AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott, after trailing potential challenger Matthew McConaughey in the spring, has rebounded and now has a slight — but not statistically significant — lead over the movie star in a hypothetical matchup in next year’s race for governor, according to a poll released Sunday by The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler.
Abbott, a two-term Republican, is favored by 39% of Texans of all political stripes, while McConaughey, who hasn’t picked a political party or even committed to running, draws backing from 38%. Nearly a quarter of Texans said they’d vote for someone else.
The poll, conducted June 22-29, surveyed 1,090 registered voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.
It showed that since April, Abbott has improved his standing with all voters, though he’s still behind among independents. He is likely to handily dispatch fellow Republican and former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas in their tussle for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. Among Texans who say they’ll vote in the Republican primary, Abbott leads Huffines, 77% to 12%.
While no major Democrat has announced against Abbott, former El Paso congressman and presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke hasn’t ruled out another bid for statewide office.
If O’Rourke tosses his bandanna in the ring, he starts out behind: While about two-thirds of Democrats support O’Rourke, 78% of the more numerous Republicans back Abbott. And Abbott’s edging O’Rourke among independents (35%-28%), for an overall lead of 45%-33% in their general-election showdown.
McConaughey has said he’s giving “honest consideration” to running for governor in his home state. Politics is “a broken business,” and it’s time for someone with his “aggressively centric” approach, he told the Austin American-Statesman in March.
Poll respondent Richard Schiller of Sunnyvale, though a fan of McConaughey’s acting, said he’ll stick with Abbott.
Abbott “has done a damned good job on the border,” is wise to want to tighten election laws and shouldn’t be blamed for the February electricity and water outages, which were the grid manager’s fault, said Schiller, 64, an information management official at Bank of America.
While Schiller said he disagrees with some things the two-term Republican incumbent has done, such as recently signing a law that removes background checks and required training for carrying handguns, he strongly opposes an O’Rourke proposal to confiscate assault-style weapons.
“I know what Abbott stands for; I have no earthly idea what Matthew stands for,” Schiller said of McConaughey.
Retired teacher Vicki Lococo of Friendswood, who is Hispanic and said her family has been in the U.S. for several generations, many having served in the military, said she also strongly supports Abbott and his border policy.
Lococo, 61, said liberals and leftists have “ulterior motives” in welcoming asylum-seekers and other migrants, hoping to convert them into Democratic voters, though they lack appreciation of America’s history and traditions. She repeated Abbott’s assertions last winter that migrants were bringing COVID-19 into Texas.
More generally, Lococo likes Abbott’s conservative policies.
“He gives a lot back to the family and family rights, as far as education of our children,” she said.
Cracks in Abbott’s support
Abbott continues to show weakness, however, among suburban swing voters. Some poll respondents who are independents said they are repelled by the governor’s recent rightward tack on legislation, his warnings that migrants are vectors for disease and his push to block public schools’ instruction on systemic racism.
“I will vote for anyone but Abbott at this point,” said former Republican voter Jonah Hanft of Saginaw.
“I don’t know if he’s governing or if he’s just … repeating what’s on Twitter,” said Hanft, who teaches AP European and world history in the Arlington school district.
“It’s almost like he wants to say there’s a danger … the immigrants are bringing COVID. And I am 47, OK? I’ve heard this before. You’re switching memes around. And living by fear is not my thing.”
Pollster Mark Owens, who teaches political science at UT-Tyler, noted that Abbott improved his standing with potential GOP primary voters, with 67% of them picking him over McConaughey in June, compared with just 59% in April.
Simultaneously, Abbott nearly doubled his admittedly small support among Democrats, to 15% in the latest poll. Among independents, McConaughey continued to lead Abbott, though by 39%-29%, compared with 44%-28% in April.
“Signing new laws and optimism of new jobs across the state has given a renewed context for Governor Abbott to regain support from conservative voters who were disaffected by pandemic restrictions,” Owens said.
“Abbott’s ability to bring Matthew McConaughey’s popularity back to his stratosphere comes after an endorsement by former President Trump and a time when Matthew McConaughey has been quiet about his political ambition.”
