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Is Rasmussen Right?

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Cornyn 47% Noriega 43% Rasmussen Reports released this poll on Monday morning. After the numbers, the next line was, “It’s time to add United States Senator John Cornyn to the list of potentially vulnerable Republican incumbents in Election 2008.” Can this poll be on the money? My first reaction was skepticism, for two reasons. One is that the last poll I heard about, soon after the Texas primary, had Cornyn up by something like 52-36. The other is a widespread perception, at least among self-annointed savants, that Noriega hasn’t got his act together. He hasn’t found a top-drawer person to handle his fundraising; he doesn’t have an effective campaign organization; he is a soporific speaker; he doesn’t see the big picture. He presents himself to audiences as Lieutenant Colonel Rick Noriega–that was the sign he used to identify himself in the Democratic primary debate back in February–and talks about the war and his efforts to help veterans. I wrote a column about his experience in Afghanistan, and the effect it had on him, so I am not devaluing the service he gave to his country. But this isn’t what people want to hear. They have made up their minds about the war, one way or another. People are worried about the economy, about health care, about what kind of future their children will have. I heard him speak at a legislative conference in New Braunfels, and he just put the audience to sleep. There was no fire, no broad themes, nothing that would move a person to vote for him. He has been running for the Senate for almost half a year now, and I haven’t heard any favorable buzz about him at all. All the talk has been about how he is underperforming. To be fair, it is a huge leap from state representative to United States Senator. As a legislator, Noriega knew how to operate in floor debate. Tom Craddick regarded him as a bully, and that was a measure of grudging respect. But a state rep in the minority party is relegated to a few moments of action spread out over 140 days. It is hard to grow into a leader, and, in fact, Noriega didn’t do it. He was more of a designated hitter who went up to bat when his team needed him. Noriega was a leader in the military, but politics is a different situation. Nobody has to follow you. Even so, I think that the poll is credible. Early polls often reflect not the loyalties of voters to candidates but the loyalty of voters to parties. Is it possible that the spread between the parties in Texas has narrowed to four or five points? I think it is. Republican numbers-crunchers continue to describe the spread as being in the neighborhood of 9%, but, as I wrote in Texas Monthly after the primary, I think that some realignment is taking place, both in Texas and nationally. I don’t think that Republicans are becoming Democrats overnight, but I do think that they are becoming more independent, if not yet ready to call themselves independents. Texas is not immune from national trends, and the wind is definitely blowing in the Democrats’ direction. Note the victories by Democrats in two special elections for congressional seats, those vacated by former House speaker Dennis Hastert (Illinois) and, last week, twenty-year GOP incumbent Richard Baker (Louisiana). And let’s not forget those primary turnout numbers, when Democrats outvoted Republicans even in counties that have traditionally been rock-solid for the GOP. Overall the Democratic primary vote was twice that of Republicans. It is true that the D’s had a hot presidential race while the R’s did not, and it is also true that Democratic turnout was somewhat inflated, in the range of 7-8%, by Republicans crossing over to vote in the Democratic primary. Nevertheless, the Democratic turnout in Republican stronghold counties like Collin, Denton, Fort Bend, and Williamson was eye-opening. If Democrats can continue to be motivated into the fall, yes, I can see Noriega being very competitive in this race. The big question for Democrats is always whether the Hispanic vote will finally reach the tipping point. Cornyn’s record on immigration and the border wall gives Noriega an opportunity to mobilize that vote. In recent years, though, it has been Republicans who have exceeded expectations; Bush won at least 40% of the Hispanic vote nationally in 2004, and an even bigger slice of the pie in Texas (thought to be around 44%). Noriega needs to push his share into the 70% range. His problem is that he is pro-choice, and this will cost him votes among Hispanic Catholics and evangelicals. At the moment, the main importance of the poll is that Democratic strategists in Washington know that Noriega is mathematically competitive–and they know it early enough to be able to do something about it in terms of providing money and expertise and candidate training for his campaign. There is a lot of room for improvement.

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