Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

May 4th, 2021:

Trib polling roundup, part 1

On COVID and vaccinations.

Texas voters are feeling safer about being out in public, and better about getting COVID-19 vaccines, but a majority of the state’s voters still consider the coronavirus a “significant crisis,” according to a new University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

In the first UT/TT Poll of the pandemic, conducted a year ago, 63% of Texans said they were “only leaving my residence when I absolutely have to.” That has fallen to 21%; in the current poll, 33% said they were “living normally, coming and going as usual,” and another 44% said they are still leaving home, “but being careful when I do.” The majority of Democrats, 55%, were in that last group, while 55% of Republicans said they are living normally.

“Democrats are still living as if it’s April of last year, but Republicans are pretty much back to normal,” said Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

Those Texas voters haven’t thrown caution to the wind, however: 74% said they’re staying away from large groups, 64% are “avoiding other people as much as possible,” and 80% are wearing masks when in close contact with people outside their households.

I personally am in the “I leave home but am careful when I do” group – I’ve been in that group for awhile, and I expect to stay in it for the foreseeable future. Mostly that means I wear a mask when inside someplace other than my house, and it means I try to avoid being inside someplace other than my house if there isn’t a good reason for it. In other words, shopping is fine, ordering at restaurants (I’m eating outside or taking it to go for now) is fine, visiting the doctor or getting a haircut is fine, but I’ll pass on going to a bar or movie theater at this time. We have been to hotels, and we will travel via airplane in July. When the societal vax level is higher, I’ll be more open to more things. Your level of risk acceptance may vary.

Two-thirds of Texas voters said vaccines against the coronavirus are safe, while 18% said they’re unsafe and 16% were unsure. Democrats (86%) were more likely than Republicans (53%) to hold that view. Likewise, 66% said the coronavirus vaccines are effective, including 86% of Democrats and 55% of Republicans.

Asked whether they’ll get vaccinated when they can, 64% either said yes or that they’ve already been vaccinated, 22% said they won’t get a shot and 14% were unsure. Again, there was a partisan split behind those results, with 84% of Democrats saying they would get vaccinated or already have been, 51% of Republicans and 51% of independent voters saying the same.

In a June 2020 UT/TT Poll — before vaccines had been developed — 59% of Texas voters said they would get the shots if they became available, 21% said no and the rest were undecided. In October’s poll, 42% planned to get vaccinations, and 51% said in February of this year that they would either get the vaccination or already received it. Vaccine hesitancy has dropped accordingly, from 57% saying they were not going to get shots or were undecided in October, to 48% in February, to 36% in the most recent poll.

It’s that fourteen percent we need to concentrate on. Maybe over time pressure from family members or the threat of being fired will get some of the total resisters to get vaxxed, but the folks who are merely hesitant or who have obstacles in their way need to be accommodated in whatever way we can. Getting above 75% for the total vaccination rate would be big.

When it comes to government response to the pandemic, Texans hold the performance of their local governments above either state or federal governments. More than half (53%) approve of how their local officials have handled things, while 45% approve of the state’s work and 47% approve of the federal government’s response.

The good marks for local government, unlike those for state and federal governments, come from both parties. Among Democrats, 56% approve of local handling of the coronavirus, and 54% of Republicans feel the same way. The federal government, with a Democrat in the White House, gets 76% approval from Democrats and 58% disapproval from Republicans. And the state, with a Republican in the Governor’s Mansion, gets approval from 72% of Republicans and disapproval from 71% of Democrats.

Almost half of Texas voters (49%) approve of President Joe Biden’s handling of the coronavirus, while 35% disapprove. For Gov. Greg Abbott, 43% approve of his work and 48% disapprove; a year ago, 56% thought the governor was doing a good job with the coronavirus.

That’s a pretty robust approval number for President Biden, and a surprisingly poor one for Greg Abbott. It may just be that Democratic approval for Abbott has fallen to the kind of levels that Dan Patrick gets, but that would still be a big deal, since Abbott significantly outperformed Patrick in 2018. If Biden’s approval level remains in that ballpark, 2022 may be a pretty decent year for Dems here. Insert all the usual caveats about how far off things are, it’s one poll, the national environment matters, etc etc etc.