Still, not everything is coming up roses for Abbott. His job approval rating is respectable, with 50% approving of his performance and 36% disapproving.
But that pales next to the 61%-23% split in his favor in April 2020, as Texans rallied around him in the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.
Also, Texans’ assessment of Abbott’s response to the devastating February winter storm has soured, at least slightly. For the first time, though it’s within the poll’s margin of error, more said Abbott responded not well or not well at all than said he performed well or very well.
And amid continued calls for conservation of electricity, Texas voters are losing confidence that the state’s electricity grid can withstand heat waves and spiking demand this summer, the poll showed.
Only 39% said they trust the grid to deliver power without blackouts this summer.
Pollster Owens noted that recent calls for state residents to lower thermostats, while electric-generating plants were offline for maintenance, have increased skepticism about the grid — and tugged at Abbott’s storm-response approval numbers. In April, 54% said Abbott responded well or very well, compared with just 47% in the latest survey.
Texas’ own border wall
The poll, part of an ongoing collaboration between The News and UT-Tyler’s Center for Opinion Research, brought mixed results for Abbott’s latest big ventures — building a state barrier at the Texas-Mexico border and calling lawmakers back into an overtime session that begins Thursday.
Even though Abbott has called for crowdsourcing much of the wall’s cost, a majority of voters (56%) are unlikely or definitely will not donate to the wall, the poll found. On the other hand, 30% plan to donate and 14% are not sure.
Last month, Abbott and GOP legislative leaders agreed to raid the state prison system’s budget for a $250 million “down payment” toward the state’s border-wall effort.
That’s marginally popular. By 43% to 35%, a plurality of voters would support more revenue being used to complete the barrier at the border.
Respondents who were “not sure yet” if they would donate often added that their concern was primarily trust in how the funds would be managed. The respondents would be more likely to donate if they were assured all of their donation went to construction of the wall.
John Cerruti of Sachse, a corporate IT administrator, tentatively praised Abbott’s plan to build a border barrier.
Cerruti, 39, a recent transplant from Northern California, said he likes Texas’ low taxes and quality of life. The father of two young boys said he’ll back Abbott for reelection “because I just don’t know any policies that McConaughey is standing for, what his agenda would be.”
As for the wall, Cerruti said while he favors its construction, “to actually go and donate money for it? I don’t think I’m probably doing that.”
Of using taxpayer funds, Cerruti said, “It’s worth investing some state funds towards that. I wouldn’t want to see other things, critical areas where the state has needs get sacrificed for it. But if there is the opportunity to put some money towards it, I’d be in favor of that.”
‘Election integrity’ bill
For the special session, the poll shows some useful developments for Abbott and state GOP leaders.
Abbott promised to call the special session after House Democrats in late May defeated a GOP-backed elections bill — by breaking a quorum and stalling business in their chamber as the regular session neared its end.
While most Texans continue to believe there is not widespread voter fraud in the state’s elections, June’s poll was the first by The News and UT-Tyler to detect less than a majority of registered voters agreeing with that: 46% said there’s not widespread fraud in Texas elections, while 26% said there is.
As pollster Owens noted, “A belief that elections are not secure sets a different paradigm in which the public sees the importance of an election integrity bill in the special session.”
While 40% of Democrats said the election bill being debated by the Legislature would reduce fairness, 61% of Republicans said it either would preserve or restore fairness.
Asked whether the hours a polling location is open for early voting should be set by the state or county election officials, all registered voters deadlocked: 37% said the state, 39% said county officials and 24% said they don’t know enough to answer.
But when sorted by party and beliefs about how widespread voter fraud is in Texas, there was no contest: A majority of Republicans (54%) and believers in widespread fraud (59%) favored having the state set polling-place hours during early voting. 51% of Democrats and 53% of those who said fraud isn’t widespread said county officials should set the hours.
Doug Hurstell, who said he’s a “semi-active member” of the Bacliff Republican Party in north Galveston County, said former President Ronald Reagan built a growing GOP. But today’s leaders such as Abbott are “infested with Trumpism,” a philosophy that tends to fixate on election rules because it can’t win over new supporters, he said.
