What Walker's surge means for Cruz and Perry

Photo by Rebecca F. Miller

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s 1-point lead over Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in the new University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll — technically a statistical tie — might suggest that Republican presidential politics remain defined by a tension between nominating either a pure conservative or a more “mainstream” candidate to bridge the Republican coalition. But a closer look at the results reveals the more subtle forces shaping the potential 2016 field and the national party.  

In this poll, we asked prospective GOP primary voters whom they would choose from the large list of potential candidates. To get more insight into how these preferences reflect the coalitional politics of the GOP, respondents were asked to make a second choice from among the remaining candidates.

Not surprisingly, a significant plurality of the Texas Republicans who have an opinion a year before voting starts selected unabashedly conservative candidates as their first and second choices. The results, however, reveal just how unclear the winning strategy will be for the candidate trying to manage the vagaries of the GOP primary electorate.

In Texas, Cruz leads the field with 20 percent of the vote while also winning 12 percent of the second-choice votes. Those second-choice votes came primarily from supporters of Walker, who accounted for 40 percent of Cruz’s second-choice votes, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who accounted for 16 percent. Looking at where Cruz’s vote would migrate if he chose not to run (don’t hold your breath) reinforces the perception that his appeal is strongest among the far right, but with a libertarian twist. Among the 20 percent whose first choice was Cruz, the second-choice plurality would go to the rightward-shifting Walker (31 percent), while another 28 percent would go to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (18 percent) and Carson (10 percent).

Walker’s climb in the February poll is nothing if not astronomical, likely fueled by his loving embrace of Iowans and the positive national press he has received in recent weeks. In the UT/TT Poll, he came in second with 19 percent of the overall vote — up from 2 percent in October 2014 — in addition to scoring the most second-choice votes (15 percent).

This early in the process, candidates are bound to cycle in and out of favor with voters. But it’s notable that Walker’s second-choice selections overwhelmingly came from two sources: Cruz and Carson. And should Walker choose not to run, many of his supporters would also go to Cruz (22 percent) and Carson (22 percent).

This tight packing of primary and secondary vote choices suggests an ideologically distinct group. The Cruz-Walker-Carson triumvirate seems to represent the far right or Tea Party wing of the GOP primary electorate.

The results also reveal another dimension of the Republican coalition that corresponds to the “establishment” or “mainstream.” Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, tied with Carson in third place, received 9 percent of the first-choice votes and 6 percent of the second-choice votes, though his second-choice votes came from a more dispersed cadre (23 percent from former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, 18 percent from Cruz, 13 percent from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and 11 percent from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio). Like the source of Bush’s second-choice votes, the beneficiaries of him leaving the race would be widespread — 15 percent to Perry and 12 percent each to Rubio, Walker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

These results likely point to why Bush’s toe-dip into the 2016 waters was met with such fanfare (at least in the press), but also why he may have difficulty gaining traction: The candidate for everyone might turn out to be the candidate of no one.

Then there’s Perry, the candidate whose raison d’être in the 2016 field (and, come to think of it, in 2012, too) was to serve as the conservative who could appeal to pro-business, economic-development Republicans. Perry came in fourth place, with 8 percent of both the first- and second-choice votes.

The second-choice numbers for Perry supporters seem to reflect the brand that Perry built in Texas as governor over the last 14 years and is now seeking to adapt for a national audience (again). When times have called for it, Perry has presented himself as the Tea Partier, the social conservative and the business-friendly governor. If Perry opted out of running, his supporters would split between two Tea Party conservatives (17 percent to Cruz, 25 percent to Carson), a social/Christian conservative (10 percent to Huckabee) and an establishment conservative (17 percent to Bush).

But Walker appears to have beaten Perry at his own game — in Perry’s own state — with a political back-story that is an odd mash-up of the Texas GOP playbook. Walker has built his reputation among conservatives with a mixture of meat-and-potatoes tax cutting and union busting, along with a high-profile confrontation with protesters in his state’s Capitol — and even a fight he picked with his state’s flagship university. In burnishing these credentials, Walker appears to have surpassed Perry while positioning himself as the Bold Governor for All Conservatives.

This isn’t a huge surprise, given that Cruz has already supplanted Perry as the conservative standard-bearer in Texas. More surprising, perhaps, is the degree to which Walker’s success seems to have come at Cruz’s expense even as Walker blocks Perry, too.

The 2016 GOP race isn’t just a conflict between the right wing and the center. Rather, it’s an effort to draw on the ever-increasing gravitational force of the most conservative, and most vocal, elements of the Republican universe without repelling the financial interests and voters to their left. Perry and his supporters have probably always had the right idea, if not the capacity to execute. Walker is now taking a shot, though he probably won’t be the last.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

James Henson

Texas Tribune pollster and director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin


Joshua Blank

Research director, Texas Politics Project, University of Texas at Austin