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Analysis: When Voters Don't Agree, Leaders Can't Agree Either

Can't find consensus among state political leaders in the wake of a momentous wave of news? Maybe that's because they can't find it among voters.

Legislators listen as Gov. Greg Abbott delivers his State of the State speech on Feb. 17, 2015.

You are forgiven for missing some of last week’s news — there was a lot going on. But the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll had a couple of nuggets that help explain the reactions to some of the news that was nearly impossible to miss last week.

Texans are still divided on gay marriage, and divided in a way that makes the politics transparent. And conservatives, as pointed out by our pollsters in TribTalk, have a distinctly different perception of discrimination than other Texas voters.

More to the point, the conservatives and especially the Tea Party conservatives in Texas come at a lot of issues differently than other voters. Since they’re the contingent behind the civic steering wheel, legislators and state leaders go where they go, politically speaking.

The state’s registered voters, according to that poll, wanted surplus state money used for property tax relief, increased funding for health and human services and public schools, and reduction of state debt. Those who identified themselves as conservatives had a different list of priorities: Cut property taxes, reduce state debt and sock the money away for the future.

Now you know why there are no fingerprints on the state’s Rainy Day Fund: It’s expected to have a balance of $11.1 billion in it soon, and nobody in the majority party even suggested spending any of it.

Want to talk guns? A slim overall majority of Texas voters support allowing licensed open carry of handguns in the state, a majority that jumps to 75 percent among all Republican voters and to 81 percent among those who identify with the Tea Party. That proposal’s cousin — allowing concealed carry of handguns on state college and university campuses — was opposed by 37 percent of all voters, by 17 percent of Republicans and by only 10 percent of the Tea Party folk.

Conservative lawmakers ignored — or didn’t answer — calls for an end to in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. Nor did they take note of the lukewarm support for pre-kindergarten programs among their voters.

The first idea didn’t get any traction in this Legislature, although more than three-fifths of conservative voters wanted it. The second got passed with a boost from Gov. Greg Abbott, who put it in his State of the State address and pushed for pre-K all session. It’s popular with business leaders and with Democrats, but Republican voters in the survey couldn’t quite muster 50 percent support for it, and a majority of Tea Party voters oppose a bigger program.

Some of that is just bread-and-butter partisan politics. But look at the support for Abbott’s decision to send the Texas State Guard to monitor a federal military exercise called Jade Helm 15. Democrats thought that was kooky; only 18 percent supported it. But 57 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of Tea Party voters approved of the governor’s action.

They were also much more likely to believe — by large majorities — that the federal government would send the military to impose martial law, to confiscate firearms, to arrest political prisoners or to violate citizens’ property rights.

The poll was completed well before last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling and found 44 percent of the state’s registered voters in favor of gay marriage and 41 percent opposed to it. Younger voters are much more accepting of those marriages than their elders. The gender gap is significant, and rural voters, on balance, oppose those marriages while urban voters favor them.

The partisan differences are stark, which you know intuitively if you were watching the reactions of liberal and conservative politicians after that ruling was made public. While 66 percent of Democrats said gays and lesbians should have the right to marry, 60 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of Tea Party voters said they should not have the right to marry.

Ask who faces the most discrimination and you see vast differences on the political front. Among all of the registered voters in the UT/TT Poll, transgender people were seen to face the most discrimination, followed by Muslims, gays and lesbians, African-Americans, Hispanics, women, Christians, Asians, whites and men.

Republicans put Christians at the top of their list, followed by transgender people, Muslims, and gays and lesbians. Democrats listed African-Americans first, followed by gays and lesbians, Muslims and transgender people.

The list from the Tea Party voters, starting with the groups facing the most discrimination: Christians, whites, transgender people, Muslims, gays and lesbians, African-Americans, men, Hispanics, women and Asians.

No wonder the politicians seem to be all over the map when they’re talking about these things. They’re just like the voters.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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