“It’s all perpetuating the big lie,” he said of state GOP leaders’ election bill, referring to Trump’s false claims that the 2020 presidential election was rigged.
“He told a story, it failed, he doubled down on it,” said Hurstell, 47, an inspector of piping and pressure vessels at refineries and pipeline systems. “The bigger the lie, the more people that will believe it. There’s a thing going on here, and preventing people from voting is like the most unAmerican thing I can think of.”
Critical race theory, transgender athletes
The poll also tested sentiments on two other issues that might come up during the special session — restrictions on what public-school teachers can say about “critical race theory” and which sports transgender youth can compete in.
In the regular session, lawmakers passed and Abbott signed a bill that seeks to discourage teaching about critical race theory. The theory — recently co-opted by conservative pundits — is a decades-old academic framework that explores how racism is embedded in U.S. policies and systems.
Last month, the governor pledged to do more to stop such instruction during the special session.
Asked if they agree or disagree that K-12 teachers should be permitted to discuss how historical examples of discrimination in our laws apply to inequalities today, 51% of registered voters supported allowing K-12 teachers to teach about historical examples of discrimination and 27% opposed. Among college-educated voters, support was higher, at 58%. Among voters with a high school degree or less, it dipped to 45%.
While 78% of Democrats want teachers to be free to link past discrimination to current inequalities, only 32% of Republicans did and 48% of Republicans opposed.
On transgender sports, 56% of voters said it is fair to pass a state law that assigns a student to a sports team that matches what was listed on the student’s birth certificate, not the gender the student identifies with. An additional 17% said it’s not fair, and 26% said it depends. A bare majority (52%) of those under 45 support the policy, compared with 59% of those 45 and older.
Jazzmin Wilson of Humble, 25, who earned a law degree and a master’s in history and is studying for the state bar exam, said Abbott wants to “cripple the education system” in Texas.
“I have no problem with conservative politics but this is not even like conservative because for someone who doesn’t want the government involved in overreaching in people’s lives, he’s really overreaching in people’s lives,” she said.
Vaccine, Paxton, Dreamers
The poll also found:
- 55% of respondents have received the COVID-19 vaccine, up from 44% in April and 21% in February. As in the year’s previous two polls, 26% continue to say they would not take the vaccine or are unlikely to. Hesitancy among Blacks is especially notable. Among the 23% of all respondents who haven’t been immunized but haven’t completely ruled out getting the shots, 60% haven’t tried to make an appointment. Among such procrastinators, African Americans are twice as likely as Latinos and whites to cite concern over possible side effects.
- A plurality of all voters continues to say Attorney General Ken Paxton, accused by former associates of misuse of office, has the integrity to be the state’s top lawyer: 33% say he does and 25% say he doesn’t. “These numbers are likely to soften,” pollster Owens said, as Paxton’s two opponents in next year’s GOP primary for attorney general, Land Commissioner George P. Bush and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, begin pounding on him. Among likely primary voters, Paxton has support from 42%; Bush, 34%; and Guzman, 4%. A Trump endorsement could shake up the race, though not push any of the three clear of a probable runoff, Owens said.
- Asked if they support or oppose granting permanent legal status to immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally when they were children, 47% said they favor easing the so-called Dreamers’ fears of deportation. However, that’s down from 53% in October. While 24% oppose, the overall debate on border security and immigration may be softening support, Owens said.
The Dallas Morning News/UT-Tyler Poll is a statewide random sample of 1,090 registered voters conducted between June 22-29. The mixed-mode sample includes 256 registered voters surveyed over the phone by the University of Texas at Tyler with support from ReconMR and 834 registered voters randomly selected from Dynata’s panel of online respondents. The margin of error for a sample of 1,090 registered voters in Texas is +/- 3.0 percentage points, and the more conservative margin of sampling error that includes design effects from this poll is +/- 3.4 percentage points for a 95% confidence interval.
The online and phone surveys were conducted in English and Spanish using information from the 2020 Current Population Survey and Office of the Texas Secretary of State. The sample’s gender, age, race/ethnicity, education, metropolitan density and vote choice were matched to the population of registered voters in Texas.
View the full poll here: