Analysis: Texas voters signal a turn to normal, in more ways than one

A sign asks customers to continue wearing masks in South Austin on March 12, 2021. After Gov. Greg Abbott announced that all businesses are allowed to open without any occupancy limits and lifted restrictions on masks, Mayor Steve Adler said residents would still be required to wear masks.

A sign asks customers to continue wearing masks in South Austin on March 12, 2021.

Credit: Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune

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Texans remain wary of the coronavirus, but are much more willing to go out, and to take part in activities that seemed a lot riskier just a couple of months ago.

And what they were most concerned about in February — the pandemic — has been replaced on their list by two perennial problems that have topped the list for years: immigration and border security.

It turns out that Texas is returning to normal in more ways than one, according to the latest batch of results from the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Only 23% of Texas voters said they’re still staying at home, or leaving only if they absolutely have to go somewhere. A year ago, 72% of us were saying that, and as recently as February, 34% were saying so. In the April 2021 survey, 33% said they’re living normally; another 44% said they leave home, but they’re careful when they do.

That’s not quite pre-pandemic behavior, but it’s getting closer and closer. That rise in apparent confidence matches increasing numbers of vaccinations and the end of the last big surge of new confirmed cases in Texas — which peaked in January and have flattened out in the last few weeks at levels not seen since last June.

At the same time, the number of people trying to get into the United States from Mexico and other countries was rising rapidly, and that border issue was reflected in voters’ estimations of the most important problems facing Texas.

Some of the shift is evident in voters’ assessments of the new president. Overall, Joe Biden has favorable job ratings equal to or greater than those of Greg Abbott, Ted Cruz, John Cornyn and other statewide officials in Texas. And voters here give him pretty good grades on his response to the coronavirus: 49% approve, and 35% disapprove.

But COVID-19, the top voter concern in February, has been knocked aside by immigration and border security, and Biden’s grades on that subject are lousy: 23% think he’s doing a good job, and 59% do not. As Daron Shaw, a University of Texas government professor and co-director of the UT/TT Poll pointed out, that’s a weak spot Republicans are sure to notice.

The poll found an advantage for the new guy. Biden wasn’t president during what has so far been the rockiest part of the pandemic. Gov. Greg Abbott, on the other hand, has been in charge in Texas the whole time, and his job ratings have suffered. As the state’s response to the pandemic started a year ago, Abbott was viewed favorably by 56% of voters, unfavorably by 32%.

Citizens in trouble rally around leaders, right? But a year later, 43% of voters approve of Abbott’s work overall, and 45% disapprove. His handling of pandemic responses is also tepid: 43% approve, and 48% disapprove.

The governor can always hope to catch up with voters’ increasing optimism about the pandemic.

Given a list of “normal” activities they consider safe or not, a majority of voters would do anything from shopping for groceries to attending outdoor concerts or sporting events. Only a few activities are still out of bounds for a majority, like movies, going to the gym, indoor sporting events or concerts and going to bars and clubs.

Most Republicans were open to any of those activities, even the lowest rated; 63% said they felt safe visiting bars and clubs.

If they do go out for a drink, they might miss the usual political arguments they’d find at their favorite joint. Only 11% of Democrats think it’s safe to show up in bars and clubs.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin 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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