Will Texas turn blue? Party labels are surprisingly hard to shake

Photo by Todd Wiseman / Marjorie Kamys Cotera

Will Texas turn blue? The national media seemed to have anointed U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke as the next big thing, with profiles of the El Paso Democrat recently running in The New York Times and Vanity Fair. Both compared him to John F. Kennedy, suggesting his personal characteristics may allow him to succeed where others have failed.

But O’Rourke, who is set to challenge Republican Ted Cruz for his Senate seat in 2018, faces daunting odds, even though an analysis of his record in the House suggests that, if elected, he would be among the more moderate Democrats in the Senate. That should help him in conservative Texas, but studies show the ideology and issues tied to a party label may be too much for even the most Kennedy-esque candidate to overcome.

Party brand matters, and it is surprisingly difficult to shake.

Even with 24/7 media coverage, the nuance of any particular candidate’s positions is likely to be swamped by the D or R next to their name on the ballot. In a recently published study, I found that citizens do not do a particularly good job of distinguishing between senators from the same party. Especially when citizens do not share the same party affiliation as the state’s two senators, they are more likely to assume that the two senators think and vote in a similar manner.

These findings hold even when voters are explicitly given seemingly conflicting information about the candidate. For example, conventional wisdom suggests that religious affiliation should impact voters’ impressions of a candidate’s ideology. However, my coauthor Adam Ozer and I found that in most cases, this just isn’t true.

A study conducted among a nationally representative sample of 1,008 U.S. adults shows that giving citizens additional information about a candidate’s religious affiliation does little to move impressions of his or her overall ideology. So although social norms may say that Judaism signals liberalism and Catholicism is linked with social conservatism, we find that when making these more global judgements, respondents ignore these religious cues and simply rely on partisanship.

A separate internet study of 700 U.S. adults compliments these findings, as my colleagues and I show that even when a candidate makes a statement that tries to hide or obscure his position on an issue, people will assume that he shares the party’s stance.

Together, these findings suggest that even if a Democratic candidate campaigns on Catholic faith or tries to straddle the fence on an issue like LGBTQ rights, voters will still see that candidate as a liberal Democrat who takes liberal, Democratic positions.

That could be bad news for O’Rourke, given the fates of Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for Texas governor in 2014. In a state where only about 31 percent of individuals identify as liberal, convincing independent and Republican voters that he’s not just like other Democrats who have run before is an uphill battle.

Still, no one would say candidates and their personal qualities do not matter, and there are signs that things may be ripe for change.

Given that Texas voters consider government corruption/leadership to be the most important issue facing the country, the personal attributes of candidates may be particularly important in the coming elections. But no matter whom the Democratic leadership can recruit to run for office in 2018, the primacy of partisanship suggests that a candidate alone is not enough to turn Texas blue. It’s also going to take a positive party image within the state and a strong partisan base in the electorate.

Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Elizabeth Simas

Assistant professor, University of Houston