On the Big Freeze and its power outages:

Texas voters overwhelmingly support requiring energy providers to protect their facilities from bad weather, and a slim majority thinks the government should pay for that weatherization, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Having lived through a statewide winter freeze and electricity outages in February, 84% of Texas voters said those facilities should be weatherized, and 52% said government funds should pay for it.

“The main thing that the Legislature is talking about — weatherization — is the main thing that voters say they should do,” said James Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

Other proposals have strong support: 81% of voters think the members of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, the state’s grid manager, should live in the state; 81% said companies and regulators should be required to ensure higher levels of reserve power to meet spikes in demand; 78% want a statewide disaster alert system.

It remains to be seen what the Lege will actually do, but as far as what candidates should be talking about in 2022, it’s pretty clear on this front.

On voter suppression:

Asking whether the state’s election system discriminates against people of color depends on whether you are talking to Hispanic voters, who are split, Black voters, a majority of whom say it is discriminatory, and white voters, most of whom say it isn’t, according to the new University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Overall, 52% of Texas voters said the system doesn’t discriminate. But the question is divisive: 73% of Democrats said it does and 88% of Republicans said it doesn’t. Among white voters, 62% said the system doesn’t discriminate, but 58% of Black voters said it does. Hispanic voters were divided, with 43% saying it does discriminate and 42% saying it doesn’t.

[…]

Most voters (80%) agree that counties should keep paper records so voters can verify that their ballots are counted. And 65% agree that vote-counting equipment shouldn’t be connected to the internet or other computer networks. Smaller majorities — 56% each — said they would require the state’s biggest counties to livestream and record areas where ballots are counted, and that they would prohibit counties from sending vote-by-mail applications to people who didn’t request them.

“Texas voters are open to increasing security, against increasing barriers and decreasing convenience,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the poll. “When convenience begin to compete with election integrity and fraud, the Republicans back off a little.”

Other proposals have the support of most Republicans, but not of most voters. Allowing volunteer poll watchers to take pictures, record video and audio of voters has the support of 48% of Texans, but 71% of Republicans. While 47% of Texans would allow drive-thru voting, 64% of Republicans said that should be prohibited. Only 36% of Texas voters would prohibit counties from allowing more than 12 hours per day during the last week of early voting, which has the support of 60% of Republicans.

The data is here, though that’s just the high-level stuff. Giving more latitude to poll watchers got a plurality, but drive-through voting (47-42) and extended early voting hours (47-36) were preferred by the voters, so that’s two out of three for the good guys. People like convenience, it’s a simple enough thing. I’ll take my chances campaigning on that next year.

More May election post-mortems

From the DMN: Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson bet the second half of his first term on these two council seats. Here’s how it looked after polls closed.

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson bet the second half of his first four-year term on flipping two City Council seats held by members with whom he has battled during the last year.

He appeared to have lost that gambit.

Neither candidate he endorsed — Yolanda Faye Williams in District 5 and Donald Parish Jr. in District 7 — dealt a fatal blow to incumbents Jaime Resendez and Adam Bazaldua, according to unofficial results.

Resendez staved off a runoff against Terry Perkins, a former pastor at Abundant Grace Church. And in District 7, Bazaldua will face former council member Kevin Felder, not Parish.

In a late-night statement, Johnson acknowledged several races were headed to run-offs next month.

“No matter what voters in those districts ultimately decide, I am eager to work with our new City Council on an ambitious agenda that focuses on the basics — such as public safety, infrastructure investment, economic growth, and property tax relief — and builds for the future of this great city,” he said.

While it was never clear why the mayor chose to break a long-standing tradition against endorsing candidates as he did with Williams and Parish, the outcome was coming into focus after polls closed. Johnson never discussed his picks with The Dallas Morning News.

Johnson likely will still have a sizeable bloc of adversaries on the 15-member body.

“In a weak mayor system, allies and a coalition are critical,” said Matthew Wilson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “Endorsing a challenger is a gamble. If you fail, you have deeply alienated people who will continue to serve on the council. However, if you succeed, then you’ve pretty well created the beginning of the mayoral fraction.”

[…]

A list of catastrophes, especially the coronavirus pandemic, has sidelined the mayor and his nascent agenda that included increasing workforce readiness, ending division on the council and blurring the city’s historic racial divide.

