The February 2012 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll allows us to gauge the relative positions of Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott among Republican primary voters by looking at different measures of Republicans’ support for each of these politicians.
The key to thinking about a potential Perry-Abbott race is to recognize just how obscure the hypothetical matchup is to anyone but political professionals, political reporters or political junkies — in other words, the vast majority of Texans. With the 2012 election only four months past, few voters are thinking about their primary preferences for 2014. Even fewer have considered a possible Perry-Abbott contest.
That said, the clearest expression of Republican attitudes about Perry and Abbott are found in considerations of each in isolation from the other.
Three questions from the most recent UT/TT Poll provide indications of where each potential candidate stands in a hypothetical 2014 primary. We asked whether respondents would support another Perry run for governor in 2014; whether they have a favorable or unfavorable attitude toward Perry; and whether they have a favorable or unfavorable attitude toward Abbott.
The numbers suggest that at this moment, Perry remains popular among Republicans, 73 percent of whom view him favorably compared with only 13 percent who view him unfavorably. Similarly, among those who identify themselves as conservatives, he is viewed favorably by 67 percent and unfavorably by 19 percent. Among Tea Party identifiers, a key constituency in Republican primaries, he is viewed favorably by 76 percent and unfavorably by only 14 percent. Perry is a known quantity in Republican circles, with a long record, high name identification and an established conservative reputation.
Yet his long tenure in office and his failed presidential bid could be hazards should he choose to run for an unprecedented fourth full term. When asked if they would vote for him, vote against him (versus an unspecified opponent), or wait and see who else runs for governor in 2014, Republicans supported Perry — but only by a bare plurality: 48 percent said they would vote for him and only 6 percent actively opposed him, but 44 percent said they would wait and see. It’s not all bad news: of the Republicans who chose the “wait and see” option, 60 percent view him favorably and only 13 percent unfavorably, a large positive spread. But the large number of fence-sitters could be a sign of Perry fatigue, making this something of a glass half-full or half-empty judgment.
There are positive indicators for Abbott if one drills down carefully in the Republican views of a Perry re-election bid. Of the Republicans who said they would vote for Perry, 55 percent view Abbott favorably, 39 percent don’t have an opinion and only 6 percent disapprove. At this point in time, when voters are unlikely to have reviewed their support of Perry in the light of an informed opinion about an Abbott option, these responses suggest potential Abbott votes among the Perry supporters.
These responses don’t tell us how soft Perry’s support would be in the face of a campaign against Abbott, but we can make some very rough estimates. Based on the above numbers, about 19 percent of the potential GOP voters who currently support Perry haven’t formed an opinion about Abbott. Another 26 percent of Republicans who say right now that they would vote for Perry also have a positive view of Abbott.
Abbott is in a similar position with those who want to “wait and see” before recommitting to Perry, the most obvious source of potential votes for the less well-known attorney general. His favorability ratings are heavily positive — 45 percent favorable and 7 percent unfavorable. And there is a large chunk of potential supporters among whom he remains undefined.
Among the wait-and-see group, Perry and Abbott were evenly matched when presented head to head (23 percent/22 percent) later in the survey; about half of the fence-sitters declined to commit when offered the Abbott option.
We did ask a direct hypothetical “if the election were held tomorrow” question, which, as you’ve probably read elsewhere in The Texas Tribune by now, produced a 49-percent-to-17-percent Perry advantage among GOP voters, with 31 percent saying they hadn’t thought enough about it to have an opinion.
The head-to-head formulation has some inherent limitations. But for now, suffice to say that the 32-point gap between Perry and Abbott, with a year to go before the election, masks a great deal of ambiguity that can be unmasked by also looking at each politicians’ approval numbers and the item looking at attitudes toward another Perry run that didn’t mention an opponent.
Out of the 49 percent of GOP voters who chose Perry in the horse-race matchup, 46 percent have a favorable view of Abbott, 9 percent have an unfavorable view and 45 percent have no opinion (the combined "Don't know" and "neither favorable nor unfavorable").
One thing does seem clear: If the fight promoters among the press and political junkies get their wish, and Abbott and Perry face off, the key factor in the campaign will be how Abbott is defined in the minds of all the voters who have little or no fixed image of him now — as many as 44 percent of GOP identifiers. For recent examples of how important this is, see Rick Perry’s definition of Kay Bailey Hutchison as a Washington insider in 2010 and Ted Cruz’s definition of David Dewhurst as a faux conservative in 2012.
Whether Perry is his opponent or not, the critical early mission of an Abbott gubernatorial campaign, in the likely event such an effort materializes, will be to define Abbott among the voters who don’t have an impression of him yet. Perry faces a very different kind of terra incognito — whether he has exhausted his standing among conservatives in office after three gubernatorial campaigns and a fraught presidential foray. While his approval numbers remain high with his traditional supporters, there are many signs within these numbers that he might not have as much fun waging another primary battle as he seemed to have last time. That is fuel for those who think that this race probably will never happen.