Rasmussen: The September Surprise
Fri September 18, 2009 10:41 am

Hutchison 40%, Perry 38%. This is a stunning development. Hutchison was down 46-36 in July and had a poor rollout of her campaign in August. What accounts for the turnaround?

1. Overconfidence and misjudgments in the Perry camp. I have had a number of conversations with Perry supporters, friends of mine, who ooze confidence that everything has been going Perry's way since his remarks about secession in April. This led the Perry camp to commit the error of going for the quick kill when Hutchison launched her campaign in August. At her first event, in her hometown of LaMarque, the Perry campaign parked a truck near the rally. A sign read, “Kay Bailout Express: Delivering record debt, pork and bailouts since 1993.” At a Dallas rally, the Perry campaign hired an airplane that carried a banner demanding that Hutchison release her income tax returns. Sometimes Perry supporters showed up with pigs, or pig hats, to label Hutchison as someone who ladles out pork. Perry insiders have always believed that they could "get in Kay's head" with such tactics, as they did in 2006, with the ultimate aim of driving her out of the race. These theatrical tactics would have been appropriate in a general election campaign against a Democrat, but they were over the top in a family fight in the Republican primary. Hutchison is very popular. The Perry campaign's treatment of her at her own events was not appropriate in a Republican primary.

2. Overestimation of Perry's appeal. His favorability numbers are very good right now, but over the course of his governorship, he has been neither a particularly popular figure nor a particularly respected one. If his governorship were to end tomorrow, he would have leave a pretty scant legacy. He doesn't have the residual good will to be going on the attack against a politician who has generally been better liked and more respected than he is. The attacks are likely to boomerang.

3. Too much talk about Washington, not enough about Texas. The Perry campaign made the early decision to define the race as Perry being the candidate of Texas and Texas values while labeling Hutchison as the candidate of Washington and Washington values. The strategy has had an impact, but it also sends mixed signals. This is, after all, a governor's race, but Perry's attacks make him sound more like a candidate for the Senate. Ultimately, the race is about Texas, not Washington. At some point Perry is going to have to talk about Texas. The state's relative fiscal strength is his strongest talking point--but what is number two?

4. Poor political judgment leading to negative press coverage. Perry has been hurt by the media coverage of his meddling with three universities: Texas A&M, UT, and Texas Tech. His involvement at A&M, ranging from the forced resignation of president Elsa Murano to advocating the return of Bonfire to campus to questionable management practices involving a $50 million grant to the university, is not the sort of leadership Texans want from a governor. In seeking the resignations of Texas Tech regents because they supported Hutchison, he looked small and vengeful. His lobbying of UT regents on behalf of a candidate for chancellor whom he hoped would look askance on the hiring of liberal professors reinforces the criticism that politics is all that matters to him. These universities have alumni who number in the hundreds of thousands, many of whom are influential in their communities and in the state. They care a lot more about their schools than they do about Rick Perry.

5. Repeating the Claytie Williams mistake. I'm referring to Williams' failure to shake hands with Ann Richards during a campaign encounter. Gender matters in politics. A male candidate cannot treat a female opponent as he would a male rival. Yet, that is exactly what the Perry campaign has done. They have hit her hard and often, and during her campaign kickoff, they invaded her space. They were rude. Yes, this is politics, and yes, politics is hardball. But you can't overreach, and the Perry campaign has overreached. To repeat what I said earlier: She is better liked and more respected than he is. A negative campaign against a woman has to be waged very carefully. This negative campaign has not been careful. A case in point: The Perry campaign has made an issue of Hutchison's impending resignation from the Senate, saying that a special election will cost the state $30 million. But this is true only if the governor calls the special election for a day other than the two standard elections days, in November (which he won't, because Bill White would benefit from a large Houston turnout for the mayor's race), or May. If you think through what the message of this criticism is, it's that Hutchison shouldn't run against me because it will cost the state money. Arrogance.

When I wrote a feature story ("The Thrilla in Vanilla") about the race last February, I talked about Perry's biggest problem in the race. At the time, Hutchison was twenty points ahead instead of two, so the circumstances were different, but the fundamental issue remains the same as what I said at the time:

The poll leaves Perry little choice but to resort to a negative campaign. He can't let Hutchison's personality dominate the primary. As one of his allies put it to me, "She can't [be allowed to] hug her way to 1010 Colorado"--the address of the Governor's Mansion. Her personality acts as an invisible wall that shields her from the kind of tough scrutiny that other politicians, including Perry, get. When I used the metaphor of the wall in a conversation with Perry's strategists, one replied, "It's paper-thin. She has never had a negative attack before. Perhaps. Regardless, going negative against a woman is risky business."

I think that the Perry folks are finding out that going on the attack, which suits Perry's personality, is indeed risky business, and the poll is an indication that it hasn't worked. Perry got the bounce from the Tea Parties and the secession threats, and now that is gone. Twelve points, vanished, and right back to 38%, right where he was after the 2006 election. There is certainly nothing that Hutchison has done, other than reorganize her campaign staff, that could have caused the race to tighten. These poll numbers are a self-inflicted wound. It's clear to me that the Perry folks believed their own press releases too much. They thought they could hit her with everything they had, hard, and that she would fall apart, maybe even leave the race. Plan B, anyone?

* * * *

The numbers from the Rasmussen Poll have been widely disseminated by now, but in case some readers have not seen them, here they are:

Favorability

Perry:
72% favorable (22% very favorable)
26% unfavorable (10% very unfavorable

Hutchison:
71% favorable (24% very favorable)
26% unfavorable (7% very unfavorable)

Job Approval (Perry):
69% approve (20% strongly approve)
29% disapprove (12% strongly disapprove)

Comparisons to the July poll:

Rasmussen comments: "Sixty-nine percent (69%) of primary voters now approve of the job Perry is doing as governor, down five points from July. Perhaps more significantly, 20% strongly approve, down five points from the previous survey, while 12% strongly disapprove, up three points."

A caveat about the poll: Identification of primary voters in a telephone survey is very unreliable. Most people, if asked whether they intend to vote in a primary, are going to answer yes. This method is not nearly as reliable as using prior primary turnout, based on voter lists, as the benchmark for likely voters.

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