tags: Press Releases

New Political Memo: Immigration and the 2022 Midterms

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As we move past Labor Day and into the final two months of the 2022 cycle, analysts are taking stock of the political landscape for the rest of the general election season. Below are four key points from the perspective of immigration politics:

  1. The GOP has gone all-in on nativism for the 2022 midterms. 
  2. Outside the MAGA base, immigration issues are declining in salience among the general electorate. 
  3. A strong majority of Americans reject the Republican vision on immigration – and the pending DACA ruling could put GOP cruelty and obstruction in sharp relief ahead of midterms.
  4. Republicans’ political choice to embrace nativism blocks needed solutions that would benefit the economy and fix a broken system.

The GOP has gone all-in on nativism for the 2022 midterms 

  • As we detail in the recent America’s Voice report on GOP message and ad tracking, Republicans have been pushing their border-focused, nativist narrative for the 2022 midterms since even before President Biden came into office. Once Biden actually entered office, Republicans have relentlessly focused on “open borders,” “invasion” messaging, and “replacement theory” – with the latter two a troubling mainstreaming by the GOP of white nationalist conspiracies that have led to multiple mass shootings of innocent Americans by far-right terrorists.
  • Our recent political report documents more than 2,130 ads and 400 campaign emails from GOP organizations and candidates that have used nativist dog-whistles this cycle, as well as an average of 2,700 tweets per month from Republican candidates and campaigns that move anti-immigrant messages.  
  • Throughout this year, Republican leaders and allies like Stephen Miller have been predicting the GOP’s relentless nativism and border narrative would be a key ingredient in delivering them control of Congress. For example:
    • Sen. Mitch McConnell in June 2022: “The three biggest issues this fall will be inflation, crime, and open borders…”
    • Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in September 2022 claimed the election was a “choice between an open border and secure border.”
    • Tucker Carlson in August 2022: “Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that you ran a campaign on illegal immigration and crime. These are two issues that didn’t just arise out of nowhere. They’re the product of policies the Democratic Party put in. They were intentional outcomes. We have millions of people coming in illegally, and we have a lot more murders than we had two years ago…These two issues threaten the existence of our society. So maybe you should run on them.”
    • Stephen Miller in August 2022: “If GOP lasers in on Biden’s ruinous immigration policies over the next 70 days — presenting a clear emergency action plan if they take the majority, laying the groundwork with the September CR — they can still usher in a red tsunami. It’s up to them.”
  • Bear in mind Republicans have made similar predictions about the potency of their nativism in previous cycles, and they were proven wrong. As we’ve covered in past reports, the Republicans ran on nativism in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. They lost each time, despite confident predictions from Stephen Miller and allies about the efficacy of the Republicans’ nativist attacks. 
  • Why? One reason is the disconnect between nativism’s appeals to the MAGA base and the priorities and views of the majority of Americans.  

Outside the MAGA base, immigration issues are declining in salience among the general electorate

  • Public opinion polling shows Republican voters rank immigration/border security as their number 2 priority after inflation. But while immigration and border topics remain salient for Republican base voters, for both independents and Democrats they immigration has been eclipsed by other issues – especially abortion. 
  • NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, conducted in late August, finds: “For Democrats, abortion was the clear top issue (35%), followed by the Jan. 6 committee hearings (22%), health care (16%) and inflation (13%). For Republicans, inflation was by far the top issue (40%), followed by immigration (22%), and abortion (10%). Nothing else received double digits. For independents, inflation was also tops (37%), but abortion was second (22%) and health care after that (12%).”
  • Similar outcomes can be found in other recent polls:
    • An August 2022 Gallup poll found that immigration ranked sixth in the “most important” issue question.
    • August Pew Research polling found immigration ranked 10th on the priority list of voters’ most important issue. The percentage of voters ranking it a “very important” issue was lower than the two most recent times Pew asked this question in 2020 and significantly lower than in the 2014-2018 stretch.
    • In both polls, Republican voters were outliers in ranking immigration and/or border issues much higher than the general electorate. 
  • As political analyst Ron Brownstein wrote in late August

“Earlier this year, the debate between the parties centered on inflation, the economy, crime, immigration and President Joe Biden’s stalled legislative agenda in Congress — all issues that motivated the Republican base and alienated many swing voters from Democrats. But a series of dramatic events over the past few months have elevated an entirely different set of issues: gun violence, threats to democracy, climate change and, above all, abortion rights. The effect has been the political equivalent to one weather system displacing another.”

