When it comes to the race for the next Senator from the state of Texas, the narratives are endless —Tea Party vs. Establishment, Conservative vs. RINO, Washington D.C. vs. Texas, businessman vs. lawyer, and so on. Boiling the battle between Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst down to so many false dichotomies, however, does little to advance our understanding of the motivations of the Texas electorate. If after 7:00 p.m. CT Ted Cruz is announced as the next Senator from Texas, the major reason will be because of how fired up his supporters were.
After criticism of Dewhurst by many state and national conservatives for his support of amnesty for illegal immigrants and for his support of a payroll tax, his instinct was to immediately attack them back. The Dewhurst campaign (along with media consultant Raconteur Media) and Texas Conservatives Fund (a pro-Dewhurst Super PAC) began to spam conservative websites like RedState.com, attack nationally known Cruz supporters like Sarah Palin, Mark Levin, Ron Paul, and Jim DeMint, and put out ads that even many Dewhurst supporters thought were over-the-top.
So, why might these defensive behaviors on the part of the Dewhurst campaign ultimately cause him to lose the election? It is because they fired up Ted Cruz supporters! Dewhurst thought that he could attack back because those who would care about the attacks were unlikely to vote for him anyway. What Dewhurst failed to consider is that there are a number of behaviors that voters can engage in besides simply casting a vote. They can donate money, walk blocks, or encourage friends to vote for the candidate they support.
Psychologists learned an important lesson about attitudes many years ago: It isn’t sufficient to just ask someone what their attitude is if you want to predict their behavior. You need to also know how strongly that attitude is held. Attitudes that are held more strongly result in more attitude-consistent behaviors. Dewhurst isn’t about to lose an election because he is less conservative than Cruz. He’s about to lose an election because he increased the strength with which Cruz supporters hold their attitudes — making them much more likely to work to prevent a Dewhurst win that they otherwise might have been.