Signs and Wonders: Bill White Narrows the Gap


With a cluster of recent polls showing Bill White nipping at Rick Perry’s heels, Texas Democrats have had themselves a giddy week. And with many good portents beginning to appear for Texas Dems this fall—including a poll showing that, unlike most of the country, there’s no “enthusiasm gap” between likely Republican and Democratic voters in this state. And with Gov. Perry’s approval ratings and poll numbers all over the map, it also looks like support for his re-election is shaky at best.

Of course, these latest numbers should be regarded the same way as any polls: with tilted heads, skeptical frowns and bullshit detectors set on high. As we’ve seen in primary election after primary election this year, mid-term elections are cussedly hard to accurately predict through polling. The pollsters have gotten it wrong repeatedly in 2010. In the simplest terms, University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray tells the Observer, “It’s tougher to poll in midterm elections because the electorate is small.”

But even while wearing my own skeptical frown, things still look brighter for White. And Murray, among other experts, skeptically agrees.

One happy sign for White: While his own poll numbers varied little—from 38 to 42 percent—and have been steady for weeks now, Perry’s fluctuate radically. In the recent Wilson Research Strategies poll, the governor got 50 percent; Rasmussen has him at 49; Public Policy has him at 48; the Hill Research Consultants poll (conducted by a Republican firm) puts him at just 42 percent. That could mean that Perry’s support is “softer” than White’s—more subject to further erosion.

“White’s numbers are still the same,” says David Benzion, senior research analyst for Hill Research. “That’s really is where he is. The question is, where is Perry for real?”

One thing, at least, is clear enough: Perry can’t crack the “magic number” of 50 percent in the polls. As Richard Murray says, “There is some risk unless [incumbents are] consistently topping 50 percent.”

More bad omens for Perry: In the PPP poll, a slight majority disapproved of the job Perry is doing, with just 39 percent approving. Independents, who will be key to the results in November, disapproved overwhelming of Perry’s performance: Just 25 percent said he’s doing the job well.  Meanwhile, White has some of the best “favorability numbers” (gotta love that pollster talk) in the whole country: 44-29 percent positive. That probably won’t last long, as the Perry assault machine switches on in the closing weeks of the campaign. But maybe the single most encouraging thing for the White camp: So far, independents see him positively, 47-26.

Murray believes that the polls indicate that White, the challenger, “has more opportunity to grow [his] base of support.” There’s also the fact, Murray adds, that White “should benefit potentially more from the end game because he has the chance to raise his own visibility.” Everybody already knows Rick Perry. All too well, maybe.

But won’t the national Republican tide help Perry? Not necessarily. “While generically it’s better to be a Republican than a Democrat in 2010,” Murray says that’s “not necessarily so much in Texas.” Among other factors, “There’s some fatigue out there.” The PPP numbers seem to back that up.

Of course, these are all informed speculations. So are the blog posts asking whether the anti-Perry “Coward” ad influenced these results. And the ones spinning the results to make them look definitively rosy for either White or Perry. Poll numbers are infinitely spinnable. But this recent set does show a rock-solid stability among White supporters, and a fickleness by those leaning toward Perry.

What happens over the next two months could make all this seem like a fleeting phenomenon, of course. But for Texas Democrats, any decent news tends to sound like fabulous news. But while divining poll numbers is about as exact a science as, say, channeling your cat’s thoughts and translating them into English, there’s unquestionably some decent news for the Dems in this latest batch. And for White, the national publicity that goes with being the Democrats’ rare “bright spot” nationally in 2010—as he’s now being called, even in USA Today—certainly won’t hurt in the fundraising department.

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines: There is a competitive governor’s race. Now let’s see what happens when the Perry people start acting like they know they can’t sail back into office without a fight.