Rick Perry’s campaign people spent 2009 dancing jigs practically every time Rasmussen Reports put out new poll numbers. But that was then, with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison as the governor’s half-hearted, ever-sinking foe. This is now, with a vigorous general-election opponent, and today’s results will not be inspiring outbursts of merriment in Rickville.
A survey of likely Texas voters puts Perry ahead of Democrat Bill White by just 4 points, 48-44. That’s little changed from the post-primary results, which had Perry up 49-43. But it’s considered a bad sign—the polling equivalent of a black cat crossing your path—when an incumbent isn’t clearing 50 percent. Rasmussen thus calls the governor “potentially vulnerable.”
What would White have to do to raise the bar to just plain “vulnerable,” without the qualifier? The other results of the survey offer strong clues. Economic anxiety is sky-high among Texans, with 40 percent saying the economy’s in poor shape against just 10 who say it’s excellent or good. Forty-six percent say it’s getting worse. But most of them are, not too surprisingly, blaming it on President Obama, whose job approval is just 42 percent among Texans. Perry’s approval rating, meanwhile, has climbed to 59 percent, five points higher than a month ago.
The upshot? White must tie Perry’s performance as governor to folks’ grim views of the economic future. He has to change the political narrative from “blame Washington” to “what’s the matter with Austin?” That won’t be easy. The governor and his people are virtuosos of narrative, and the “Perry vs. Washington” storyline that they created for 2010 is a humdinger. But the success of that plotline depends on Perry being able to claim that he’s made Texas into a model for longterm economic success that makes a bright contrast with both Washington and other states.
If White can puncture Perry’s great economic myth—partly by emphasizing the $11 billion budget deficit the state will face in 2011—and make the focus Texas rather than Washington, he’ll have a shot. But only if he can weave a more compelling storyline than his opponent, who has shown himself to be a regular Charles Dickens when it comes to reshaping the messy materials of reality into a convincing work of fiction.
The storytellers at Perry HQ are probably thinking at least one happy thought about their plotline today. With the governor looking at a run for president (which he ritually denies), the best possible outcome for him in November would be to overcome a tough opponent and end up beating him silly. That would reinforce the idea of Perry as a Great Campaigner, which was bolstered by his thumping of Hutchison—especially nationally, where people didn’t know the full story of how lousy her campaign was.
If Perry ends up smashing a strong opponent in the general election, it’ll intensify the buzz around his presidential prospects. In that sense, at least, Perry’s “potential” vulnerability can be seen as one more opportunity for the most opportunistic campaign around.