Governor McConaughey?

A new poll from Texas give us a chance to think about parties and nominations in the US.

Before talking about a UT-Tyler, DMN poll (Matthew McConaughey may be a viable candidate for Texas governor; poll shows actor ahead of Abbott) let me confess three things. First, I have a hard time understanding why someone with McConaughey’s money and career would want to be governor. Second, I am not a fan of celebrities turning politician. Third, I won’t make the mistake I made in 2015 with Trump and simply dismiss this as name-recognition influencing polling (although it has to be at least some of that).

First, some context.

The next election for Governor of Texas will be next year. Abbott was first elected to the office in 2014 and is serving his second term. There are no term limits for the office. The last Democrat to hold the office was Ann Richards, who held the office from 1991-1995 (when I was still in grad school at the University of Texas).

Richards was at the tail-end of a process wherein Texas shifted from Democratic dominance to Republican dominance. Prior to Richards, there had only been one post-Reconstruction Republican Governor, Bill Clements, who served two non-consecutive terms (1979-1983, 1987-1991). Indeed, prior to George W. Bush’s election to the governor’s office in 1995, state-level executive offices were dominated by Democrats. For the broader context of the evolution of parties post-Reconstruction see my post More on the Evolution of US Party Politics.

Greg Abbott followed Rick Perry who followed George W. Bush.

In 2018 Abbot won 55.8%-42.5%

IN 2014 he won 59.3% to 38.9%

Second, here is what the UTT/DMN poll indicated:

If he were to take the plunge and run for governor, the poll found, 45% of Texas registered voters would vote for McConaughey, 33% would vote for Abbott and 22% would vote for someone else.

McConaughey’s double-digit lead over the two-term Republican incumbent is significant. The poll, conducted April 6-13, surveyed 1,126 registered voters and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.92 percentage points.

It is hard to take this too seriously at this stage of the game (and especially with 22% at “other”), but it isn’t unreasonable to interpret this as at least some level of dissatisfaction (or perhaps fatigue) with Abbott. The recent winter storm/electricity debacle likely plays into this as well.

In terms of partisan identifiers:

56% of Republican voters said they’d vote for Abbott, compared with only 30% for McConaughey.

While Democrats broke 66% to 8% for McConaughey, and independents 44% to 28%, more than twice as many Democratic primary voters — 51% — said they wanted a progressive candidate for governor than wanted a centrist — 25%.

That could pose a problem. McConaughey, who has criticized both major parties, has suggested he’s more of a moderate.

Third, so if we take a McConaughey candidacy seriously at least for the sake of discussion, how can it help us illustrate certain aspects of our party and electoral systems?

McConaughey has three basic options: run for the Democratic nomination, the Republican nomination, or go the independent/third party route.

Well, first and foremost, forget challenging a two-term incumbent and long-term office-holder for the GOP nomination. It would be a substantially difficult climb to unseat Abbott from his perch as top Republican in Texas. Not only would be a hard fight on logistical and structural grounds, I think it unlikely that McConaughey is willing to stake out the ideological position needed to win a GOP primary in 2022. And, beyond that, why would Republican voters want him instead of Abbott?

Second, the independent/third party route would be a bad idea. The allure is great as it plays into the mythos of an authentic challenger to the status quo, especially for a “moderate” (scare quotes because that word has an expansive definition in US politics). But even a very popular independent is risking a three-way split in the vote.

The basic math dictates that one has to beat both the Republican and the Democrat. This can be done (see previous celebrity candidate, and eventual governor of Minnesota from 1999-2003, Jesse Ventura). But usually, it is a fool’s errand because the reality is that most voters are locked into their partisan preferences and change less than they say they will in polling done over a year before an election. Further, the margin for error is higher in a three-person race.

For an example in a Texas gubernatorial race, see 2006 when Rick Perry ran for re-election in what ended up being basically a four-way race:

Source: Ballotpedia

While the 2006 outcomes doesn’t prove anything specifically about third party runs, it does show how an incumbent can fight off multiple challengers to win via plurality. Kinky Friedman also was an example of celebrity candidate, albeit very much of a minor/niche celebrity than McConaughey. Strayhorn was a former Mayor of Austin and had also held statewide office.