The pandemic and demand to reform policing and reinvestment in Black and Hispanic communities could have served as a launching pad for those issues — and that may still be the case. However, the mayor was often eclipsed by Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins on both fronts.

“This past year has been the year of Clay Jenkins, not the year of Eric Johnson,” Wilson said, adding that the mayor’s window of exercising any additional authority in an emergency situation is closing.

But as we emerge from the pandemic and move beyond the election, the mayor will have a chance to reboot.

“This is a time for enterprising mayors to put their cities ahead,” Wilson said.

I don’t follow Dallas municipal politics and I don’t know the players here, but this interested me for a couple of reasons. One is that as noted it’s pretty rare for a Mayor to directly oppose an incumbent Council member. Houston Mayors will support friendly incumbents and preferred candidates in open seat races, but otherwise usually stay in their own lane. For one thing, they’re always on the ballot as well, so there’s always that fish to be fried. Even in our strong Mayor system, the risk of picking a losing fight against someone who will then have incentive to oppose you is a risk that Mayors usually avoid (or at least do it very much on the down low). As a theoretical matter, I have no issue with this – I can think of more than a few Council incumbents I would have liked past Mayors to oppose – but the risk/reward calculation has to make sense, and there’s no better way to look like a bully that’s just been run off than backing a losing challenger.

Two, in the same way that I have an interest in San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, I see Mayor Johnson as a potential future statewide candidate. He was a legislator, he won his seat by ousting an incumbent in a primary, and he got some things done as a member of the minority party. He’s also young and clearly ambitious, which is in relatively short supply among the big city Mayors. The better the record of accomplishment he can build in the current job, the better his chances statewide down the line. The line about this being the year of Clay Jenkins and not Eric Johnson will leave a mark, but then Clay Jenkins is also someone I have my eye on for a statewide run at some point. Make the most of the next two years, Mayor Johnson.

Moving a bit north, opponents of anti-racism education won big in Southlake.

Nine months after officials in the affluent Carroll Independent School District introduced a proposal to combat racial and cultural intolerance in schools, voters delivered a resounding victory Saturday to a slate of school board and City Council candidates who opposed the plan.

In an unusually bitter campaign that echoed a growing national divide over how to address issues of race, gender and sexuality in schools, candidates in the city of Southlake were split between two camps: those who supported new diversity and inclusion training requirements for Carroll students and teachers and those backed by a political action committee that was formed last year to defeat the plan.

On one side, progressives argued that curriculum and disciplinary changes were needed to make all children feel safe and welcome in Carroll, a mostly white but quickly diversifying school district. On the other, conservatives in Southlake rejected the school diversity plan as an effort to indoctrinate students with a far-left ideology that, according to some, would institutionalize discrimination against white children and those with conservative Christian values.

Candidates and voters on both sides described the election as a “fork in the road” for Southlake, a wealthy suburb 30 miles northwest of Dallas. “So goes Southlake,” a local conservative commentator warned in the weeks leading up to the election, “so goes the rest of America.”

In the end, the contest was not close. Candidates backed by the conservative Southlake Families PAC, which has raised more than $200,000 since last summer, won every race by about 70 percent to 30 percent, including those for two school board positions, two City Council seats and mayor. More than 9,000 voters cast ballots, three times as many as in similar contests in the past.

[…]

Hernandez and other candidates running in support of new diversity and inclusion programs said they were not particularly surprised by the outcome in a historically conservative city where about two-thirds of voters backed President Donald Trump last year, but they were dismayed by the margin of their defeat.

Hernandez, an immigrant from Mexico, said he worries about the signal the outcome sends to dozens of Carroll high school students and recent graduates who came forward with stories about racist and anti-gay bullying over the past two years. To demonstrate the need for change, members of the student-led Southlake Anti-Racism Coalition collected more than 300 accounts from current and former Carroll students last year who said they had been mistreated because of their race, religion or sexual orientation.

“I don’t want to think about all these kids that shared their stories, their testimonies,” Hernandez said, growing emotional Saturday moments after having learned the election results. “I don’t want to think about that right now, because it’s really, really hard for me. I feel really bad for all those kids, every single one of them that shared a story. I don’t have any words for them.”

