beto, elections
Brad Tollefson/A-J Media

Has the Beto Bubble Burst?

After a series of polls over the summer predicted a nail-biter, more recent numbers show a reversion to the Texas mean.


Justin Miller has brown hair, a light beard and mustache and is wearing a corduroy button down over a dark t-shirt.

Above: Beto O'Rourke

With less than two weeks until early voting begins in Texas, the hype around Betomania looks to be losing some of its luster. Or, rather, the Texas electorate’s muscle memory is kicking in as more people start tuning in and making up their minds.

Beto O’Rourke is trailing Ted Cruz among likely voters by 9 percentage points, 54-45, according to a Quinnipiac poll released Thursday — making up no ground from the same poll’s September numbers. Gubernatorial challenger Lupe Valdez is now trailing Abbott by 20 points, the same margin by which Wendy Davis lost to Greg Abbott in 2014. The New York Timeslive polling project, which should be taken with a grain of salt, also has O’Rourke trailing by nine, 52-43.

Those numbers are a far cry from the heady days — just weeks ago — when some polls were showing him within striking distance, or even winning.

So what’s happening? Well, Texas is gonna Texas. There’s always been a bubble of hype around O’Rourke’s campaign, an understandable bit of overindulgence in the idea that the state is changing by leaps and bounds — and that the El Paso congressman’s romantic campaign is egging it on.

There is certainly a lot of truth to that story. But there’s truth on the flip side, as well: The Texas electorate hasn’t changed that much since 2016. One salient data point: Quinnipiac’s nine-point margin mirrors the 2016 presidential election in the state — Trump led Clinton 52-43.

An O’Rourke win has always required capturing a large chunk of more moderate Republicans willing to cast their vote for a reasonable and independent politician.

To counter that, Cruz has ramped up his attacks on O’Rourke, trying to introduce him to undecided voters as the antithesis of Texas — a radical gun-grabber who wants open borders, legalized drugs and socialized medicine. He and his allied super PACs have spent millions running attack ads. Meanwhile, O’Rourke is still working to introduce himself to Texans as a positive post-partisan who refuses to get in the gutter with Cruz.

ted cruz, elections
Cruz talks with a supporter after his speech in McGregor, Texas.  Justin Miller

Cruz’s cynical strategy appears to be more effective. Beto’s favorability numbers are now split, 45-47 — not a good sign for a candidate banking on political transcendence. Republicans are coming home, and O’Rourke is perhaps hitting his head on the state’s Democratic ceiling.

The sitting senator is winning the white vote with predictably huge margins (71-25); he’s also popular among those base voters whose top issues are immigration, the Supreme Court and the economy. They care more that Cruz is one of them (an unabashed conservative) than whether he’s a caring, honest guy. Cruz is polling strongly with the groups that O’Rourke needs to make big gains with in order to compete. White women support Cruz 62-37, and O’Rourke’s lead among Hispanic voters, while large — 61-37 — is not nearly large enough.

There’s not much room for O’Rourke to make up ground in the next few weeks, according to the poll, as 96 percent of likely voters have already made up their minds.

An O’Rourke win has always required capturing a large chunk of more moderate Republicans willing to cast their vote for a reasonable and independent politician.

The caveat, of course, is that polling (the Real Clear Politics average spread is Cruz +6.6) is imperfect. The Beto campaign’s belief that this is a winnable race is based on the potential for a massive political surge — the one they’re feeling on the campaign trail every day — that isn’t getting picked up in typical polling. O’Rourke is counting on huge crowds and first-time voters in unexpected places, as well as converted Republicans and neglected communities of color who are eager to show up for a candidate who has shown up for them.

O’Rourke is expected to soon announce a massive fundraising haul, which he’ll use to soak the airwaves and fuel an ambitious get-out-the-vote effort in the next few weeks. That could help drive out turnout numbers closer to presidential-year levels. But the massive scale-up, which features hundreds of volunteer-run pop-up hubs around the state, is a shoestring operation with the daunting task of knocking on millions of doors. Meanwhile, Governor Greg Abbott has been pumping tens of millions into the Texas GOP’s well-oiled field program.

These recent polls are something of a course correction, reminding us just how much of an utterly Sisyphean task O’Rourke set out on a year and a half ago.