It’s not a top issue for most voters, Republicans demagogue migrants to galvanize their base, Democrats employ a consistent both/ad message about security and reform
The 2022 midterms will largely be determined by issues other than immigration, but immigration and the border showed up on the debate stage and was a top issue in Republicans’ midterm messaging strategy.
Before election day, we can make a few conclusions, including:
- Right-wing media and Republicans have adopted extremist positions – even adopting the same white nationalist conspiracies as domestic terrorists, over 700 times – to keep a distorted narrative about the border top of mind for their base voters, but it’s not a top concern for most voters outside the GOP base.
- Republicans invested heavily, spending tens of millions on disingenuous attacks and incendiary language. America’s Voice extensive ad tracking identified over 3,200 different pieces of paid communications from Republicans and their allies from this cycle that employed anti-immigrant attacks, including over 600 “open borders” attacks, and over 600 that falsely equate migrants with the illicit drug trade.
- Democrats spent their ad dollars communicating on other issues, but when asked on the campaign trail or on the debate stage, Democrats had a consistent message – a message that stresses the need for both security and reform and support for policies such as DACA and Dreamers.
- Despite the economy being the number one issue for most voters, there was very little about the beneficial role of immigrants in the U.S. economy and how much economic disruption is coming when almost three-quarters of a million deeply rooted, long-term immigrants with temporary status – 600K plus Dreamers with DACA and 250K plus TPS holders whose status is set to expire – potentially start to lose status, barring immediate action by Congress this year.
First, let’s take a look at the public opinion polling in the run-up to the election. Most polling we have seen indicates that immigration is not a top issue in this cycle for most voters, with concern driven mainly by Republican voters:
- Pew polling released on October 20 found: “About three-quarters of Republican voters cite immigration (76%) or violent crime (74%) as very important issues to their vote,” the second highest percentage for the list of issues where registered voters were asked about the importance of each issue separately. While only 36% of Democrats said immigration is very important, ranking it 15th amongst the other issues on the list.
- The Emerson College poll released on September 23 asked: “What do you think is the most important issue in determining your vote this November? The economy was the most common response (40%) with immigration coming in fifth (7%). For independents, immigration ranked seventh (5%). And in their state-specific polling that asked the same question, only Texas cracked double digits (12%), with immigration ranking fifth or sixth in other battleground states, Ohio (5%), Georgia (6%), North Carolina (4%), Pennsylvania (4%), Arizona (5%), New Mexico (6%), and Nevada (8%).
- The New York Times/Siena poll released on October 17, asked: “What do you think is the MOST important problem facing the country today?” Among the totals of likely voters, immigration tied for fourth (5%) with abortion (5%). When broken down by party identification, only 1% of Democrats name immigration, while 12% of Republicans named immigration behind economy and inflation. For independents, the issue dropped to the seventh most likely response (4%) tied with climate change (4%)
- The CBS/YouGov poll from October 14, found that among likely voters, immigration ranked sixth (61%) for those who respond very important when asked: “How important will each of these issues be in your vote for Congress this year?” With a breakdown along ideology with 86% of conservatives (ranked fourth compared to the other issues), 50% of moderates (ranked ninth), and 36% of Liberals (ranked last)
In light of these dynamics, it isn’t surprising that Republican attacks on Democrats on the border and immigration have been central to Republicans’ midterm strategy. While Democrats have focused their attention elsewhere.
Republicans demagogued the issue to galvanize their base and to distract and pivot away from topics where Democrats have clear advantages. Their approach was pure politics not solutions-focused, using photo ops, disingenuous attacks, and incendiary language to appeal to their nativist base. Nativist disinformation and dog whistles have been part of the daily communication strategy for Republicans throughout the last year.
- For the last five months, Republicans put out an average of about 2,500 Tweets a month with anti-immigrant messages, according to an ongoing analysis from Data to Disrupt of about 300 Twitter accounts from top GOP elected officials, viable Republican candidates, and top GOP political operatives. For context, Republicans were nine times more likely to mention the border than abortion.
- Over the same period, negative mentions of immigration in right-wing media averaged around 4,000 a month.
- Throughout the primary and into the general election, Republicans’ paid communications paralleled this level of attention. America’s Voice extensive ad tracking project identified over 3,200 different pieces of paid communications from Republicans and their allies from this cycle that employed anti-immigrant attacks.
- As reported in the New York Times “over the past month, Republicans have poured nearly $38.3 million into more than 380 television ads focused on border security and immigration”.
The Republicans’ political narrative here is almost entirely devoid of workable solutions and focuses almost exclusively on fear-mongering about immigrants and the border. Instead, their attacks have largely focused on three interconnected themes whose substance is divorced from factual reality. Republicans attacked Democrats for supporting “open borders” – they don’t, nor are the borders open. Republicans ran over 610 paid communications with this message this cycle.
