Analysis: Will a split Texas electorate split the 2018 ticket?

Top: Gov. Greg Abbott and Lupe Valdez, his Democratic challenger; bottom: U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, his Democratic challenger.
Top: Gov. Greg Abbott and Lupe Valdez, his Democratic challenger; bottom: U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, his Democratic challenger.
Bob Daemmrich: Abbott/Lauras Skelding: Valdez/Robin Jerstad: Cruz/Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson: O’Rourke

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If the November 2018 election results bear much resemblance to recent polls, Texas — which hasn’t been a swing state for a long time — would have to reveal a purple streak.

In a place where Republicans and Democrats seem to disagree so strongly and so consistently, recent polls hint at a new kind of animal in Texas politics: An O’Rourke-Abbott voter.

Several summertime polls show a single-digit difference between the Texas contenders for the U.S. Senate — and a big double-digit difference between the candidates for governor.

The latest version of this came this week in a poll from Emerson College, which found Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz leading his challenger, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, 38 percent to 37 percent. That poll found Gov. Greg Abbott leading Democratic challenger Lupe Valdez 49 percent to 28 percent.

It’s just one poll, but it illustrates a gap evident in other polling this year. The gap varies in size, but it persists. A June University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, for instance, had the Senate candidates 5 percentage points apart and the candidates for governor 12 points apart. A Quinnipiac Poll at the first of the month had Cruz up by 6 percentage points and Abbott up by 13 percentage points. An NBC News/Marist poll last week had a four-point spread in the Senate race and a 19-point spread in the governor’s race.

The numbers vary, but the differences are significant. That suggests that up to a sixth of the state’s voters might choose a candidate from one party in the top race on the ticket, and then switch parties when they vote for a gubernatorial candidate. That’s an awful lot of middle ground to cover.

That kind of gap was a lot more common before Texas Republicans started their unbroken winning streak in statewide elections in 1996. And ending this political cycle with a marked difference in results in the top two statewide races would also reveal something unusual in the state’s polarized electorate: Swing voters.

Browse through Texas election results from the last quarter century and gaps like this are generally small.

Donald Trump won by 9 percentage points in 2016; Wayne Christian, the next statewide Republican on the ballot, won his race for railroad commissioner by 15 points, a 6-percentage point difference.

The victory margins of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Gov. Abbott — the top Republicans in 2014 — were 3 percentage points apart. Two years earlier, Mitt Romney and Cruz each won by 16 percentage points. John McCain and Cornyn each won by 12 percentage points four years earlier. You get the idea.

Differences like those suggested by this year’s polls (remember the pollster’s incantation: “Polls are not predictions, polls are not predictions…”) are relatively rare.

One resulted from a peculiar governor’s election. In 2006, then-Gov. Rick Perry, with three big-time opponents on the general election ballot, won by 9 percentage points (with just 39 percent overall). U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison won re-election by 26 percentage points — a long way ahead of Perry. Likewise, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst won by 20 percentage points. Perry’s opponents, remember, included erstwhile Republican Carole Keeton (her ballot surname changed over the years, as her marital status did), running as an independent, and also Kinky Friedman, a singer and comic who, like Keeton, collected a respectable number of votes. It was a weird year.

Before that, the biggest gap was in 1998. Republicans swept those elections, but they didn’t have much room for comfort; it was the last truly strong finish for Texas Democrats in statewide elections. Then-Gov. George Bush coasted to reelection over Democrat Garry Mauro by 27 percentage points. But Perry won the lieutenant governor race by just 2 points, and Keeton was elected comptroller by 0.55 percentage points.

That’s what a swing state ballot looks like, with voters who split their tickets, choosing one party’s candidate in this race and another’s in that one. Look at 1994: Hutchison won by 23 percentage points, Bush by 7. Bob Bullock, a Democrat, won the lieutenant governor’s race by 23 percentage points. Down the ballot, Perry, a Republican, was winning the agriculture race by 26 percentage points.

To recap, the distance between the biggest Democratic win and the biggest Republican win was 49 percentage points.

Texans don’t seem ready to go back to that. But these early polls suggest that some of them are thinking about it.

Disclosure: The University of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.



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