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Two new polls: Cruz holds small lead over O’Rourke, or race a dead heat

August 2, 2018

AUSTIN — Two new polls on Wednesday affirmed that incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is in a tight race with Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, either that Cruz continues to hold a slight lead or remains in a virtual dead heat with the El Paso congressman.

While summer polls sometimes look on challengers more favorably than polls closer to the November election, Wednesday’s status updates by the non-partisan Texas Lyceum Poll and the Quinnipiac University Poll underscored what other surveys have been saying for months — that the top-of-the-ticket campaign remains too close to call.

Not so much in the statewide race for governor, which both polls found a double-digit lead for incumbent Republican Greg Abbott over longshot Democratic challenger Lupe Valdez, the former Dallas County sheriff.

On Wednesday morning, the Lyceum poll reported Cruz maintains a two-point lead — 41 to 39 percent — over O’Rourke among likely voters, essentially a tie since the margin of error for the poll is 2.8 percent. Twenty-seven percent of those Texans polled said they were undecided, and 3 percent said they supported Libertartian Neil Dikeman.

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Hours later, the Quinnipiac University Poll said Cruz holds a six-point lead over O’Rourke — 49 to 43 percent, less than an 11-point lead Cruz held in a May poll it also conducted. The poll’s margin of error is about 3.5 percent.

“Cruz has a slight, by no means overwhelming lead,” said Peter Brown, the poll’s assistant director. “With three months until Election Day, (O’Rourke) is clearly in contention . . . Sen. Cruz has good favorability overall and is the much better known of the two men.”

In fact, that new poll shows that 43 percent of Texans surveyed have not made a decision on who they will vote for.

Lyceum Poll research director Josh Blank echoed Brown’s sentiment: “If this race looks different than the rest, that’s probably because it is a strong Democratic challenger raising prolific sums of money and tons of earned media.”

The Lyceum poll attributed the closeness of the race to O’Rourke’s fundraising prowess in recent months, and his near-constant campaigning during the spring and summer months that has raised his statewide visibility. O’Rourke raised more than $10.4 million in the second quarter of 2018, recent campaign-finance disclosure filings show.

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In both polls, Abbott held a comfortable lead over Valdez, who is making her first run for statewide office. The Lyceum survey has Abbott ahead by 16 points, and the Quinnipiac poll shows him ahead by 13 — margins that could be difficult for Valdez to overcome with less than 100 days left in the campaign.

The Lyceum poll found incumbent Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick leads challenger Mike Collier, a retired Kingwood accountant and businessman, by 15 points among likely voters, and incumbent GOP Attorney General Ken Paxton leads Democratic challenger Justin Nelson by 10 points. The Quinnipiac poll did not survey those races.

Despite the political buzz generated by the two polls on Wednesday, as each campaign tried to spin the results, political scientists who track polling suggested they are just summer snapshot taken at a time when most Texans are little interested in politics or are checked out on vacation.

In the governor’s race four years ago, summer polls suggested Democrat Wendy Davis was within single-digits of then-Attorney General Greg Abbott. Abbott won the race by about 20 points.A Democrat has not been elected to a statewide office in Texas since 1994.

“Summertime is just far enough away from the election when even likely voters are focused more on water slides and hot dogs than on who they will vote for months ahead,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political scientist. “In the summer polls, a lot of people tend to identify themselves as more independent than they will in the fall when the election is closer. The fact is that it’s tough to move public opinion much at all, on candidates or issues, unless there’s some new wrinkle or big issue that comes up.”

For months, political observers have suggested that new wrinkle could be President Trump — who Democrats are trying to make a campaign issue in Texas races, and who Republicans continue to watch with caution as he sets off new controversies with Twitter messages or official actions.

Both polls showed Wednesday that Texans continue to be split on Trump, with Republicans overwhelmingly supporting him and Democrats mostly giving him a thumbs-down. Fifty-two percent of likely voters who answered the Lyceum Poll said they disapprove of Trump’s performance so far, as did 49 percent in the Quinnipiac poll.

By contrast, 54 percent of the Texans surveyed in the Lyceum poll applauded Abbott’s performance, while 28 percent disapproved. Eighty percent of Republicans said Abbott was doing a good job, and 50 percent of Democrats said he was not.

The telephone survey of Texas adults for the Lyceum Poll was conducted July 9-26, and 1,178 people were questioned. The overall margin of error for the poll is +/- 2.86 percentage points. The margin of error for the registered voters is +/- 3.45 percentage points. The margin of error for likely voters is +/- 4.67 percentage points.

The Quinnipiac Poll surveyed 1,118 Texas voters between July 26-31, with a margin of error of +/-3.5 percentage points.

Mike Ward covers Texas politics, the governor and executive branch, criminal justice and ethics issues, and investigations for the Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express-News and other Hearst Texas news organizations. He also co-hosts the leading Texas Take politics podcast. Reach him at Mike.Ward@Chron.com and follow him @ChronicleMike on Twitter.

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