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The Polling Center: Ethics and Public Perceptions of Perry

Texas voters are concerned about public ethics, and about some of the issues that have attached to the governor over the last 12 years — but they're partisan about it, and that has made all the difference for Rick Perry.

Gov. Rick Perry shakes hands with well-wishers after his announcement that he will not seek reelection in 2014.

The downfall of many politicians, especially those with executive powers, is the mixture that results when power endures over a long period of time. Hiring a trusted friend early on in one’s career could be perceived as standard procedure, while later, the repeated habit of such hirings appears to be payback. Executive appointments required by constitutional mandate seem nothing more than the performance of one’s duties at first, but a decade hence, may have the cumulative effect of looking like cronyism by sheer force of repetition, whether or not there is evidence of some kind of transaction having taken place.

One might consider the negative connotation that attaches to these impressions over time a natural check in democratic systems, in which suspicions accumulate about executives who have been office for a long period. It feeds what we might see as a healthy tendency to “throw the bums out” every once in a while.

Therein lies one of the enduring riddles of Gov. Rick Perry’s 12 years in office: Despite periodic criticism that he used his office to provide opportunities to his political allies and financial supporters, the governor was never politically derailed — or even seriously distracted — by such charges from his rivals, detractors or the reporters charged with covering him.  Thousands of appointments and no small amount of news stories about them later, Perry is departing the governor’s mansion of his own accord.

As with so many other subjects in modern Texas politics, what seems like a puzzle on its own terms is made much less mysterious when viewed in the context of partisan perception.

The most recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll suggests that partisanship exerts a powerful effect on public opinion, working to diffuse Perry’s biggest potential vulnerability. In the case of Perry and ethical issues, partisan preferences appear to dampen Republicans’ concerns about his ethics, while increasing suspicions among Democrats. And in Texas, that means that the public never demanded that Perry answer some tough questions.

The help Perry receives from partisan filtering is apparent in the “most important problem” items that are a regular feature of the UT/TT Poll. When asked what the most important problem facing the state was in our three most recent polls (October 2012, February 2013 and June 2013), Democrats consistently rated political corruption/leadership as one of the state’s most important problems: 18, 14 and 15 percent of them respectively. For Republicans, the numbers were a mere 1, 2 and 5 percent over the same period.

But change the party of the executive, from Perry to Barack Obama, and you change the perceptions. When asked about the most important problem facing the country over the same period, 8 percent of Republicans said political corruption/leadership in October 2012, followed by 13 percent in February and 22 percent in June. For Democrats, the respective share perceiving corruption at the national level to be a serious threat remained at 6 percent in all three polls.

This doesn’t mean that Republicans don’t favor reforms at the state level. Perry might have been vulnerable on the specific issue of receiving public pensions while still collecting a state paycheck, a fact revealed in his financial disclosures during the presidential race. In the June 2013 UT/TT Poll, 75 percent of Texans, including 63 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of Tea Party identifiers, supported a proposed measure that would have prohibited that kind of double dipping by elected officials.

Additionally, when asked whether Texas’ elected officials should disclose detailed information about their incomes and finances, 58 percent of Texans thought such a law would be a good idea, including 52 percent of Republicans and 54 percent of Tea Party Republicans.

In the February 2010 UT/TT poll conducted during that year’s race for governor, we tested some of the possible campaign themes and found a Republican primary electorate hostile toward cronyism, which suggested, at least in concept, a potential Perry vulnerability.

On a 0-to-10 scale (where 0 meant “extremely unimportant” and 10 meant “extremely important”), potential Republican primary voters gave an average score of 8.37 to “choosing a nominee who will not reward political and financial supporters with job appointments” — a charge sometimes leveled at the governor.

They gave higher scores to only two items — choosing a nominee not influenced by Washington, D.C., politics (8.58) and choosing a nominee whose beliefs align with their own (8.83). Conversely, the lowest score was recorded for “choosing a nominee who has a record of government experience” — a more than apt description of the governor as of 2010.

Yet Perry prevailed by comfortable margins in the 2010 election, riding the wave of anti-government sentiment. Republican voters reported having concerns about cronyism and career politicians — but they simply didn’t apply those concerns to their standard bearer.

As Perry moves into the next phase of his political career, questions of cronyism during his long term as governor will reappear should his campaign again capture the interest of the national media — let alone his future rivals. Some part of his success in another foray into national politics will depend on his benefiting again from the partisan filtering that screened out criticism right here in Texas.

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Politics Rick Perry