Taken together, the Republican landslide in the 2010 general election and the noisy conservative opposition to Joe Straus' return as speaker injected new players and new dynamics in the insider game in the Austin political universe.
Shortly after the election, in the midst of all of the froth of the 2010 election and its aftermath, Texas Weekly and The Texas Tribune started mailing out their "Inside Intelligence" surveys to a list of political professionals and close observers of politics in the state, in an effort to generate some information about what these folks thought about current events, and to generate stories for both publications. Over the next few months, we kicked around the idea of including a few items from the University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll to see how the "insiders" compared to the statewide sample of self-identified registered voters we draw using random matched sampling.
We finally got around to trying this around the time of the most recent poll in May. While we were in the data collection phase of the UT/Trib poll, an Inside Intelligence survey included seven questions from the UT/Trib poll — five general assessment questions we use to get the mood of the state and a couple of more focused questions about immigration and drawing on the Rainy Day fund. The Inside Intelligence email invitation was sent to 489 addresses; 122 filled out the Survey Monkey questionnaire, and Ross Ramsey wrote his regular report about the results. Now, with the Legislature adjourned sine die, it seems like a good time to see what that exercise yielded.
Before we go much further, some caveats: this comparison, of course, has to be taken as a speculative exercise. I was and am a big fan of the idea of regularly checking in with the insider list. It is a rare chance to get information from the side of politics that rarely gets explicitly covered in day-to-day news coverage. The attitudes and knowledge of these people as a group on the list rarely see the light of day in either journalism or academic research. We have already accumulated an interesting body of responses.
But the survey is highly informal and not a statistical sample of any rigorously defined population. The Weekly and the Tribune are explicit about this. The list of participants is neither comprehensive nor a random sample of a carefully specified group — it's a provisional list of names, more or less, knowledgably assembled by a small group of people. Anything we claim about this group of insiders can't be said to be about much more than the specific group who responds in a given week; they can't be presented as representative of anything other than, well, themselves. The names of the respondents are published each week, though of course not matched to specific response. Readers can make reasonably informed judgments about the characteristics of the group and about the degree to which they may be taken as a provisional thermometer of the temperature of the capitol on any given week.
All the caveats established, the participants and close observers who responded to the Tribune's mid-May invitation reflected the concerns that preoccupied the Legislature in the final days of the 82nd regular session and the special session that followed. They diverged from the views of the sample of self-reported registered voters in the UT/Tribune poll in ways that seem to reflect, above all, their proximity to the day-to-day process. The insiders found a different set of issues most salient to them. Interestingly enough, given the enduring meme that the electorate is sick and fed up (if you'll excuse the phrase) with government, the insiders were both less approving and more intense in their disapproval of the job performance of the Governor and the Legislature than the UT/Trib poll's sample of registered voters. The insiders were much less concerned about immigration and border issues; and less admiring of the overall approach to state government in Texas.
Most Important Problems: "Border? What border? Pass a budget bill!"
When asked to choose the most important problem facing Texas, the "state budget shortfall" was the number one response among the insiders, followed by "education" and "the economy." The gap between the insiders and the UT/Tribune poll respondents was probably most pronounced in this area. Neither of the top two problems cited by the insiders were cited by nearly as many of the larger pool of potential Texas voters. The 25-point gap on the state budget and the 12-point gap on education seem most telling of the difference in focus between the insiders and average folks. (There is evidence, though, that education is rising in salience among voters: the numbers have been slowly rising in the UT/Tribune survey, and the recent Texas Lyceum poll of adult Texans also registered increased concern about education in the state.)
Perhaps the most significant perceptual gap in the two collections of responses about problems and issue facing the state exists in the areas of immigration and border security. Immigration and border security were the two most frequent responses in the UT/Tribune Poll (16 percent and 15 percent respectively), and have been among the most frequent responses since the survey's inception three years ago.
|Selected Items||Inside Intel||UT/Tribune Poll (rank)|
|State budget shortfall||33.3%||8%|
|The economy||14.2%||12% (3)|
|State government spending||2.5%||3%|
|Social welfare programs||1.7%||1%|
|Border security||0||15% (2)|
Note: Table excludes items with zero responses in both surveys, as well as 0 insiders paired with 1-2% responses in the UT poll. UT /Texas Tribune Poll responses are rounded; n=800, MOE +/- 3.46 percentage points. On all tables. The Inside Intelligence percentages are not rounded because the number of respondents is so low.
