Skip to main content

Inside Out: Insiders and Voters Don't See Eye to Eye

Texas voters and the people who work in and around government don't agree on education quality and funding, tax pledges, or even the most important problems facing the state.

Lead image for this article

Most insiders are political professionals working in the halls of government. In The Texas Tribune's latest Inside Intelligence, they seem concerned with the kinds of problems that have been the province of government: above all, public education, but also infrastructure issues, like the water supply and transportation.

Texas voters, on the other hand, have recently demonstrated both in elections and polls that they are at best skeptical of and at worst downright hostile to what happens in those hallways. The problems that most worry voters lie outside areas of proactive government initiatives. They appear more focused on broad policy areas that are either outside such initiatives or point to perceived failure: the economy, jobs, immigration, border security. Public education is growing as a concern, but only among a small group.

These differences are especially pronounced if we compare the insiders with the subgroup of Texas voters exercising the most influence in elections right now: self-identified Republicans. GOP dissidents complaining loudly that the (Republican-dominated) political system in the state is tainted by insiders who have lost touch with the limited-government grassroots might have a point; people working in and around government have different priorities than GOP primary voters.

Most Important Problems Facing Texas

A question about the “most important problem facing Texas” provides the best starting point for framing differences between insiders and the registered voter sample.

The insiders focused on policy issues that are grabbing much less attention from the general population as tracked in University of Texas/Texas Tribune polls.

As the table below illustrates, the economy, immigration, border security and unemployment were the front-runners among voters, though immigration and border security have cooled slightly compared with numbers over the last two years (see results from February 2012, February 2011 and February 2010).

Among the insiders, education surged to the top spot (from 24 percent in May 2011 to 30 percent now), and the economy dropped from 14 percent to 8 percent. Water was the big mover among the insiders — up from 2 percent in 2011 to 16 percent in 2012. Almost half of the insiders were focused on water or education — both issues that involve substantial government action and have been much discussed, if not effectively acted upon, in legislative circles. By contrast, the two items combined were cited as most important by less than 15 percent of the public. 

Most Important Problems Facing Texas: Inside Intelligence and UT/TT Poll (May 2012)
Selected Items Insiders UT/TT Poll - all (rank) UT/TT-GOP UT/TT Poll - DEM UT/TT Poll - IND
Education 30% 11% (2) 4% 16% 13%
Water supply 16% 2% 2% < 1% 3%
Political corruption/leadership 12% 10% 6% 15% 14%
State budget cuts 11% 4% 3% 8% 8%
The economy 8% 12% (1) 12% 12% 20%
Transportation/roads/traffic 8% 1% < 1% < 1% 2%
State government spending 4% 3% 4% 2% 3%
Health care 3% 3% 1% 6% 7%
Immigration 1% 12% (1) 18% 6% 11%
Border security 1% 11% (2) 21% 1% 7%
Unemployment/jobs 1% 11% (2) 9% 12% 2%
Gas prices 0% 4% 3% 5% 2%

Note: Table excludes items with zero responses in both surveys, as well as zero insiders paired with 1-2% responses in the UT poll. For notes about data, seen “Fine Print” below.

As we go down the list, 8 percent of the insiders cited transportation as most important, while it barely registered among the voters; state budget cuts concerned 11 percent of the insiders but only 4 percent of the voters.

Education opens the most notable gap — only 4 percent of the Republican identifiers chose it as the most important problem facing the state. By comparison, nearly 10 times as many GOP respondents as insiders chose immigration and border security as the most important problems facing Texas.

The contrast between insiders and voters on their views of problems might only suggest their differences on the role and virtues of government, and likely there are other explanatory factors at play here. The persistent weakness of the national economy takes priority over other problems. While water has been the talk of insiders for some time now, one might argue that it has yet to receive the kind of sustained attention from news media that lands such problems in public consciousness. Similarly, the sad history of the Legislature addressing public education funding only under duress from the courts may well have led to a widespread shrugging of the public’s shoulders on that subject.

Questions that drill down further into attitudes about public education, however, suggest that insiders are less likely to shrug off public education funding. Insiders' conspicuous interest in public education is evident in their answers to other questions.

Public Education as Government Service

During the last legislative session, the principal of controlling the growth of government and government spending was also applied to public education, which became ground zero for the budget cutters last session. Public education spending emerged as a large-ticket item Republican leaders were determined to tame.

In this context, we developed a question for the UT/TT poll to find out if Texans perceived any impact on public school performance in the aftermath of the first round of cuts. We asked a direct question: “Compared to a year ago, would you say that K-12 public school education in Texas is a lot better, somewhat better, about the same, somewhat worse, or a lot worse?” This question and one of our recurring questions about education funding can also be viewed in the broader context of views about the state’s public infrastructure.

