What is the mood of the electorate on the eve of Labor Day, the date when the fall campaign season begins in earnest? One poll suggests a weakening of party ties may be a significant factor in the upcoming election. The poll was conducted in a legislative district that includes urban and rural areas and a competitive balance between the two major parties. It focused specifically on voters who seldom vote in party primaries but frequently vote in general elections. Two years ago, 48% of these voters identified themselves as leaning Republican, while 25% said they tended to vote Democratic. This year, self-identification with Republicans has declined to the low thirties, while support for Democrats had dropped into the high teens. Each party has lost roughly a third of its support among this group of voters.
As someone who thinks that politics works best when it takes place in the center of the spectrum rather than on the extremes, I’d like to think that the poll is an indication that independent-minded voters are fed up with the polarization of politics. But the poll may simply be a reflection of a governor’s race that involves two independent candidates, Kinky Friedman and Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who are likely to receive between 30% and 40% of the vote on November 7 . Some might argue that President Bush’s low approval ratings are to blame for GOP defections, but Texans, unlike the vast majority of Americans, continue to support the president at a rate higher than 50%. The inability of Democrats to present a credible ticket for statewide offices undoubtedly contributes to the erosion of support for their party, as does the ability of Republicans generally–and Rick Perry in particular–to win over increasing numbers of Hispanic voters. (Eleven mayors in the Rio Grande Valley have endorsed Perry.) But Perry’s record of governing from the far right of the spectrum has alienated a portion of the Republican base. Let’s just say that the political climate in Texas is more unsettled than it has been since the Ann Richards-Claytie Williams race in 1990.