How Beto O'Rourke Can Beat Greg Abbott in Texas

If Beto O'Rourke has any chance in defeating Texas Governor Greg Abbott in the gubernatorial election in 2022, he must mobilize potential voters that never normally engage in politics who were previously considering Matthew McConaughey, according to experts.

The Democratic candidate is already facing an uphill battle to unseat Abbott in Texas, with a recent poll by the University of Texas at Austin and The Texas Tribune putting him nine percentage points behind the Republican governor.

O'Rourke's chances appeared to decrease further as McConaughey spent weeks pondering whether he should enter the word of politics. Despite not coming out with any actual policies, or even stating which party he would run under, if any, the Oscar-winning actor was becoming popular in Texas.

According to another November poll conducted by The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler, surveyed voters in Texas preferred McConaughey over O'Rourke by more than 20 percentage points, and Abbott by eight percentage points.

Just as McConaughey was appearing to become an actual candidate in the early polling, the 52-year-old announced on Sunday that he would not be entering the race to become Texas governor.

The decision was seen as a boost for O'Rourke's campaign, with the suggestion being that McConaughey would have acted as a vote-splitter between him and Abbott.

Juan "Carlos" Huerta, professor of political science at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, said McConaughey gained a boost in the polls just as Abbott's approval ratings were declining following a year which has seen Texas hit with COVID-19 and a number of people die in a winter storm that left millions without access to power in February.

"If this helps Beto, one has to assume that this was somebody who wasn't going to vote for Abbott anyway," Huerta told Newsweek. "This is somebody who is dissatisfied with Abbott and is looking for an alternative."

However, Huerta added that O'Rourke cannot merely rely on McConaughey deciding not to enter the race to help him gain more votes by next November.

"People who were flirting with voting for McConaughey are probably folks who have not traditionally been very engaged in politics, sometimes we call them low propensity voters," Huerta said.

"Whether or not they really would have shown up in big numbers, we don't know. What Beto's going to have to do is mobilize voters, those who have not voted at high rates in the past. And if there really were a bunch of people who would potentially vote for Matthew McConaughey, can Beto reach out to show he's different, he can bring change?"

Huerta emphasized the importance of O'Rourke persuading those who have not voted in the past or those still undecided, as he is unlikely to flip a lot of Republican voters no matter what his policies are.

Huerta said his best hopes are to "peel off a few" who consider COVID-19 or February's Big Freeze a defining issue.

According to The Texas Tribune poll which put Abbott on a nine percentage point lead over O'Rourke, there are still 10 percent of voters who are undecided over which candidate they will back come November 2022.

Mark Owens, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Tyler, noted more than half of people who backed McConaughey over O'Rourke in the Dallas Morning News poll were Independents.

"Not being tied to a party and offering a true Independent voice was of interest to some people," Owens told Newsweek.

Owens said that the actor's campaign also would have relied on engaging those who would not normally vote, which is something O'Rourke must now do.

"McConaughey had the opportunity to engage voters in Texas that might not vote in a midterm election," Owens said. "McConaughey voters were 10 percent less likely to say that they were certain or probably going to vote than the Abbott voters."

Owens added that McConaughey not entering the race doesn't affect Abbott's position too much, but does allow O'Rourke to "reduce the gap" on the governor.

"And he's gonna get more attention," Owens added. "You could imagine if McConaughey was in the race, we would be giving more attention to him than Beto O'Rourke."

James Henson, head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, suggested that McConaughey not entering the race ultimately will not alter O'Rourke's chances in 2022 because he doesn't believe the actor actually throwing his hat into the ring was a serious possibility.

"I don't think this is a 'boost' for O'Rourke as much as it is just clearing the decks a bit more," Henson told Newsweek.

"Sure, had McConaughey's fantasy candidacy been real, it would have likely had the most negative impact on O'Rourke, but even that is pretty dependent on context, and the details of a candidacy that was never more than speculation (for example, whether he ran as a partisan or an Independent).

"But much more needs to happen beyond the mere fact of McConaughey's absence to improve O'Rourke's chances of overcoming Abbott's significant advantage, particularly given the fact that the actor wasn't ever a concrete factor to begin with."

Beto O'Rourke  texas
Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks with members of the press at a campaign rally on November 16, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. O'Rourke drew a large crowd at his first campaign event since announcing his candidacy on Monday, November 15, for what could be a closely watched 2022 Texas gubernatorial race between O'Rourke and Republican incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott. Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images