Takeaways from the 2019 UT/TT Poll of potential Democratic primary voters

by James Henson and Joshua Blank

The latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll of potential Democratic presidential primary election voters comes amid rising speculation from national political observers about Texas’s role in the 2020 election. The poll results illuminate some areas in which Texas reflects national dynamics, such as Elizabeth Warren’s current surge in attention from Democratic primary voters, as well as items of local interest (if national implications), like the continuing struggles of the state’s native sons trying to move on to bigger and better things. We’ve chosen five first takes to explore based on the data:

1. The Elizabeth Warren boomlet is here. Taking second choices into account underlines that Warren’s early strength is evident in Texas, too. If you combine voters’ first and second choices, she’s actually the frontrunner in this poll. Warren came in second overall to former vice president Joe Biden, with 18% of the vote. But when asked for their second choice, a plurality, 24%, said Warren as well. This far outpaced any of the other candidates, with O’Rourke and Sanders each receiving 13% of the second-choice votes. And while Warren would receive 30% of Joe Biden’s supporters should he drop out of the race (according to their second choice), she would also receive a whopping 42% of Bernie Sanders’ supporters should he drop out.

2. Democrats appear to be on their way to squandering the chance to seriously challenge John Cornyn.  Two-thirds of Democrats expressed no opinion on the Democratic primary race led by former Congressional District 31 candidate M.J. Hegar with 11%(!), followed by state Sen. Royce West of Dallas (5%), and Sema Henandez and Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, with 3% each. The names of the three most well-known candidates are only recognized by about a fifth of Democrats: West (22%), Hegar (21%), and former U.S. representative and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell (the choice of 2%). It’s fair to think that a big Democratic mobilization driven by anti-Trump sentiment and several potentially competitive congressonal races might boost credible Democratic candidates; the next few months will determine who among them, if any, can rise to the level of statewide credibiility. But this is also fair: Had a more established Democratic candidate with recent success at fundraising and running a statewide campaign challenged Cornyn in the glow of ’emocrats’ 2018 mobilization, the Senate contest would be real — and would help the party with the electoral college map, too. But so be it. On to the next totally unrelated observation.

3. No Texas candidate is strong enough, so far, to put Texas in play in the general election.  O’Rourke fares better than former San Antonio Mayor and HUD Secretary Julián Castro, with Beto receiving 14% of Texans’ potential primary votes compared to only 3% for. And yet O’Rourke, despite coming off of one of the most exciting Texas political contests in recent memory while spending more than $80 million campaigning across the state, is the second choice of only 13% of potential Democratic primary voters. That’s no better than Bernie Sanders, statistically indistinguishable from Joe Biden (11%) and not too far above Kamala Harris (8%). Castro only slightly improves his overall support with his second-choice support (4%). As for the fallback of the vice presidential post, the same conditions apply. There are plausible reasons for the eventual nominee to consider O’Rourke or Castro for the number two spot on the ticket. But the potential to put Texas in play is unlikely to carry the argument on its own.

4. The national and state discussion of gun violence has permeated the Democratic primary debate.  Overall, gun control was chosen by 12% of potential Democratic primary voters as the issue most important in deciding who to support in the 2020 primary, the same share as chose health care, but significantly less than the 43% who chose ‘Defeating Donald Trump.’ Climate change made a strong third-place showing, selected by 9% of potential primary voters. Among voters who prioritize defeating Donald Trump, a plurality support Biden (33%), with another 22% expressing support for Warren. O’Rourke does best among Texas’ gun control advocates, with 31% who say that gun control is the most important issue determining their vote supporting the former El Paso Congressman, followed by 28% who support Biden. Health care voters spread their support across the candidates, with Biden receiving 29%, Sanders 21%, Warren 18%, and O’Rourke 15%. Among climate change voters, Warren (27%) and O’Rourke (22%) lead the pack.

5. Lanes? Where we’re going (or rather, where we are), there are no lanes.  While a lot of the discussion of the Democratic primary has relied on the tired “lanes” metaphor, there’s not a ton of evidence at this point that voters are filtering their choices based on ideological affinity alone. For example, while Sanders’ supporters’ leading second choice is Warren (46%), another 18% say that O’Rourke would be their second choice. Among Warren supporters, 26% would support Sanders next, 23% would support Harris, and 17% would support Biden — a pretty broad ideological spread. O’Rourke is a less definitive example, as his ideology has been a little tough to pin down (seemingly on purpose), but the weakness of the “lane” motif is reflected among O’Rourke supporters, too. Their top second choice candidate is Biden, chosen by 27%, and then, with almost equal shares, Sanders (18%) and Warren (17%). And among Biden supporters, the top second choice candidates are Warren (30%) and O’Rourke (22%).

James Henson is the Texas Tribune pollster and director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin @jamesrhenson

Joshua Blank is the Manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project


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