The group of insiders conveyed much less concern, to put it mildly, about immigration or (especially) border security as a problem, as the table illustrates. Only two of them chose "immigration" as the most important problem, and nobody chose border security.
A general item focused on immigration from the UT/Tribune poll that was put before the insider group also reveals marked differences in attitudes regarding immigration. The question asked, "On the whole, do you think immigration is a good thing or a bad thing for this country today?"
|Is immigration a good thing or a bad thing?||Inside Intel||UT/Tribune Poll|
The sample of Texans in the UT/Trib poll was evenly split on the item; the insider group was much more favorable in its judgment. There has, of course, been a great deal of attention to the failure of the anti-sanctuary city bill in the Legislature, and the failure of most of the stringent measures introduced that were meant to regulate illegal immigration to gain traction, despite plentiful rhetoric.
Leadership and Government: Faint Praise and Outright Damnation
Comparing the two groups of responses also reveals a generally grumpy assessment of state government by people who that work in close proximity to it. It is an article of faith among many political observers that the electorate is highly dissatisfied with government elites. While there is evidence of skepticism of government among the voters, the group who took the insider survey in May are right there with them — in fact, they were even less approving of the state's political leadership and with Texas state government overall.
Among the Inside Intelligence group, job approval for both Gov. Perry and the Legislature were lower overall and, when negative in their judgment, more intensely so. If the governor is preparing to position himself as readying to fight the insiders in a presidential campaign, there's a group of Texas insiders who already feel combative. The strong disapprovals of the Governor's job performance registered at 47 percent — 19 percent higher than in the UT/Trib poll.
|Perry job approval||Inside Intel||UT/Tribune Poll|
Disapproval of the Legislature's job performance was only slightly less negative overall, and only somewhat less intense (27 percent approve / 64 percent disapprove) compared to a broader public assessment that was hardly enthusiastic (35 percent approve / 38 percent disapprove), but can be fairly called ambivalent.
|Legislature Job Approval||Inside Intel||UT/Tribune Poll|
The contrast between the insiders and the broader population's attitudes toward government — call them the "familiarity breeds contempt" results — is also in evidence in responses to the item assessing general attitudes toward Texas government. Very few folks are particularly enthusiastic about state government in Texas being a model for other states, there has consistently been majority support for the statement in our surveys when we've asked the question. Even amidst the grinding gloom of the 82nd Legislature's final weeks in May, 52 percent agreed that state government in Texas was a good model for other states, and only 19 percent strongly disagreed.
|Texas as a model for government||Inside Intel||UT/Tribune Poll|
Those defined in part by their close view of how Texas state government works on a day-to-day basis were less likely to want to promote the model, and were more intense in their skepticism. While 44 percent agreed with Texas virtue as a model, of the 56 percent of the insiders disagreed, and 30 percent disagreed strongly. Familiarity not only bred a degree of contempt, it also dispelled ambiguity. While 13 percent of the UT/Trib sample either didn't know or skipped the questions, only one of the insiders skipped.
In the end, the insiders appear more ideologically moderate overall, though I would conjecture that they are better thought of as more pragmatic. The differences between the insiders and the UT/Trib poll sample maybe in part ideological, but it seems more likely that the differences reflect proximity to the process. The insiders were focused very much on the issues that took a tortuous path in the institutional processes at the Capitol, processes that were key to the success (and conclusion) of the session. Given how the process worked during the 82nd Legislature, it's not too surprising that the insiders waxed negative about the key players in that process and even the process itself.
These insiders may just be grumpy participants in an exceptionally cramped session, but we may come to see them as lead indicators of public opinion. In the coming months, we will see how Texans respond as the products of the sessions go into effect and begin to have direct effects on their lives.
The responses of their constituents seemed to be on the minds of some legislators during the final days of the special session. The temporarily successful amendment to put any extra Rainy Day money back into schools, and the sudden derailing of a critical fiscal bill in the House at almost the last possible moment, were examples of moments when legislators sensed peril back home. There's no guarantee what the political flavor of a backlash to the relentless focus on a Norquistian shrinking of the state's social obligations might look like. But since the budget problems have been deferred rather than addressed, it's safe to say that the party isn't over. Next time, there may be more than tea on the menu.
Jim Henson directs the Texas Politics project and teaches in the Department of Government at The University of Texas, and is one of the Tribune's pollsters.