The media have repeatedly told us that this is an anti-incumbent year. Voters, particularly Republicans, are supposedly fed up with career politicians living on the government dole and are eager to replace them with outsiders bringing practical experience from the private sector. In fact, scanning much of the country, we see plenty of evidence supporting this claim. In numerous states, including powerhouses like California, New York, Florida and Michigan, Republicans have nominated wealthy businesspeople with no previous political experience for their state’s highest office. Almost invariably, these candidates have vowed to use their outsider know-how to run their state governments “more like a business.” And while not all of these candidates are expected to win, it seems undeniable that their message has gained them some traction with the voters they are courting.
Circumstances in Texas are a bit different. Here, Republicans have re-nominated Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor in the United States and a man who has spent the vast majority of his adult life in state government. Democrats, on the other hand, have nominated Bill White, a man who, while by no means a political neophyte, can certainly lay claim to having much more private-sector experience than his opponent. Much like Republican candidates across the country, White has promoted himself as an outsider businessman who can bring reform to state government in Texas.
This inversion of the partisan dynamic occurring in the rest of the country raises a number of interesting questions about the way Texans are factoring personal backgrounds into their voting decisions this year. First, is the anti-career-politician, pro-outsider-businessman mood palpable in Texas? The answer to that question is undoubtedly yes. In the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, we asked 800 Texans which type of experience was more important for candidates for statewide office to have — experience in elected office, or experience in the private sector. Private-sector experience was more important to 56 percent of respondents, while only 22 percent said experience in elected office was more important (22 percent answered “don’t know”).
But how is this preference for private-sector experience related to vote choice in the governor’s race? Here the findings are (ostensibly at least) counter-intuitive. As the chart shows, 63 percent of respondents who favor private-sector experience support Perry, the candidate who lacks such experience. Conversely, 61 percent of respondents who favor experience in elected office are supporting White. (Granted, White does have experience in elected office, but Perry has a whole lot more.)
Clearly, White’s efforts to sell himself as an outsider businessman running against a career politician are not paying huge dividends. But why? One explanation we can toss out right away is that voters are ignorant about Perry’s professional background. Texans appear to be under no illusions about their longtime governor — 78 percent of our survey respondents say the term “career politician” applies to him well. On the other hand, 51 percent of respondents also say that the term “career politician” applies to White as well, suggesting that the White campaign has not been especially effective in relaying White’s biographical information to the Texas public.
But while part of the explanation here may lie with White’s failure to broadcast his message, it's likely that a bigger part of the explanation is that the anti-career-politician, pro-outsider-businessman mood is ultimately not that consequential for voters when they decide whom to support. Other factors have a greater influence. For example, 68 percent of the respondents who say that private sector experience is more important for statewide candidates are either self-identified Republicans or Republican leaners (that is, respondents who identify as “independent” but also indicate they lean toward the Republican Party). For most of these respondents, belief in the value of private-sector experience is probably a part of their overall political worldview. But when forced to choose between this worldview and their party affiliation, party takes precedence.
It is also likely that the importance of private-sector experience in this year’s elections is lower in Texas, where the desire to reform state government seems to be considerably lower than in other states. Indeed, among the respondents who favored private-sector experience over government experience, 58 percent said the state of Texas is moving in the “right direction,” and only 30 percent said the state is on the “wrong track.” For these respondents, private-sector experience might be more important in theory, but given their overall satisfaction with the way things are going in the state, they've not ready to ditch Perry. After all, if you’re basically satisfied, why rock the boat?
Adam Myers has worked as a research assistant for the University of Texas statewide poll since the summer of 2008. He is a government graduate student at the University of Texas and assisted in the analysis on this poll.