As the story notes, the origin of all this was a viral video of white Carrolton high school students chanting the N word in 2018. The town, which has become less white as its population has boomed in recent years, attempted to address that through listening sessions and the school curriculum, and not too surprisingly some people that it was All Just Too Much, because we can’t go about hurting their feelings. I do believe that the trends in Southlake are pointing in the right direction, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be some backsliding.

And finally, Collin College candidates address concerns of free speech, retaliation:

Ongoing controversies at Collin College could impact Saturday’s election where longtime trustees are aiming to keep their seats on the board.

The growing college system has made national headlines over allegations of retaliation and its response to the pandemic. Protestors have attended board meetings after administrators let go three women who criticized the school’s COVID-19 response.

Trustees seeking another six-year term include Jim Orr, Andy Hardin and Bob Collins, who has been on the board since the founding of the Collin College in 1985.

But their opponents say the board needs people who will push for transparency across the school and can bring in diversity and fresh ideas.

Last week, nearly 90 people gathered to protest the way school officials have handled free speech, including professors Audra Heaslip and Suzanne Jones — who were told by college leadership that their contracts would not be renewed at the end of the semester.

The two women had previously criticized the school’s handling of the pandemic and were leaders of the college’s chapter of the Texas Faculty Association.

Volunteers then went to nearby Collin County neighborhoods to speak to voters and discuss issues leading up to Saturday’s election.

Misty Irby, a risk manager, said it shocked her to learn that Collin College is on the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s list for top 10 worst colleges for free speech.

“That’s very disheartening to me,” Irby said. “You have something that’s rotten at the core of the college that needs to be fixed.”

Irby, who is challenging Collins, said she wants to promote transparency within the college, repair its reputation and foster freedom of speech for students, faculty and staff.

That article was from before the election – in the end, the three challengers all lost, though two of them lost by single digits. The Dallas Observer has been following this story closely, and you can find all of their relevant articles here. For a rapidly blue-trending county, Collin has some truly awful local officials. The day of reckoning for them can’t come quickly enough. In the meantime, if you want to talk “cancel culture”, please be sure to address the cases of Audra Heaslip and Suzanne Jones in your monologue.

The COVID wastewater tracking project has been a big success

This has been one of the best things to come out of this interminable and miserable COVID experience.

Lauren Stadler’s environmental engineering students always pose the same question at the beginning of a semester: “What happens to water in the toilet after you flush?”

Historically, humans have worked to quickly dispose and eradicate their own waste, which can carry diseases.

But an area’s waste creates a snapshot of who is there and what they’ve been exposed to, said Stadler, a wastewater engineer and environmental microbiologist at Rice University. She’s working with the Houston Health Department and Baylor College of Medicine’s TAILOR program to find SARS-CoV-2 in the city’s wastewater.

Stadler’s hunt has revealed variants in particular areas, heightening the city’s urgency to procure resources — COVID tests, informational meetings, advertising and now vaccine sites — in an effort to quash them before they proliferate.

“The beauty and challenge of wastewater is that it represents a pool of sample — we’ll never get an individual person’s SARS-CoV-2 strain, but a mixture of everyone in that population,” Stadler said. “We can find a population level of emergence of mutations that might be unique to Houston.”

[…]

Variant tracking has become an important part of the wastewater analysis process, Stadler said.

In February, the city and its research partners began seeing a quick emergence of the B.1.1.7 variant, which is now the dominant variant in the area. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 21,000 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant have been detected in nationwide.

Now that the team has gathered data and built a sustainable process, Stadler said they are using this information to forecast future pandemics. “Taking wastewater data, you can predict positivity rates and forecast infection burdens — it has this predictive power essentially. It’ll be very important to identify areas in the city experiencing increases in infection, and we can direct resources.”

The wastewater analysis team works with public works employees to collect weekly samples from nearly 200 sites across the city.

“I think they see this as a monitoring tool beyond the pandemic, and we see it as well,” Stadler said. “Hopefully, when SARS-CoV-2 is behind us, we will be able to monitor for an endemic virus, like flu. We can use wastewater monitoring to look for other viruses, bacterial pathogens and other pathogens of concern.”

See here and here for recent entries. I don’t have much to add, just my admiration for everyone involved and the knowledge they have gained. This was a simple and inexpensive innovation, and it will yield public health benefits for years to come. Kudos to all.