New PPP Poll Highlights Areas of Concern for Texas Democrats

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Wendy Davis speaks to the press at an election rally, April 14, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Wendy Davis speaks to the press at an election rally, April 14, 2014.

The left-leaning Public Policy Polling (PPP) released a survey this morning attempting to take the measure of elections in the state, and it doesn’t provide much comfort for Texas Democrats. There’s a relative paucity of good polling in Texas, so we don’t have much to compare it to. But soft numbers—coupled with the fact that PPP has historically produced poll results with a little extra margin for Dems—are cause for concern.

The top-level figures—for the gubernatorial election, for example—will be subject to spin. Democrats will say PPP’s samples didn’t model the “new” electorate they’re trying to turn out in November. But even if that’s true, the patterns that show down in the guts of the poll (press release here, full results here) aren’t great for Dems—regardless of whether the Abbott/Davis numbers are right. (They have Abbott leading Davis, 51 percent to 37 percent.)

Jim Henson, the director of UT’s Texas Politics Project, says the poll, together with others, shows the Texas political balance hasn’t changed much—yet—from where it was in 2010, when Bill White faced Rick Perry. “So far there’s no evidence that this race is disrupting the pattern,” said Henson. “We’re settling in to what we expect from the fundamentals.” The caveat: we’re at a point now, Henson says, where voters are just beginning to tune in. There’s time for the momentum to shift, but we’re settling in to the baseline.

Four takeaways:

1) Davis’ favorability ratings are sinking

When PPP last polled the state in November, 39 percent of Texas voters had a favorable opinion of her, while 29 percent held an unfavorable opinion. She’s now underwater in a big way, with 33 percent finding her favorable and 47 percent regarding her unfavorably. That’s a steep drop. Both campaigns have gone negative lately, but it hasn’t hurt Abbott as much—40 percent hold favorable opinions of him, with a third undecided.

2) Hispanics aren’t sure about Davis yet

Start with the caveat: Only 18 percent of the poll’s respondents identified as Hispanic. Still, Davis leads Abbott in the demographic by a relatively unimpressive margin, 43 percent to 33 percent, with 24 percent undecided.

But Henson warns against making too much of the result. “The Hispanic population is younger, and likelier to be less attentive” to the race at this stage, he says.

If a decent ratio of the undecided break for Davis, she’ll be in line with past Democratic candidates—but it means that the Davis campaign needs to spend more time and resources getting the campaign’s word out in Hispanic communities. Davis and Abbott both have essentially neutral favorable/unfavorable ratings among Hispanic respondents, with a high number of undecided.

3) Davis and Van de Putte aren’t doing any better than David Alameel

That’s remarkable because Alameel, the self-financed dentist from Dallas who failed to clinch the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate without a runoff against Lyndon LaRouche-acolyte Kesha Rogers, is essentially an empty candidate. No Democrats are excited about David Alameel. Few know who he is—in the PPP poll, 67 percent of respondents are undecided about him. He’s run ads and sent mailers, but that’s it. But he’s losing by roughly the same margin as Van de Putte is to Dewhurst or Patrick, and is only slightly underperforming Davis. Henson says that’s evidence that party affiliation is the primary driver of the poll’s results. But the flip side of that is Van de Putte and Davis haven’t yet won much support outside of their traditional bases.

4) Patrick’s primary win doesn’t yet seem to make a difference for Van de Putte

One of Democrats’ whispered hopes lately has been that Patrick’s shocking victory over Dewhurst in the Republican primary would create space for Van de Putte. Patrick, who’s taken to characterizing illegal immigrants as diseased, violent, bottom-feeding moochers, was too extreme for Texas, they reasoned. Some suggested that if Patrick could pull a runoff victory, Van de Putte would be the Democrat most likely to win a statewide seat this cycle, not Davis. But PPP’s results show Patrick’s tics haven’t made much of a negative impression on Texas voters, yet. If the election were held today, Van de Putte would lose to Dewhurst by 18 points, and Patrick by 16. Patrick hasn’t yet won his runoff, of course, meaning Van de Putte hasn’t been able to highlight his past statements and policy positions. But Patrick isn’t a fool. He’ll flatten out his public profile when he needs to—Van de Putte won’t be running against the same Patrick who was riling the base in January.

The election is a long way away, but this isn’t quite where Democrats want to be. Hell, PPP has Perry’s approval rating in Texas above water for the first time in years. If you were wondering what would get Texas conservatives to finally swing back around to Perry, the answer, apparently, is the threat of criminal charges.

Christopher Hooks joined the Observer in 2014. Previously, he was a freelance journalist in Austin, where he grew up. His work has appeared in Politico Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, among others. He graduated from The New School in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in history.