This week, Emerson College released a poll of Texas that looked at a handful of issues and races in the state. The grabbiest headline in the bunch was a head-to-head poll of potential one-on-one matchups of various Democratic candidates against Donald Trump, in which the recently-announced Joe Biden topped the incumbent president by a single (well within the margin of error) point, 50-49.
Reading too much into a poll like that in early May the year before the election is a sucker’s game, though—18 months from now, favorability ratings will have shifted, bombshells will have been dropped, and we’ll have gone through hundreds of news cycles. Still, there are a handful of worthwhile takeaways from the poll, so let’s take a look at them.
Biden’s strength is probably a mirage
The fact that Biden was over 50 percent in the poll is significant, but not for what it tells us about Joe Biden. The poll had Biden ahead of Trump, but it also had Beto O’Rourke tied at 50-50, and Bernie Sanders trailing at 49-51. Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Kamala Harris were all over 45 percent in the poll. Biden’s name recognition is near-universal, while Bernie and Beto (at least in Texas) are pretty close, and the results show that almost any Democrat most voters have heard of runs neck-and-neck with Trump in this polling. According to Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project, that’s much more indicative of broader trends than any particular candidate.
“Polling this early is going to be a pretty poor predictor of final election outcomes,” he says. “You find out more about broadly partisan attitudes and name recognition than you do election preferences, which for most people are as yet unformed in any specific way.” Biden, as the putative frontrunner, is running a campaign based largely on the idea that he’s the Democrat most likely to best Trump. At first blush, Biden’s lead in this poll would seem to support his case for electability, but the real takeaway is probably that the three candidates with the most name recognition in the state are all polling competitively in Texas, which speaks more to Texas’s position as a potential swing state than it does to Biden’s potential strength against Trump.
It matters that this poll exists at all
Historically, national pollsters haven’t had a good reason to look at Texas politics 18 months ahead of an election. You’re probably familiar with the stats: A whole generation has been born, grown up, and started families since the last time Texas elected a Democrat to statewide office; the fact that Jimmy Carter was the last Presidential candidate with a D by his name to win the state. Why spend money on a poll in a state that always elects Republicans? (Texas-based pollsters like Texas Lyceum and the University of Texas/Texas Tribune have had more reason to look at things early on.) But Emerson is looking at Texas right now because Texas is part of the conversation far earlier than it’s ever been.
“Pollsters swim in the same ocean of media coverage as everyone else,” Henson says, so pollsters who might have ignored the state in the past are looking at it now. “[They] may well be influenced by the fact that Texas was more competitive in 2018, and the reasonable notion that these conditions might continue into 2020.” That tells us that we can expect to be under the microscope more than we’ve been in the past. Candidates are more likely to spend time here campaigning; we’re more likely to see political ads; and political spending is more likely to flow into Texas rather than drain away to other states.
John Cornyn’s numbers are bad, but not that bad
MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell tweeted about the fact that polling showed Senator John Cornyn unable to break 30 percent, suggesting the implications were dire:
This is a terrible poll for an incumbent Republican Texas senator. Incumbents should poll well over 50%. https://t.co/qVSJUsfbmu— Lawrence O'Donnell (@Lawrence) April 30, 2019
It’s not great news for Cornyn, but polling well over 50 percent would indicate a non-competitive election—those are numbers that Democrats enjoy in parts of the Northeast, or Republicans get in the Deep South or the Mountain West. Polling at 29 percent suggests that Texas isn’t a lock for Cornyn, but it also doesn’t indicate that he’s in deep trouble. Ted Cruz, who defeated O’Rourke in 2018, had similar poll numbers in the Texas Lyceum poll at this time in 2017, and managed to win over enough of the undecided voters to win reelection. Cornyn is likely to be in a competitive but winnable election, which is probably why a candidate with MJ Hegar’s potential—she came within three points of unseating an incumbent congressman in a deep-red district north of Austin in 2018—is in the race.
These numbers also reflect something Cornyn has dealt with throughout his career, which is that his numbers have never been particularly great. “Cornyn’s numbers, including when he was successfully re-elected, have long been surprisingly mediocre given his electoral success,” Henson notes, pointing to polling that includes his successful 2014 campaign, where he was at 36 percent a few months before the election. He eventually won reelection with more than 61 percent of the vote. So these numbers are “terrible” if Cornyn was expecting things to have changed dramatically, or if he was hoping that he’d be able to avoid campaigning. As it is, they mostly tell us that 2020 could be a real race for Senate, which shouldn’t come as a huge surprise given how 2018 went.
It’s too early for much more
There are other interesting facets to the poll—Julián Castro, whose presidential campaign has largely been a non-factor in the national Democratic primary conversation, polls ahead of candidates like Kamala Harris and Cory Booker in Texas; O’Rourke polls ahead of Bernie Sanders in the primary polling, but behind Biden. Interesting, but nonetheless reading too much into a poll this early is more for political junkies than people who want an accurate read of an electorate that’s by and large not paying too much attention.
Bottom-line: The early read is that, for both the presidential and Senate elections, polling indicates Texas is likely to be more competitive than it’s been in decades, and pollsters and campaigns are likely to treat us more like a swing state than a solid red state, which is a change. For everything else, it’s too early to draw many conclusions.