Negative assessments of how public schools compare to a year ago were 10 points higher among the insiders than among the public, and more of the insiders, by 11 points, said that Texas spends too little on public education, as the table below illustrates. There is certainly no groundswell of sentiment, anywhere, that schools have improved in the last year. But GOP respondents were noticeably less likely to classify the schools as worse than a year ago than the insiders or any other partisan grouping.

Does Texas spend the right amount on public education?
  Insiders UT/TT Poll UT/TT - GOP UT/TT - DEM UT/TT - IND
Too much 11% 14% 23% 3% 17%
About the right amount 21% 23% 34% 12% 16%
Too little 62% 51% 31% 77% 44%
Don't know 6% 13% 12% 9% 23%

How do Texas public schools compare to a year ago?
  Insiders UT/TT Poll UT/TT - GOP UT/TT - DEM UT/TT - IND
A lot better 1% 2% 3 2 0
Somewhat better 5% 8% 6 8 7
About the same 42% 39% 52 26 35%
Somewhat worse 39% 22% 17 29 24
A lot worse 10% 17% 9 25 18
Don't know 3% 13% 13% 11% 15%

For notes about data, seen “Fine Print” below.

To Pledge or Not to Pledge

One might see the difference between the insiders on public policy problems as merely a matter of priority for government attention. But the differences on one item on both surveys suggest there is a big difference on a subject at the root of views of government. That item probed attitudes toward anti-tax pledges.

One of the most interesting items written for the UT/TT survey and also put before the insiders gauged reactions to the general practice of campaign anti-tax pledges. The item was a two-sided question designed to capture views on anti-tax pledges such as those administered by Grover Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform at the national level and Gov. Rick Perry and allied organizations during this year's GOP primary election in Texas. The item offered the following choice:

As you may know, Texas State Legislative candidates have recently been invited to pledge NOT to increase taxes when the legislature convenes in January 2013.

Some people say that state legislative candidates should pledge not to increase taxes before the primary elections so that voters know where they stand on taxes.

Others say that anti-tax pledges lock candidates into inflexible positions before the fiscal situation in January 2013 is clear.

Which of these positions is closer to yours?

- Candidates should pledge not to increase taxes before the primary elections. [or]         

- Candidates should not make pledges before the fiscal situation is clear.

The slight margin of opposition to the tax pledges among voters — 36 percent supported the pledge, 47 percent opposed them, 18 percent didn’t know — raised a few eyebrows, though the 10-point margin of support among GOP identifiers in this formulation made sense, and sheds light on the ready embrace of these pledges by GOP primary candidates.

Insider opposition to the anti-tax pledges was lopsided, with 86 percent embracing the “wait and see” position; and again, the gulf between the insiders and GOP identifiers was pronounced, as the table below illustrates. If the underlying logic of the anti-tax pledge has been to starve government of revenue in order to weaken it, per Norquist, then the insiders appear to be opposed to this goal — more strongly opposed than the general public, and much more strongly than the GOP primary electorate, half of which supports such pledges.

The lesson may well be a simple tautology: Government insiders are government insiders, and their beliefs merely reflect their positions. And among the electorate, in a period of slow economic recovery and intense political polarization, there is no consensus on policy priorities. But the pronounced differences between the insiders and the GOP identified voter base underlines the wound-like gap between those working in the system, on one hand, and a group of Texans who, at least for the moment, is intensely engaged in the electoral politics that are shaping governance in the state. Neither group, it would seem, is doing much to give the other what it wants. 

Should candidates sign anti-tax pledges during campaigns?
  Insiders UT/TT (all) UT/TT (R) UT/TT (D) UT/TT (I)
Yes 13% 36% 50 20 35
No 86% 47% 40 61 50
Don't know 2% 18% 10 19 15

For notes about data, seen “Fine Print” below.

FINE PRINT: To paraphrase the caveats I wrote the first time we engaged in this exercise: This is speculative. 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 explicit coverage or day-to-day news coverage. The attitudes and knowledge of people as a group on the list rarely sees the light of day in either journalism or academic research. But the Inside Intelligence survey is highly informal and not a statistical sample of any rigorously defined population. Texas Weekly and The Texas 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 knowledgeably 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 that responds in a given week; they can't be presented as statistically representative of anything other than themselves. The names of the respondents are published each week, though of course not matched to their specific responses. 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.

NOTES ABOUT THE DATA. All University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll data is from the May 2012 poll. N=800 Adult self-reported registered voters; Margin of error: +/- 3.46 percentage points; field dates, May 7-13, 2012.

Inside Intelligence responses: Texas education and tax pledge items: 125 responses, published June 4, PID: Democrat 23 percent, Republican 44.4 percent, Independent 32.5 percent; MIP -Texas: 145 responses, published May 28, PID Democrat 24.1 percent, Republican 40 percent, Independent 35.9 percent. As always, this is not a scientifically designed survey and so has no statistical margin of error.

Texans need truth. Help us report it.

Support independent Texas news

Become a member. Join today.

Donate now

Explore related story topics