It is noteworthy that either Friedman’s support plus Bell’s (the Democrat) or Strayhorn’s plus Bell’s would have beaten Perry’s 39%. This illustrates the danger of fragmenting the opposition–not that it would be guaranteed that either combo of two blocs of voters would have aligned under other conditions. Still, while it is unclear if either Friedman or Strayhorn could have won the Democratic nomination, that would have been a better bet for potential victory.

(Sadly, I know nothing about James “Patriot” Dillon).

And so, this brings us to the obvious route if McConaughey really wants to be governor: he should run in the Democratic primary. While the polling shows that Texas Dems want a “progressive” candidate I also expect that they would like a candidate who could beat Abbott even more. And if (and this is a big “if”) McConaughey demonstrates some level of competence at campaigning, Texas Democrats might see him as a ticket back to the governor’s mansion after an almost three decade drought. It isn’t as if the regular Democratic nominees the party has been producing have been overly promising.

Of course, if someone like Beto O’Rourke ran for the nomination, that might change the equation.

Still, the thing to remember is that a candidate like McConaughey doesn’t have to toe the Democratic line precisely, as the party as an institution has no control over the behavior of primary candidates. To win the nomination he simply has to finish in the top two in the primary’s first round and then win a two-person contest in the second round (or win the first round with 50%+1). This hardly a bridge too far for a celebrity candidate if he is willing to put in the work given the not exactly robust state of the Texas Democratic Party.

It is worth noting that celebrity candidacies are a sign of weakness of political parties since they demonstrate that name-recognition/fame are more important than policy positions or even connections and relationships within the existing party apparatus.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    Abbott’s negatives are pretty high in population centers, due to his management of the pandemic and particularly the power outage fiasco. Also, running for a 3rd term, he is going to find a number of voters who are simply tired of him and want a change. He’s vulnerable, but still should be considered a favorite, but McConaughey?

    BTW The Body was gov of MN from 99 to 03. [Fixed -jj]

  2. Stormy Dragon says:

    To be fair, if my only choices were Abbott or McConaughey, I might choose McConaughey too. McConaughey doesn’t appear to be actively trying to overthrow the government.

  3. Mikey says:

    All right, all right, all right!

  4. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    I don’t think that this poll shows how McConaughey is electable, it shows us how Abbott has high negatives, and probably higher that his approval ratings shows. The main use of these hypotheticals is to point out to the incumbent, not to the politician or non-politician that’s being polled against him. Abbott is probably polling badly against Daffy Duck or Donald Duck.

  5. Gustopher says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Another fine variation of the incompetent or evil game:

    Would you vote for someone who is just going to be a bumbling idiot and take up space, or Greg Abbott? Maybe the bumbling idiot will be co-opted by the people around him, so I’d go with incompetent over evil too!

    This seems to match my general view of Trolley Problems — sometimes you want more trolleys.

  6. David S. says:

    @Gustopher: Ehhh. I’m not sold on this Trump versus Abbott comparison.

  7. gVOR08 says:

    Digby posted a tweet from Joy Reid,

    I mean, kinda fits with the retro & performative nature of the GOP. Since the 80s, their voters have elected Cooter from Dukes of Hazard, Gopher from The Love Boat, the star of Bedtime for Bonzo, The Terminator, The Apprentice guy and Clint Eastwood, who later talked to a chair.

    It might make more sense for McConaughey to go for the GOP primary after all. They do seem more open to unserious candidates.

  8. James Joyner says:

    @gVOR08: Ben Jones (“Cooter”) was a Democrat. And Eastwood was an Independent when he was mayor.

  9. @Sleeping Dog: Thanks for the correction.

  10. @Andre Kenji de Sousa: I am not actually making an argument that he is electable. I am trying to make some points about parties and elections.

    But, as noted in my first paragraph, I am less prone at the moment to dismiss all of this as just a story about name recognition for obvious reasons.

  11. Kathy says:

    With such numbers in the polls, the one who should run for governor of Texas is Sandra Bullock.

  12. Jen says:

    For someone who has steadfastly refused to say what, exactly, his politics even ARE, this seems like an odd choice.

