No campaign postmortem will be complete without noting the huge role played by Barack Obama in the 2010 governor's race.
Anyone who has seen Rick Perry stumping before a friendly crowd knows that a central part of his 2010 campaign strategy has been to position himself as a bulwark protecting conservative Texans from the depredations of the current government of the United States of Obama. The Perry campaign has both exploited and stoked its base's seemingly reflexive pride in Texas and the equally deep-seated rejection of Barack Obama's presidency. As reporters Jay Root and Kelley Shannon wrote for The Associated Press on Friday, Perry's leveraging of the hostility toward Obama among the Republican base remains his signature move going into the final days of the election. "Are we gonna keep Texas on the track its been on?" the AP reported Perry asking a crowd of supporters in Amarillo. "Or are we gonna make the decision to go more in the Obama direction?"
The Perry campaign bet early on Texas Republicans' visceral opposition to Obama and to his policies, the durability of their partisan attachment and their seemingly reflexive embrace of Texas chauvinism. Developments in the national political environment for the most part facilitated the campaign's definition of Perry as the spirit of Texas made corporeal — Texans' last defense against the onslaught of the United States of Obama.
The Republican hostility to Obama and to his policies has only hardened in Texas since Perry declared way back in November 2009 that the president was, in Perry's words, "hell-bent on taking America towards a socialist country." The campaign seems to have recognized early on that Perry need garner little more that the existing share of reliably Republican voters to win the election. It has not hesitated to use such rhetoric to rally the faithful.
Polling data suggest that Obama's approval numbers among Texas voters provide fertile ground for this strategy. In the October 2010 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, Perry and Democrat Bill White split the share of those who "disapproved somewhat" of Obama's job performance roughly evenly: about 45 percent of the mildly disapproving preferred Perry, and about 43 percent preferred White. But Obama is polarizing in Texas, and so this was a pretty small group — only 6 percent of the total. Of the 53 percent who strongly disapproved of the president's job performance, 83 percent said they were voting for Perry — and, cross-tabulated in the other direction, 88 percent of the Perry supporters strongly disapproved of Obama. It's no surprise that Perry voters aren't fans of Obama, but it is telling that the opposition is so intense. And the converse isn't true of the White/Obama connection: While Obama supporters overwhelmingly support White, the intensity of support for Obama is much lower, an indicator of the much-discussed lack of Democratic enthusiasm in this election cycle.
Perry's exploitation of anti-Obama sentiment in Texas has articulated perfectly with the national Republican messages linking national economic difficulties to perceptions that the Obama administration has failed to adequately address the Great Recession and even made things worse by taking measures that increased the deficit. For the Perry campaign, the economy provides the back beat for chanting repeatedly that things are great, or at least better, in Texas.
Our surveys (and others) suggest that the Perry campaign found a safe harbor in the consistent gap between Texans' overall assessment of Texas and the U.S. In the most recent UT/TT poll, the U.S. wrong-track number exceeded the right-track number by 39 points (25 percent-64 percent). In the Texas assessments, right direction exceeded wrong track by 8 points (45 percent-37 percent).
While the significance of right direction/wrong track assessments can be overrated when taken in isolation, there is a telling pattern over the span of the campaign. The differences between the U.S. and Texas right direction/wrong track items in October are only the worst and latest in a series of polls that reveal a chasm between the respective measures. Texans' perceptions of how things are going in Texas consistently have been more positive overall than their grim assessments of the U.S. The net difference between the right direction/wrong track numbers has been at least 40 points better for Texas than for the U.S. since May. The number of Texans who think the U.S. is on the wrong track has exceeded positive assessments in every poll we've done by at least 25 percentage points. Perry exploits these views of Texas and the U.S. every time he trumpets Texas success in the face of the national recession and takes credit for the state of things in Texas.
Perry's rhetoric, propelled by ample funding and a focused — some would say ruthless — campaign organization, has drowned out the White campaign's unsuccessful attempts to change the subject. White has not found a way to broach any of the economic or social shortcomings of Perry's Texas without being shouted down as a naysayer whose only solutions are the policies of the Obama Democrats — which leads the conversation right back to where the Perry campaign wants it. It's a clever rhetorical cul-de-sac that the White campaign has had a hard time escaping.
The Perry campaign's use of Obama and the U.S.-Texas comparison was enabled by the intensity of Texas Republicans' partisan attachment, and, in turn, Perry's standing as their standard-bearer. His relentless attacks on Obama and his early embrace of the Tea party movement in Texas — the secession remarks that brought him national attention came at a Tax Day rally way back in April, 2009 — allowed Perry to survive the contested primary and inoculated him against being affected negatively as a 10-year incumbent seeking reelection.
Perry's long-term incumbency and his ready embrace of the trappings of state government might have been expected to test the loyalty of Republicans and independents, and certainly the White campaign has made intermittent efforts to underline the irony here. But Perry has handily survived the potential hazards, even if he has received only lukewarm support from true independents (about 35 percent in our last survey, though I suspect this number is deflated by respondents still flirting with Libertarian Kathie Glass in a poll setting). His standing with the conservative core of the Republican base in Texas has never been seriously threatened. However much conservatives may sometimes be suspicious of his associations and his choice of politics as a lifelong vocation, they have had nowhere else to go. Neither U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison nor White presented realistic alternatives for core Perry constituencies.
The 2010 contest between Perry's Texas and the Perry campaign's conservative projection of Obama's America now looks like it was little more than a sparring match, albeit one with serious consequences for Texas. There now looms a long shot, but real, possibility of a top-of-the-bill bout between the governor and the real thing in 2012. It's one thing to project the United States of Obama onto mild mannered policy wonk White. But if Perry makes the expected foray into national politics, he'll find that Obama has demonstrated a good deal more political punching power than his beleaguered Democratic allies in Texas, particularly when the president is campaigning for his own candidacy.
It will be a while before we know whether we'll be able to see a real "confrontation" with the real Obama, rather than the in absentia caricature used to fluster the White campaign. In the meantime, Texans will be treated to a legislative session that will deliver a dose of post-election reality to voting Texans who apparently think that, for now, it's good enough that state is doing better than the wrecked national economy. We'll also be treated to Perry's new book — called Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington, and released, coincidentally enough, right after the election. The author will reportedly be traveling around the United States of Obama promoting it. Think of it, perhaps, as The Shadowboxing Book Tour.