Majorities of Americans reject the Republican approach to immigration, and the pending DACA ruling could put GOP cruelty and obstruction in sharp relief ahead of midterms

  • While immigration has declined in salience for most general election voters, it remains a powerful point of distinction between the parties. And while the most animated voters on immigration are the MAGA base voters, the vast majority of the general electorate rejects that extremism. As an August Gallup poll found that, despite the barrage of GOP messaging attacks, 70% of Americans think immigration is a “good thing” for the country. 

“Donald Trump has succeeded in getting the Trumpiest candidate on the ballot … they mirror Trump’s messaging that the election was stolen or speaking in flagrantly anti-immigrant rhetoric and terms. And while that might help you in the Republican primary, that isn’t necessarily going to help you in a general election, as Donald Trump himself found out in 2020. And so you have a landscape of Republican candidates that sound a lot like Donald Trump but don’t sound a lot like the median voters in their state. And even some Republicans are sounding the alarm on this front.”

  • The pending ruling from the conservative Fifth Circuit on the DACA program also could bring into sharp relief a distinction between the parties during the general election season. Republicans are seeking to end DACA in the courts and obstruct a legislative fix in Congress. DACA and Dreamers present a chance for Democrats to go on offense on an extraordinarily popular immigration subject while fighting for an essential legislative breakthrough:
    • August polling from Hart Research and BSP Research of battleground voters in key Senate states and House battleground districts, conducted for the Immigration Hub and SEIU, found that 65% of battleground voters polled (78% of Latino battleground voters) want Congress to act “to protect Dreamers if a federal court overturns the DACA program.” 
  • On border security and related topics, the public supports a balanced approach that manages the border in a safe, humane and orderly fashion. Notably, the majority of Americans  – including core Democratic voters and Latino voters – simultaneously support a balanced approach to border security AND simultaneously support citizenship for Dreamers and other long-settled undocumented immigrants.
    • Because the GOP has relentlessly characterized Democrats as supporting “open borders,” several polls underscore that Democrats can effectively respond on related attacks by leaning in and outlining their actual “balanced” approach – one that promotes both order and justice, that integrates compassion and controls, that stands up a system that works and that promotes support for legalizing Dreamers and long-settled immigrants as part of broader immigration reforms.
    • For example, the August Hart/BSP Research battleground poll found that while battleground voters in the poll initially trusted Republicans more than Democrats to “handle the immigration issue” by a 48-40% margin, that margin shifts substantially “if Democrats respond aggressively on the immigration issue, and go on offense against Republicans,” per the poll summary, including by leaning into a “balanced” border approach and “flipping the political script by bringing the debate back to legal status for qualified immigrants,” such as Dreamers.
  • A new immigration polling summary from Equis Research found that Latino voters also support such a “balanced” approach, noting: “Latino voters often have multi-faceted views on immigration. Support for immigration reform and for border security are not necessarily an either/or – instead, many Latinos support both. In Arizona, for instance, 56% of Latino respondents said they support both increased funding for border security and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people living in the U.S. That said, when faced with the choice, a majority of Latino voters consistently prioritize creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants over strengthening border security.”

Republicans’ political choice to embrace nativism blocks needed solutions that would benefit the economy and fix a broken system

  • The GOP’s embrace of nativism comes at the direct expense of our short- and longer-term economic needs. Economists agree that pro-immigrant policies and new avenues for legal workers would directly benefit the trouble spots of our economy, from rising prices to worker shortages to long-term need for young and skilled working people.
  • Yet despite the vocal support from many in the business community across a range of sectors and some of their own GOP colleagues, Republicans are thus far choosing to obstruct needed legislative fixes like the Farm Workforce Modernization Act and legislative solutions for Dreamers while doubling down on the ugly demonization of immigrants. 
  • Simultaneously, Republicans are seeking to end existing immigration policies that strengthen our economy, such as DACA. The forthcoming DACA ruling from Fifth Circuit could 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.
  • These needed legislative fixes to modernize the ag sector and secure Dreamers’ futures are in addition to the broader reforms that remain needed for immigration system – including opening up new legal pathways and visa channels to alleviate pressures on our southern border. Yet again, the GOP’s choice to embrace ugly nativist politics means that they are beholden to the MAGA base’s unrealistic and unachievable sentiments on immigration despite the broad consensus on what our economy and country need.