    No one really knows what his views are, and as I’ve noted before, he doesn’t donate money and he doesn’t vote in primaries.

    The only apparent hint is in his memoir…via ABC/local:

    McConaughey has been fielding questions about running for governor while promoting his memoir, “Greenlights,” which published in October. In the book, McConaughey did include a handful of glimpses at the politics he was around growing up. Early on in the memoir, McConaughey said he came “from a long line of rule breakers,” describing them as “outlaw libertarians who vote red down the line because they believe it’ll keep fewer outlaws from trespassin’ on their territory.”

    Mmphf. Okay then.

  13. Jen says:

    @Kathy: She is allegedly an intensely private person. I doubt deeply that she’d have any interest in it, whatsoever.

  14. dazedandconfused says:


    Yes, his advocacy for limiting access to assault rifles and high cap mags made running for an R nomination all but pointless. Putting a D behind his name and running for Gov of Texas would be either masochistic or just plain dumb. Assuming for the moment Matt is serious, his best chance would be as an independent.

  15. Kylopod says:

    @Kathy: @Jen: Some years back Tim McGraw suggested he was thinking of running for Gov. of Tennessee. He rarely discusses his political views, but what I do know is that he’s a Democrat, he’s hinted he’s somewhat of a conservative, Blue Dog type, and he was publicly critical of Bush during the Katrina aftermath but otherwise doesn’t usually express political opinions in public.

  16. Kylopod says:

    @dazedandconfused: He also might attempt to run for the Libertarian nomination. Even if his views aren’t exactly aligned with the L platform, that hasn’t always stopped them before (look at Bill Weld in 2016).

  17. Jen says:

    @Kylopod: Interesting to note that apparently he grew out of that phase.

    I know it’s practically an American tradition to believe that every politician is an idiot, but being a governor is actually hard work. I fear that Trump’s time in office simply reinforces the notion that “hey, why not” for every rich guy/gal with some name ID can wander into a public position.

    We get the government we deserve, I guess.

  18. Jen says:

    @Kylopod: Agreed, that’s what I get from reading that small excerpt of his book–if he aligns with how he grew up. My hunch is that the Libertarians would love to have him, even if he doesn’t align with them perfectly.

  19. @dazedandconfused:

    Assuming for the moment Matt is serious, his best chance would be as an independent.

    I guess I need to keep writing these kinds of posts, it would seem. 😉

  20. @Kylopod: @Jen: Yup, definitely more 🙂

  21. dazedandconfused says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I can see Texas Republican voters voting for an independent but the D, as we all know, is the mark of the beast.

  22. CSK says:

    Definitely agree with this. I’m sure there are people on both sides of the aisle thinking that if a moronic churl like Trump can do it, they can, too.

    In terms of actors seeking high office, didn’t Reagan once say that politics made a great second career?

  23. Kylopod says:


    I can see Texas Republican voters voting for an independent but the D, as we all know, is the mark of the beast.

    And yet Beto O’Rourke came within 2.6 points of defeating a sitting Senator with a +14 approval rating.

    Of course he didn’t do it by winning lots of Republican crossover votes, but it suggests the state is within reach for Dems.

  24. @dazedandconfused: It is mathematically more likely that a D is going to eke out a win over an R than an I will beat both the R and the D.

  25. dazedandconfused says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Probably right about that, I suspect though that a celebrity candidate like Matt, with no record of public service, must run as an iconoclast.

  26. @dazedandconfused: Perhaps, but mainly I am trying to combat two enduring fantasies.

    1. That insurgent/moderate/independent/whatever candidates can win from a third-party/independent run. While this is not impossible, it is an overwhelmingly losing proposition in a three-way (or more) plurality contest.

    2. That the parties, as organizations, really control what a given candidate says. It isn’t about conforming to the D platform, it is about winning the primary by convincing enough D voters that a) you are acceptable enough, and b) that you are electable. In the Texas context, it has been almost 30 years since a Dem won the office. Running as an acceptable, electable alternative to Abbott is likely enough for someone like M to win the nomination, at least in a hypothetical.

    But more to my point, the D route is the only viable option. The I route is a loser.

    (All this presupposed he won’t crash and burn as a candidate. I am speaking more about pathways than I am about what I think will transpire).