Which Way Wendy?

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Everyone Knows it's Wendy

Nothing has changed, yet. The new poll on the Texas governor’s race and other statewide campaigns, which was released yesterday, shows the Republican Greg Abbott with a comfortable 51-37 lead over Democrat Wendy Davis. The numbers come from Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling (PPP) in North Carolina. Generally, this is what political analysts had been expecting as a baseline when the race began, considering Republican strength in Texas, but there has been no real change since PPP looked at the race last November. 

And the Davis Campaign is, undoubtedly, asking why. 

Everyone Knows it's Wendy
Gender Gap?

There are causes for every effect and, in this case, they might be a bit subtle. The first, of course, is simply the overwhelming strength of the GOP in Texas in pure numbers and the unwillingness of those voters to be moved, or even consider an alternative. Also, any Democrat in Texas is going to be harmed by being in the same party as the wildly unpopular President Obama. The PPP findings indicate that 58% of the state’s voters don’t approve of his job performance.

The other factors holding back Davis’ ascension are considerably less obvious.

Her candidacy began with the abortion regulation filibuster in the state senate, and almost every reference to her in the media makes mention of that day. While the capitol in Austin was overwhelmed with supporters for Davis and opposing the abortion regulations, in a deeply conservative state with a mostly Catholic Hispanic population, her position may be causing political harm. Davis was unfairly branded by the right as “Abortion Barbie,” and among her political opposition the term is used to mischaracterize her broader issue positions. 

The abortion controversy in Texas lasted sufficiently long enough after her filibuster to make it the foremost issue for which Davis became known, and as new state laws shut down clinics, and Planned Parenthood announced financial involvement in the Texas race, Davis was given a political imprimatur she could not, nor would not reject, but probably never hoped would be her leading brand image to the electorate. Unfortunately, when the marketplace delivers a brand it requires oceans of money, time, and a touch of genius to get out from under it.

The next major issue for which Davis received significant publicity was equal pay for women. As important and as honorable an endeavor as any political candidate might contemplate, the timing could not have been worse. The electorate suddenly had a view of a female candidate confronting women’s problems, regardless of how diverse an issues portfolio Davis might possess. Whether unspoken or unrecognized, a gender gap has probably emerged in the Texas governor’s race simply because of these initial two high-profile issues. Is there a real chance Wendy Davis is being perceived as a candidate mostly concerned about women’s issues? As unfair as that characterization might be, it is worth her campaign taking the time to deconstruct and analyze the notion.

The PPP numbers indicate Davis is running better with women than men, but is still losing to Abbott. He is ahead 49 to 41 percent among women and 53-32 percent with men. Unfortunately for Davis, 46 percent of the female vote views her unfavorably as do 48 percent of male voters. These are daunting numbers under which to labor for the hope of a win, even if November is months distant.

There is at least one other dynamic possibly affecting Davis’ success and that has to do with tone and tenor of the campaign. There were, admittedly, stumbles early but those have been reasonably overcome and she has added new senior counsel. However, the early tactics have been to aggressively attack the opposition for his positions on various issues. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this approach but there is always a risk it becomes the prevailing image of Davis. Abbott has been, justifiably, criticized on everything from equal pay to abortion rights and his associations with individuals like Ted Nugent and racial elitist Charles Murray. Davis has also been aggressively attacking Governor Rick Perry, who, according to the PPP numbers, is having resurgent popularity in Texas.

Davis could hardly ignore those circumstances to harm Abbott by association but candidates win elections by communicating a vision to voters, and this is where Wendy Davis continues to struggle. She has spent more time attacking than announcing. Her education plan received respectable coverage but left open almost as many questions as the one proposed by Abbott and was, consequently, not a force to move voters. The electorate knows that a Governor Davis will provide more fairness to women and protect their rights but it cannot yet envision the rest of Texas under her administration. Will tax policy change? Transportation improve? Schools get better? Will she accept the expansion of Medicaid to reduce the uninsured poor? Wendy Davis’ vision of the future of Texas is still unclear to most voters.

And November is much closer than it appears.

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