Sometime in the next few days, Gov. Rick Perry will likely tell the world whether he intends to run for re-election, no doubt feeding speculation about his intentions for 2016 without definitively clarifying them. While Perry’s standing among Texans remains stronger than most of his “oops”-focused critics recognize, he can no longer count on the unrivaled support from the conservative forces in the state that held him in such high esteem four years ago.
With the rise of Ted Cruz and other lesser-known but ambitious Tea Party-fueled politicians, the governor is not the most conservative candidate on the horizon. In a predictable but ironic twist of fate, the conservative forces that Perry has nurtured in the Texas GOP have fueled the rise of politicians more stringently conservative than Perry himself.
Perry’s decision, and his political fate, will depend only partially on currents in public opinion and the politicians who are riding them. But our review of the data generated by the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll that bears on Perry’s standing among Texans yields the following observations as we speculate about the governor’s future career decisions and political prospects.
Perry’s approval ratings in Texas have been remarkably consistent, but there have been some important internal fluctuations among potential Republican primary voters. Perry’s job approval ratings have remained within a consistent range over the life of the UT/TT Poll (including its pre-Texas Tribune existence), between 36 and 45 percent approval in the 16 polls since October 2008. Thus, despite the opprobrium that Democrats and political pundits heaped on Perry during and after his 2012 GOP primary missteps, assessments of Perry as governor and as a figurehead have not been fatally poisoned among GOP primary voters — ultimately the voters who really count. In fact, Perry appears to have bounced back from his dismal 2012 presidential campaign, when the percentage of Texas Republicans “strongly approving” of his job performance dropped into the teens. Since then, Perry has registered “strong approval” with 29 and 30 percent of Republican voters in our last two polls — his greatest share of strong approval over the life of the poll.
The takeaways from Perry’s job approval numbers are twofold: He is in a strong position right now with the Texas GOP, but he is also not invincible to gaffes or being outflanked on his right wing — a threat he experienced in 2012 on his immigration record. And unlike when Perry last ran for public office, the governor is not the only bona fide conservative Texas Republicans have to choose from. The entry of new conservative heartthrobs in the GOP universe suggests that conservative love for Perry is not necessarily unconditional.
Cruz’s success has ended Perry’s reign as the uncontested figurehead for conservative Republicans in Texas. Perry not only finished well behind Cruz in the June UT/TT Poll trial heat for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, but he also lost convincingly to Cruz among Tea Party voters 40 percent to 2 percent, and by almost a 5-to-1 margin among the state’s most conservative Republicans.
It would be easy to overstate the case. As in other contexts, Perry’s job approval and favorability among Tea Party identifiers and conservatives remain strong. And in the context of the most buzzed-about potential matchup involving the governor — a contest with Attorney General Greg Abbott for the GOP gubernatorial nomination — Perry beats Abbott convincingly at this admittedly early stage. But Abbott remains largely undefined, still unknown to 51 percent of Texas voters and 48 percent of Republicans. Not surprisingly, many conservatives are keeping their powder dry until they have a choice to make, and in the meantime, they will surely find out more about the attorney general.
However, in the unlikely event we see a Perry-Abbott race, Perry starts in a much stronger position against the attorney general than he was at this stage of his ultimately successful run against Kay Bailey Hutchison — though the context in 2013 is significantly different than in 2009. As we have argued both above and at length in a previous post, as familiar as Abbott is to close watchers of the process, he remains largely unknown to many Texans. Hutchison was extremely well known before the 2010 primary race (in February 2010, only 27 percent of GOP voters couldn’t register a positive or negative assessment of her job performance), but according to comments by Perry pollster Mike Basilice at a TribLive event the morning after the 2010 primary, the Perry campaign’s polling suggested that Hutchison’s name recognition and popularity were not a bulwark against attacks on her record. Team Perry seemed to have been correct in this assessment, though it was certainly aided by unforced errors on the part of the Hutchison campaign.
In the event of a Perry-Abbott race, it would be much more difficult (though not impossible) for the Perry campaign to attack Abbott’s record from the right given that Abbott has had a fair amount of leeway in the issues he has chosen to champion. This is a luxury that Hutchison, a sitting senator who had faced a number of difficult votes, didn’t have. Among conservatives who have an opinion, Abbott holds his own, with 51 percent of the most conservative respondents having a favorable view of the him. And as he attempts to increase his name recognition and make himself known to more Republican primary voters, he is much less vulnerable than Hutchison to the kind of redefinition that sank her in 2010. It seems that Hutchison didn’t see the Perry campaign’s knockout punch coming. But Abbott had a front-row seat, and won’t be succumbing to any sucker punches.
Perry thus finds himself in a very different position as he decides his future. Cruz and Abbott show that there is plenty of competition to carry the torch of conservative causes in Texas. And Perry’s 2012 campaign performance haunts any future forays: In February 2012 we found that 41 percent of Republicans felt that his presidential campaign had hurt Texas' image.
Patterns in public opinion notwithstanding, Perry’s fate is far from sealed. Events beyond anyone’s control will occur, campaign teams will be assembled, strategies will be formed, money spent (though much of it, perhaps, from Abbott’s ample campaign war chest).
But the political temperature of the Texas GOP has changed from when Perry last fanned the conservative fires in the Republican Party. While Perry was tacking back to a more recognizable mix of pro-business conservative measures with the occasional burst of conservative fire-breathing on issues like guns, gays and abortion, the voters he mobilized to his cause in 2010, and fellow travelers like Cruz and Abbot, have continued to scorch the earth on issues like immigration, federalism and voting rights. The fire last time might not burn bright enough given the conflagration Perry himself helped ignite just a few years ago.
Tribune pollster Jim Henson directs the Texas Politics Project and teaches government at the University of Texas at Austin. Joshua Blank is manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project.