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Could the Conventional Wisdom About Immigration and the Midterms Be Wrong?

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Washington Post/ABC Poll: More Democrats than Republicans Say Immigration is Important to their 2018 Vote

Is the bet Republicans are making on xenophobia going to work this election cycle? Recent polling suggests that the prevailing conventional wisdom — that the issue is a winner for Republicans –may have to be rethought at evidence of opposition and backlash mount.  

The conventional wisdom is that while a majority of Americans hold pro-immigration views, the intensity favors the Republicans on the issue. This is born out by the advertising choices of the respective parties. According to a recent CNN analysis, the GOP has spent $150 million on immigration attack ads this cycle, five times more than they spent on immigration in 2014, and according Kantar Media/CMAG, in August, 26% of ads from Republicans mentioned immigration, compared to only 5% of ads from Democrats. Super PACs aligned with Trump, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are running attack ads across the country about “open borders” and “sanctuary cities” and “MS-13.”

Check out examples of immigration attack ads at our “Divide and Distract” website.

This GOP exploitation of xenophobia seems to be based on the notion that immigration is  one of the top issues for GOP voters. Just recently, for example, Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini conducted a deep-dive into the politics of immigration, and concludes, “the left is more consistently pro-immigration than the right is consistently anti-immigration” but that the partisan divide favors conservatives due to “greater intensity on the side of those who want…movement further to the right.”

But the just-released Washington Post/ABC News poll offers countervailing evidence, suggesting that Trump’s cruelty on immigration has taken a toll on Republicans and increased intensity on the issue for Democrats:

  • For Democratic voters, 74% say immigration is important in determining their vote this year; 26% say immigration is “one of the single most important issues.”
  • For Republican voters, 71% say immigration is important in determining their vote this year; but only half as many GOP voters — 13% — say immigration is “one of the single most important issues.”
  • On the question, “which party do you trust to do a better job handling immigration,” the poll finds that Democrats hold a 50-38% advantage over Republicans — and a 57-32% margin among women. For Democrats, the 50% mark is 13% higher than in July 2015.

Could it be that Trump’s policies of ripping children from their parents family separation crisis, ending DACA for Dreamers and more are generating a powerful enough backlash to overwhelm whatever advantage Republicans believe they have on the immigration? There’s some evidence for that:  

  • In September, the Associated Press’s Julie Pace referenced internal Republican polling that revealed how the family separation policy had hurt Trump and the Republicans’ standing among moderates and independents in congressional battlegrounds. She wrote: “Trump’s turbulent summer appears to have put many moderates and independents out of reach for Republican candidates, according to GOP officials. One internal GOP poll obtained by The Associated Press showed Trump’s approval rating among independents in congressional battleground districts dropped 10 points between June and August. A GOP official who oversaw the survey attributed the drop to negative views of Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the White House’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. The official was not authorized to discuss the internal polling publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.”
  • National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar wrote in July that the “family separation border policy badly hurt Rs with suburban women, some of whom voted for Trump in ‘16.” He added that “in the roller-coaster ride that is the Trump presidency, this has been a disastrous summer for Republicans. The backlash against his administration’s draconian family-separation policy cost the party support among moderate suburbanites.”
  • Also in July, at the height of the attention to the family separation crisis, Republican consultant and leading “Never Trumper” Rick Wilson wrote a Daily Beast column titled, “This Was the Week That Finally Broke Trump’s Spell.” He wrote, “The stories and the coverage combined two things; first, they exposed how gleefully the Trump Administration viewed the pain and fear of children. Second, they made Americans face what was being done in their name.” He added, “One House member spoke to me on background Wednesday night and said, ‘This mistake broke the spell.’”

In addition to the new Post/ABC News poll, a recent Pew poll asked about the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities — an issue closely related to Trump’s radicalism with respect to immigrants and refugees — and found that Democrats are highly motivated by it:

  • Pew Research, September 2018, asked about this question about a range of issue topics: “As you think about elections for Congress, how important is X issue to you?” 85% of those planning to vote for Democrats ranked “the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities” as “very important” — coming in second place among the 16 issues tested, just behind “health care” which came in at 88%.

These findings come at a time of record high public support for immigrants and pro-immigrant policies:

  • September 2018 NBC/WSJ poll: “Would you say that immigration helps the United States more than it hurts it, OR immigration hurts the United States more than it helps it?” By a 61-28% margin, voters overwhelmingly said immigration helps America. NOTE: Asked 19 times since 2005, this is the most positive response in the poll’s history on the question – the net positive 33 percentage point margin is the largest; the 61% “helps” figure the highest; and the 28% “hurts” figure the lowest ever recorded in this poll.
  • Since 2005, voters have swung 49 percentage points in a pro-immigration direction. The current +33 margin in the pro-immigrant direction compares to a 37-53% (-16) finding when the NBC/WSJ poll first asked this question in 2005.
  • Gallup polling in June 2018 asks the question a bit differently, and found that 75% of Americans believe immigration is a good thing for the country, a record high.
  • The September NBC/WSJ poll found that by a 58% – 22% margin, voters said they were  more likely to vote for a congressional candidate that “favors a program that allows young adults who were brought to this country illegally by their parents when they were children to stay here legally to attend college or work.” This was the highest ranking issue of all the policy issues tested in this poll.
  • Asked in the same poll if they were more likely to vote for a congressional candidate that “favors increasing funding for a wall along the border with Mexico,” 29% of voters said yes; 55% said no.
  • And in July 2018, the African American Research Collaborative and Latino Decisions released a battleground poll of Latino, Asian American, African American, Native American, and White likely voters in 61 battleground congressional districts. The poll found that 73% of voters in battleground House districts said they were angry about child separations at the border. Those numbers increased to 79% among suburban women.

There is also real world electoral evidence about how all of this is playing out:

  • In the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial election, Republican Ed Gillespie relied on race-baiting MS-13 ads down to the stretch in hopes of overtaking Democrat Ralph Northam. He ended up losing by a whopping 9 points. As Geoff Garin, the pollster for Northam, told Robert Draper of the New York Times, “Gillespie ran the kinds of MS-13 ads that are now running in other parts of the country. We measured a real backlash to that advertising with suburban voters, in part because it connected Gillespie to the anti-immigrant thrust of Trump’s persona.”
  • And here’s a rundown of other early and special elections – in Florida, Pennsylvania, Florida, Missouri, Alabama, New York, and New Jersey – that underscore just how ineffective the GOP’s anti-immigrant attack ads have been to date.  

We ask again: Is the bet Republicans are making on xenophobia going to work this cycle? We will have a lot more intel on this question come Election Day. But the recent evidence suggests that the conventional wisdom of “advantage Republicans” may be considerably overstated. Given the growing importance of immigration to Democratic voters and the unpopularity of Trump’s policies on Dreamers, family separation, the border wall, and on the basic question of whether immigration is good or not for the country, it may turn out that whatever mobilizing effect the immigration attacks have for Republican voters, the backlash effects may be greater.