, too.

From the early days of the race, many political insiders missed Perry's resonance with primary voters. Political junkies and players with skin in the game started sizing up this race long before it was in the public eye. The fighting metaphors, including the Texas Monthly boxing cover, started immediately after Perry threw his first sucker punch way back in April of 2008, when he declared almost nonchalantly that he was running for re-election again. For Perry detractors and Hutchison supporters, it's been 15 rounds of brutal discovery of just how ready Perry was for this fight.

For all the slams about being "Governor 39%" after his showing in the four-way 2006 race, Perry's approval rating among Republican primary voters was still at 63%, with only 23% disapproval in early February 2010 — this after a primary campaign in which he has been negatively portrayed by a popular, seated U.S. senator with a lot of money to spend, and outflanked on his right by a candidate who was not susceptible to being labeled either a Washington, D.C., insider or a country club Republican. His overall approval remains in much lower orbit, around 40%, the range he's been in for months. But that's a problem for the next round, one which the Perry campaign will no doubt have a plan for if and when they have to face it.

One of the central themes of Perry's campaign has been that Texas is great — "everyone keeps movin' here" — and doing just fine economically, despite a downturn that his campaign has portrayed as essentially just some bumps in the road. His repetition of this theme in the first televised debate seemed almost manic to some, and this tact isn't without some risks. The UT/Texas Tribune Poll showed Texans registering the effects of economic difficulties when asked how they were doing economically compared to a year ago. Republican primary voters didn't differ much from the overall sample, 41% of whom said they were about the same, only 17% of whom said they were better off and 41% of whom said they were worse off. Folks' basic economic self-assessments are stagnant and have been for at least two years.

But the Perry tactic of contrasting a sunny presentation of the Texas economy with the deeply troubled national economy fits seamlessly with the anti-Washington and anti-Obama rhetoric his campaign has used to frame Kay Bailey Hutchison. The "Texas is Great!" message resonates with the Republican primary electorate's reading of the general direction of the state and country. The overall perception among Texas Republicans is that the U.S., generally and economically, is on the wrong track and that Texas is going in the right direction. The right direction/wrong track numbers about the direction of the U.S. in our February poll were blindingly negative among Republicans — only 6% right direction, 85% wrong direction and 8% don't know. By contrast, the corresponding Republican assessment of the state's direction were in strongly positive territory: 64% right direction, 22% wrong track and 5% don't know. However economically stuck in the mud Republican Texans may feel, they think it's a lot worse nationally and are ripe for being invited to blame national government.

The "praise Texas!" approach has particular resonance with Republican primary voters when they are invited to consider the matter more abstractly, too. Perry's steroidal version of Texas flag waving may have had press and pundits shakng their heads and rolling their eyes during the first debate, but many Republican primary voters probably nodded approvingly. When asked to agree or disagree with the statement, "Texas state government serves as a good model for other states to follow," 84% of Republican primary voters agreed — 31% strongly.

Even potential areas of Perry vulnerability during the last year have come in areas where possible weaknesses turned out to be not only harmless, but perhaps even strengths. A significant Perry stumble in an earlier phase of the primary campaign — the handling of the Cameron Todd Willingham case and the machinations related to the Texas Forensics Science Commission — occurred in the safe territory of strong support for the death penalty. Our survey found, unsurprisingly, a huge wellspring of support for the death penalty: 53% of our overall sample strongly support it and 25% somewhat support it. Only 18% said they opposed it the death penalty to any degree. Ninety percent of Republican primary voters supported it.

More strikingly, this support for the death penalty is supplemented by an apparently widespread belief among Republican primary voters that the death penalty is administered fairly in Texas. When asked, "Generally speaking, do you believe the death penalty is applied fairly or unfairly in Texas today," 83% of Republican primary voters responded "fairly," with only 7% responding "unfairly." This unified public opinion about the legal process surrounding the death penalty very likely helped insulate Perry from any state-level consequences of the national criticism he received for his seemingly unshakable faith in a demonstrably shaky process and helped protect him from the Hutchison campaign's half-hearted attempts to charge him with cronyism while stepping softly around the specific issue of the Forensics Commission.

To many, situations like the Willingham affair bespeak a range of factors — a hapless Hutchison campaign, a feckless electorate, a continuing run of luck (to his most vituperative detractors, dumb luck) on Perry's part. There will be plenty of time to weigh all these things, because, much as many of us can't seem to recall life without the 2010 election, it's far from over: the primary voting is not done, there could be a run off, and there's a long hot summer of pivoting toward the November election. Some things seem clear right now, though: in a political season marked by politicians scrambling to connect with an unsettled, angry electorate, Rick Perry has not alienated his base; and when it comes to campaigns, as we are likely to witness in the November sequel, he can be quite the predator.

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