Analysis of Convergence in National and State Politics in Presidential Election Years

In a recent Texas Tribune discussion, moderator Dr. Jim Henson asked his panel a question I found particularly intriguing: How will the outcome of the recent presidential election affect the state politics of Texas?

The three state legislators comprising Dr. Henson’s panel gave a range of responses. Rep. Todd Hunter explained that he believes “Texas is going to be Texas,” but that there may be some changes. Sen. Konni Burton suspected some politicians might become more outspoken against the media. Sen. José Rodríguez expressed his disappointment that the Texas Legislature might become more partisan in line with Washington. All three legislators, at least to some degree, believed that the outcome of the presidential election would influence the state-level politics of Texas.

Hearing the state legislators articulate an almost unambiguous belief — that the state-level politics of Texas will be impacted by the national presidential election — raises the question whether or not there exists an identifiable convergence in national and state politics during presidential election years that is absent in those years featuring a midterm or gubernatorial election.

In my initial analysis I speculated that a marked increase in public interest generated by presidential elections would lead to a closer alignment in public opinion on what Texas voters considered the “most important issue” facing the nation and that of the state, respectively, in years featuring a presidential election as compared to those with a midterm or gubernatorial election. An alignment in public opinion in these two fields would seem to indicate a convergence in national and state politics during presidential election years. Although yielding inconclusive results owing to limited data availability, my research suggests that, because Texas voters have consistently considered their state’s “most important issue[s]” with the same relative degrees of importance during presidential election years as they had during midterm election years, no unique convergence in national and state politics is seen during presidential election years.

This is striking given that it seems almost a truism to suggest that national politics has a residual effect on state-level politics. Such a convergence in national and state politics would seem to logically follow from the “surge and decline theory” argued by James E. Campbell in his essay, The Revised Theory of Surge and Decline. In this essay, Campbell posits, as one facet of his larger theory, that there exists a “wow factor” in presidential elections that elicits significantly higher levels of public interest and thus voter turnout than what is seen in other elections for public office. I speculated that this increased public interest in politics, owing to the “wow factor” generated by presidential elections, as evidenced by increased voter turnout, would influence the way Texas voters perceived the “most important issue” facing their state towards a closer alignment with that of the nation.

Evidencing this facet of Campbell’s theory, voter turnout in the United States for the 2016 presidential election reached 60% turnout where as the 2014 midterm elections reached a paltry 36%. This closely follows an historic trend that reliably shows voter turnout for years featuring presidential elections as being distinctly higher than those featuring a gubernatorial or midterm election.

Source: United States Elections Project (http://www.electproject.org/)

Exhibiting lower yet analogous numbers, Texas saw 46% total voter turnout for the 2016 presidential election and 25% for the 2014 midterms. Again, this follows the same pattern seeing higher voter turnout for presidential election years in comparison to midterm election years seen in the nation as a whole.

Source: Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos (https://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/historical/70-92.shtml)

To analyze whether this “wow factor” generated by presidential elections does in fact influence what Texas voters considered as the “most important issue” facing their state in presidential election years, I looked at the top five most important issues Texas voters saw as most facing their state and the nation — those being, “immigration,” “border security,” “political corruption and leadership,” “education,” and “the economy.” For any convergence in national and state politics to be identified, voters would need to more closely consider the “most important issue[s]” facing the state with that of the nation in 2012 and 2016 being presidential election years, and a greater disparity in public opinion would need to emerge in 2010 and 2014 being midterm years.

In four out of five of these individual issues, however, no identifiable decrease in variance is seen during presidential election years as compared to those featuring a midterm election.

Source: Texas Politics Project Data Archive: (http://texaspolitics.utexas.edu/research-data-archive)

The only anomalous issue that did in fact follow the predicted trend was “border security” which sees a marked increase in midterm election years followed by a subsequent decrease in presidential election years. Although beyond the scope of this analysis, it would be interesting to research this particular issue more in-depth to make an argument on whether or not midterm and gubernatorial candidates stress “border security” as an issue during their election years to mobilize voters.

Source: Texas Politics Project Data Archive: (http://texaspolitics.utexas.edu/research-data-archive)

Following in the line of thinking of my initial hypothesis, one would further expect to see the total variance in the poll’s “most important issue” options to follow a decrease in presidential election years and an increase in midterm election years. A decrease in total variance would indicate a closer alignment in the public opinion of Texas voters on what they considered as the “most important issue” facing the state and that of the nation.

Variance was calculated using yearly averages from what percentage of polled Texas voters considered the following issues as being the “most important issue” facing the nation or the state, respectively. Other responses ranged from a 0–1% total change remaining relatively static from 2010–2016. For this reason the top five “most important issues” closely represent the total variance in public opinion for each yearly poll.

Source: Texas Politics Project Data Archive: (http://texaspolitics.utexas.edu/research-data-archive)

The expected decrease in variance indicative of a convergence in national and state politics is simply nonexistent. Total variance of the 2016 presidential election issues amounted to 7% and in the 2012 this variance was 14.2%. In the 2014 midterms, election issue variance was 8.6% and in 2010 variance was 11.8%.

Source: Texas Politics Project Data Archive: (http://texaspolitics.utexas.edu/research-data-archive)

This data demonstrates that Texas voters have consistently over at least the past two presidential election cycles considered state priorities with the same relative importance they had during midterm election years. The “wow factor” Campbell attributes to increasing voter turnout during presidential elections as compared to midterm elections does not in any meaningful way seem to influence how voters perceive state priorities in Texas.

This stability in Texas voters’ considerations on the “most important issue” facing the state versus that of the nation seems to demonstrate, albeit at a very rudimentary level, that there is no identifiable convergence in national and state politics during presidential election years.