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Early polling on the AG race

It looks sexy, but keep your salt handy.

Justin Nelson

The 2018 election for the job of the state’s top lawyer could be a tight race if voters go to the polls knowing about Attorney General Ken Paxton’s criminal indictment, according to a Democratic pollster.

GBA Strategies, a Democratic polling operation based in Washington D.C., surveyed 500 likely Texas voters and found Paxton, the Republican incumbent, enjoyed a 7 percentage point lead over Austin attorney Justin Nelson, a Democratic newcomer, the firm reported in a memo Wednesday released by the Nelson campaign.

Once voters were informed of Paxton’s 2015 felony indictment and attacks on Nelson, respondents shifted their support, giving Nelson a 1 point lead, according to the firm. The survey, which was conducted Oct. 9 through Oct. 12, has a 4.4 percentage point margin of error and 95 percent confidence interval.

[…]

The poll also found Texas voters split on whether they approve of President Trump, finding 49 percent approve and 49 percent disapprove.

You can see Nelson’s statement about the poll here and the polling memo here. The key passages:

• Paxton starts with a narrow lead against a largely unknown opponent. Paxton carries 46 percent of the electorate in the initial vote with Justin Nelson garnering 40 percent. After undecided are asked which way they lean, Paxton leads 50 – 43 percent. Given Texas’ Republican leaning and Nelson being unknown, this is a weak starting point for Paxton.

• Paxton’s corrupt behavior is very damaging and moves Justin Nelson into the lead. When voters are informed about Paxton’s indictment, 62 percent say it raises serious doubts about him. After voters hear positive statements about both candidates and learning about Paxton’s indictment, the race moves from a 7-point Paxton advantage to a 5-point Nelson lead (49 – 44 percent). The additional information dramatically shifts Independents to Nelson’s side, while he also makes inroads with Republicans. Even after voters hear attacks against Nelson, he maintains a 1-point lead.

This is an internal poll and there’s no detailed data available, so the skepticism level is high to begin with. A few specific things to note:

– The number of undecided voters in this sample is amazingly low. For a point of comparison, look at the UT/Trib poll from June of 2014. They surveyed all of the statewide races, as the primary runoffs had concluded in May. I quote: “In the race for attorney general, Republican Ken Paxton leads Democrat Sam Houston 40 percent to 27 percent, with 27 percent undecided.” That’s a lot more undecided voters, in a poll conducted six months later into the race. With all due respect to Justin Nelson, not nearly enough people know who he is to get to forty percent in any poll.

Now to be sure, people are way more engaged than they were at this point in the 2014 cycle, and given that Paxton has been a high-profile miscreant since even before he was officially nominated. It may just be that people are expressing a strong level of disapproval of Paxton, which translated into a higher than usual amount of support for a newbie candidate like Nelson. I can’t discount that possibility, but I’ll want to see similar numbers from other polls before I buy it.

– The 49/49 approval numbers for Donald Trump are noteworthy, and as I’ve said before the fact that we’re operating in an environment where Democrats have more intense opinions about the President than Republicans do should have a real effect on 2018. That said, these numbers are actually a little better for Trump than what we’ve seen before – he was at 45/49 in an October UT/Trib poll, and at 42-54 in an April Texas Lyceum poll. I don’t want to read too much into any of this – different polls, different methodologies – but that’s very much a factor to watch.

– Finally, note the “when voters were informed” bit in the polling memo. You know what it takes to inform voters? Money, to fund an effective communications strategy in a big state with more than two dozen media markets. Of course, Ken Paxton goes on trial for a felony charge next year, with more charges in reserve depending on how that trial goes, so there’s a chance that Nelson will get a big, free assist in communicating that information. Or Paxton could beat the rap and turn that liability into a big ol’ rallying cry.

Anyway. I do think Ken Paxton is vulnerable, and I’m glad to see Justin Nelson be aggressive right out of the gate. But I would like to see some other polls before I get too excited about this one.

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One Comment

  1. David O says:

    Without seeing the exact questions, the lack of undecided doesn’t bother me if you assume the question was written “Would you vote for the Democratic candidate XXX or the Republican candidate YYYY.” And then you add in the leaners. That makes sense.

    The 59% who can form an opinion on Paxton (30 for, 29 against) is a realistic number for a statewide.

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