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How Bad Are These Polls For White?

The most recent set of polls show White down by a large margin. Just how bad a loss can the Democrats take?
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The last few months, poll results have begun to feel a whole lot like the old M. Night Shyamalan movies. You would think you could take the results at face-value, but reporters, analysts and the like (including myself) would invariably bring on a I-see-dead-people twist: These results aren’t the whole story, we’d say ominously. What about likely voters? Or regional representation? A newly invigorated Hispanic turnout? Cue music. Instead of Haley Joel Osment’s scared little face, you could imagine a triumphant Bill White, telling people he wasn’t crazy. Conventional wisdom was missing the big reveal!

Okay. But polls get more accurate as we get closer to election day—fewer what-ifs to consider. We’re reaching The Last Airbender levels of predictability. Name recognition for both candidates is as high as it’s going to get, and people know as much as they’re going to learn about the race. After all, early voting is already more than half way done; we’re just over a week away from election day. For White, it’s bad news to see numbers like those in three polls since Friday, all showing Perry ahead by large margins: 11 points, 10 points, 8 points. White appears down by a sizable margin, with scant time to make up the difference.

But setting aside the question of whether White can still actually win, there’s also another point to be considered: At what point can Democrats call his candidacy a success? The last two gubernatorial elections were heart-wrenching affairs for the state Democratic party; in both, the Democratic candidates have failed to come within ten points of Rick Perry. In 2002, Tony Sanchez failed to break 40 percent. In 2006, when four candidates ran and even Perry couldn’t break 40 points—well, that year, Democrat Chris Bell failed to break 30 points.

Bill White’s campaign was supposed to change all that. A viable, moderate challenger in a year of ferverent anti-incumbency. They’ve raised tons of money—at one point more than the Perry campaign—and they’ve garnered enormous attention from the national media. Everyone understands that Texas is a tough place to be a Democrat, but this certainly seemed like a year the Ds were reasonably well placed to make a move. If White fails to come within five or six points of Perry, what will that mean for Texas Democrats?

Currently, Rasmussen has the sunniest numbers for the Democrats, and even those look a bit gloomy. The poll released Saturday showed an eight-point margin between the candidates—the smallest of the three polls; Perry had 51 percent, as compared with White’s 43 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 points. The poll surveyed likely voters—a group that can be difficult to identify early on but is usually solid this close to election day. Still, two weeks ago, Rasmussen had shown Perry with an 11 point lead, so for the Democrats, this was certainly a positive.

Only one day before, the Texas Civil Justice League, Texas Medical Association and the Texas Farm Bureau released their poll, showing Perry with an 11-point lead. It might be easy to argue the poll is partisan—after all, TCJL and TMA both endorsed Perry and the firm administering the poll, Lighthouse Opinion Polling & Research LLC, works primarily for Republican candidates. Furthermore, the firm polled likely voters, which often serves to bolster Republican numbers. But as R.G. Ratcliffe points out, this poll has “accurately predicted the outcome of ever governor’s race since 1990.”

The latest, from the Texas Tribune and the University of Texas, came out today and showed Perry with a 10-point lead. This might be the most damaging poll for the White campaign. It surveyed registered, rather than likely, voters, which would normally advantage White. Since a large turnout in minority and low-income areas would generally help the Democratic candidate, casting a wider net in the poll should show a better result for White. Instead, it appears he’s lost ground—in their poll from September, Perry only held a 6-point lead over White, with 22 percent undecided. This time, they forced undecideds to say who they would vote for if the election were held today, and the results clearly favored Perry.

None of this means White can’t win. It’s a whirlwind election cycle, heavily motivated by the Tea Party movement. As the Tribune’s Ross Ramsey observes, “While 72 percent of White’s voters support him ‘very strongly,’ only 53 percent of Perry’s voters say the same.” The White campaign has said throughout the election that they’ve invested in their field campaign—getting people out at the grassroots level.

It’s also not an all-or-nothing race for the Democrats. The Ds can still claim an intellectual victory and go into the legislative session with some gusto if White can come within spitting distance of Rick Perry. But that would still require significant improvement from the current poll numbers—he has to do a whole lot better than the embarrassing performances of Bell and Sanchez. At minimum, White needs a margin of 5 or 6 points on election night to avoid failure.

These numbers aren’t good enough for that, but soon we’ll have the actual results. And as anyone who’s seen Unbreakable knows, anything can happen.