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Headlines and Toplines Are Obscuring How Most People Outside of the MAGA Base Truly Feel About Immigration. See The Evidence in NH Exit Polls

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In the lead up to the New Hampshire GOP primary, we saw headlines like this from ABC News: “Immigration, the economy and foreign policy could decide the New Hampshire primary.” After seeing exit polls, FOX News reported, “Immigration is a top issue for Republicans across the country, and that continues to be true in New Hampshire.”

And, that’s not surprising, given how Republican candidates have spent millions ranting about immigrants and as their speeches have become increasingly dire. Republicans have spent the last several years in a near constant drumbeat to their base that immigrants are to blame for just about every one of their concerns, except maybe the rain. More recently, Trump has increasingly relied on dangerous rhetoric about immigrants “poisoning the blood” of the nation, literally echoing Adolf Hitler.

A new report from AdImpact on GOP presidential primary ad spending found that as of January 5, 2024, “immigration” was the second most prolific ad topic, at 21.2% of the total ads, behind the “economy” at 22%. That’s out of a total of $259 million spent on those ads. The report noted that of the $51.7M spent on ads supporting Trump, the top issue is “immigration,” followed by “Illegal Drugs,” an issue that Trump often falsely associates as an immigration issue. 

In the GOP primaries, exemplified in the ongoing presidential contest, the candidates competed for the hard core base voters motivated by nativist appeals by employing more dehumanizing rhetoric and extreme policy promises. And, that same kind of advertising will be prolific in Senate and House races too. 

So, it’s no surprise that the hard core GOP base reflects Trump’s top messaging priority. But, it’s worth looking deeper than just the toplines, and the New Hampshire exit polls provide a look into the immigration views on voters outside of the GOP. 

According to NH exit polls, 44% of the voters in the GOP primary identified as independent or something else while 6% identified as Democrats. Nikki Haley won 58% of independents, and 88% of Democrats. As many political observers noted, the results for Haley were probably good for President Biden. For example, New York Times political reporter Shane Goldmacher told “The Daily” that Haley’s 44% of the primary vote performance wasn’t great for her, but added “I think it is really great news for Joe Biden….I look at those Haley voters and see a lot of potential support for Joe Biden” in the swing state of New Hampshire. 

In the New Hampshire exit poll, GOP primary voters were asked if undocumented immigrants currently in the United States should be either deported to countries they came from, or offered a chance for legal status.

The top line number was that 42% should be offered a chance at legal status, while 55% said they should be deported. That’s worth noting, given the onslaught of ugly ads and relentless, anti-immigrant rhetoric from Republican candidates for president. And remember, this isn’t a sample of the public at large – who support pathways to citizenship in the high 60s – but this is the sentiment of Republican primary voters.

But a further look is warranted, given the breakdown of the race between Trump and Haley. 28% of Trump voters, the very hard core of the GOP base, said undocumented immigrants should be offered legal status, while 76% said they should be deported. So almost a quarter of Trump’s base disagrees with him on his core issue. We should remember that Trump is campaigning on “the largest deportation effort this country has ever seen.” 

But, the Haley breakdown is enlightening given her voters were more independent minded. The breakdown is 68% of Haley voters said undocumented immigrants should be offered legal status, while 23% said they should be deported. (Of note, 93% of NH GOP primary voters identified as white so this was not an electorate that reflects the diversity of the U.S.)

The results of the legal status question of Haley voters gives a better window into the views of the non-MAGA base. And, it’s consistent with polling we’ve seen for years. Americans support common sense pathways for undocumented immigrants. Trump’s anti-immigrant views are dominant in the GOP base and Republicans up and down the ballot echo him. It’s their issue of choice and they keep getting more extreme, pushing white nationalist conspiracy theories in speeches and ads and calling explicitly for violence in on-line spaces.

Unfortunately, too much media coverage overlooks GOP xenophobia and extremism or characterizes attacks on immigration as the secret sauce that will unlock victory for nativist politicians. But, as the exit polling in New Hampshire showed, there’s much more to this story – for both the media and Democrats. Media should dig deeper than the rhetoric and top lines.

And we have seen this movie before. In 2018 Trump made the midterm elections all about caravans and menacing black and brown immigrants. A year out, the pundits called him a genius and on election day he got walloped. In 2020, Trump was going to make immigration his signature issue and it fizzled, like his campaign. Then in 2022, the red wave would ride the crest of anti-immigrant sentiment and deliver the Senate (nope) and House (not by much) to the Republicans. Anti-immigrant politics are a weight holding back far-right Republicans no matter how many times pundits predict otherwise. 

Despite all the strategic xenophobia from Republicans, backed by tens of millions in ad spending, public opinion has held strong in favor of solutions and a pathway to legalization. Broadly, the majority of the public wants reform instead of the status quo on immigration issues, yet their desire for an orderly system and border security does not translate into majority support for deterrence- or enforcement-only approaches, slashing legal immigration, or embracing Trump-style proposals. 

As The Immigration Hub highlights, relying on a series of public polls: “The majority of voters in America are pro-immigrant and pro-orderliness,” and support a balanced approach to border security and immigration (read their full memo with detailed polling analysis here). 

Meanwhile, despite Republican chatter about trying to make inroads with Latino voters, Latinos’ immigration priorities are at odds with the enforcement-only policies on the table – see ongoing and detailed Unidos.US polling of Latino voters underscores that their immigration views are decidedly in favor of a balanced approach, with elements like a path to citizenship a high priority and enforcement-only provisions ranking at bottom (more here).

The bottom line? The GOP is making immigration an issue for their core base, but the rest of the country doesn’t really share those views. Despite the broad public’s desire for an orderly border, they prefer a balanced approach and solutions to Trump-like cruelty. It often feels like the conventional wisdom adopted by too many Democratic strategists and pundits is that immigration is a problem for Democrats that should only be addressed by adopting Republican-lite stances. 

That misreads the public’s sentiment and consistent polling. Democrats should lean in with solutions. That’s what most Americans still want.