The Capitol was rife with rumors yesterday, one a revival of the persistent story that Strayhorn’s trial lawyer supporters were meeting to decide whether to persuade her to get out of the race and endorse Bell. Like all good rumors, this one had some specific information, such as where the Trials were getting together, which was Lufkin. A number of trial lawyers were indeed in Lufkin–for a funeral. The other hot topic was that the Bell campaign will release an internal poll today showing him within 5 points of Perry at 32%-27%. Readers may recall that Strayhorn circulated an internal poll in early October showing her within 7 points of Perry (35-28). That was on October 6, the day of the gubernatorial debate. The poll showed Strayhorn with a two-to-one favorable to unfavorable name ID, but today it is closer to one-to-one. Internal polls that are made public can’t be trusted.
At 32%–a hypothetical number, please remember, from a hypothetical poll–Perry is very beatable. Give Strayhorn her 20%, give Kinky 10%, give Perry 32%, and that leaves 38% of the vote unaccounted for and only a Libertarian and Bell left to fight for it. And Perry, of course, although it’s hard to see why voters who have been rejecting him for months would suddenly embrace him. Even if you give Perry the 36% in SurveyUSA’s most recent poll, and Strayhorn and Kinky together get their 30%, that leaves 34% of the vote for Bell–effectively a dead heat.
One of the biggest unknowns about this race is the size of the undecided vote. That number has been as low as 2% (SurveyUSA’s most recent poll, which I do not believe) and as high as 20% (Texans for Insurance Reform). A Republican operative told me yesterday that the undecided vote is growing as election day nears, a highly unusual pattern. This could represent defections from any or all of the candidates. I know that’s not the most profound of observations, but the fog of political warfare, like the real thing, can be impenetrable.
The thing to remember about the governor’s race is that before there can be a Bell-Perry showdown, there must be a Bell-Strayhorn showdown. Strayhorn seems mired in the 20% range, but she has ample money and name ID, and Bell is still suspect on both counts. Word on the street is that Bell has bought no TV time past October 27. Strayhorn also has two major constituencies that Bell covets: two teachers’ organizations and the anti-toll road/Trans-Texas-Corridor crowd. For Bell to mount an effective challenge to Perry, he is going to have to be able to pry those voters away from Strayhorn. And the only way to do that is to persuade them that he is the only hope to defeat Perry. I would not have thought it possible for a little known, underfunded Democrat to win this race, and I still think it is unlikely. But the lack of support for Perry is becoming the dominant factor in this race. The closer we get to election day, the greater the danger for Perry that “Perry fatigue” will reach a tipping point. (If I were Bell, and I could afford another TV spot, I’d ask voters if they really want four more years–ten in all–of Rick Perry. That’s what this race is really all about.) Perry’s hopes for reelection rest upon the anti-Perry vote remaining split. If it coalesces, he’s history.