Republicans are also advancing a disingenuous narrative that equates migrants and asylum seekers with the problems around fentanyl and overdose deaths. Again this is not true. Fentanyl is an urgent and serious public health issue, but it is not an immigration issue. Contrary to Republican candidate’s repeated claims, migrants coming to the U.S. border are not importing dangerous fentanyl or other drugs and most drugs are coming in at ports of entry, usually by U.S. citizens. Republicans constructed this false narrative as part of their midterm strategy running over 600 paid communications with this message this cycle.
This is far from the first year Republicans have invested in nativism as a political strategy, but this cycle, they have escalated their rhetoric to the point of adopting white nationalist talking points. The America’s Voice ad and message tracking project has identified well over 700 examples of Republicans amplifying “invasion” and “replacement” conspiracies this cycle. This includes 80 candidates up for federal or statewide election this November, as well as the top GOP PACs.
While Republicans were quick to demagogue the border and the migrants seeking asylum or the American dream they were almost entirely silent on how they would address the deeply rooted immigrants already working and living with temporary status or no status at all.
When it comes to paid communications, Democratic campaigns have focused on the other concerns that are top of mind for voters as indicated by polls. In doing so, they have left Republicans room to set the terms of the debate around immigration and the border. However, when asked, Democrats expressed a consistent message about the need for both security and reform.
Democrats approach has been to focus on solutions. They have been quick to acknowledge the need for border security, but the type that is in line with both American interests and values. And they reiterated the need to find legislative solutions for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, including Dreamers.
Battleground Democrat Senate candidates were repeatedly asked about immigration and border issues on the debate stage. The candidates spoke about the need for border security that is in line with American values, often acknowledging that forced global migration is a reality, but one we can manage by updating our asylum processes for the 21st century. Importantly, Democrats also stressed the importance of creating the necessary legal pathways for both the undocumented immigrants who have called the U.S. home for the last decade and for new immigrants to support the overall economic prosperity of the U.S. And a key part of the midterm message has been to call out MAGA Republicans for being more interested in demagoguing the issue as part of their own cynical political calculation than offering real solutions. The message is also consistent from Democratic gubernatorial candidates facing off against Republicans who have made nativist political stunts the centerpiece of their campaigns in Texas, Arizona and Florida. See here for key examples of what Democrats have said on the issue on .
But are voters hearing this message from Democrats? Not really. Democrats need to more effectively communicate their stances on immigration to the American people. Voters do not know where Democrats stand because they do not hear from them on the issue; leaving Republicans largely unrestricted in their ability to shape the public conversation around the topic. No matter how divorced from the facts a Republican’s message may be, a purely reactive messaging strategy from Democrats cannot win the debate over the long haul.
This is not a problem confined to the 2022 midterms. Democrats need to loudly and proactively communicate their broadly popular, values-based solutions year-round and not let harmful and false narratives proliferate without challenge.
Democrats have a consistent, coherent message that speaks to the majority on immigration, they shouldn’t be so shy about it.
Looking forward, there is a looming threat to the economy and to the three-quarters of a million deeply rooted, long-term immigrants who may start to lose status, barring immediate action by Congress this year. With over 600,000 DACA recipients hanging on by a judicial thread, there is a closing opportunity for Democrats to deliver on their values-based solutions and for Republicans to oppose the white nationalism taking hold in their party by taking legislative action to protect Dreamers during lame-duck.
The economic consequences of failing to protect DACA recipients is indisputable as it would mean the end of work permits for tens of thousands of Dreamers at a time when there are more than 340,000 “essential” workers with DACA across the country, including 15,000 K-12 teachers during a time of severe teacher shortages and 34,000 health care workers with DACA providing patient care. A Center for American Progress analysis found it could be a loss in nearly $10 billion in annual tax revenue, with DACA recipient households paying $6.2 billion in federal taxes and $3.3 billion in state and local taxes each year. And an average of 1,000 U.S. jobs will be lost every business day over two years, according to an analysis by FWD.us.
Providing a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers is also one of the immigration policy solutions that has wide, consistent, and bipartisan voter support. As CBS News recently reported, “Seventy-three percent of surveyed voters in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin said they backed giving immigrants living in the U.S. without legal permission an opportunity to ‘earn’ lawful status and ultimately citizenship if they meet certain requirements, including passing background checks.” Results that are in line with poll after poll after poll after poll.
While most of the GOP has embraced extremist positions and the rhetoric of white nationalists on immigration, the contingent of Republicans genuinely concerned about the overall health of the economy or the white nationalism consuming their party also have an opportunity to provide a legislative fix to DACA.
But the opportunity to provide a legislative fix for DACA that is that rare mix of good policy and good politics, might be closing quickly. If Republicans take the majority in the House and elect Rep. Kevin McCarthy speaker, they do so knowing that he has made repeated promises to block any DACA legislative fix.