The median American voter takes offense at bigoted tweets, but not at the mass deportation of migrant families, or so a pair of new polls suggests.
In a USA Today/Ipsos survey released Wednesday, roughly two-thirds of voters said that Donald Trump’s tweets instructing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley to “go back” to the “crime infested places from which they came” were both offensive and racist.
But on the question of whether thousands of undocumented immigrants should be rounded up and sent back to where they came from, majoritarian opinion is on the president’s side, according to a poll from Politico/Morning Consult. In that survey, 51 percent of Americans voiced approval for the president’s mass deportation raids, while just 35 percent registered opposition.
One should never draw strong conclusions from any one poll. And there’s reason to think that the wording of Morning Consult’s survey biased the results in Trump’s favor (more on that in a moment). Still, taken together, these two surveys reinforce a broad point that was already well-established in public-opinion literature: While Trump and many of his progressive critics see his overtly racist, culture-war flamethrowing and his hard-line immigration-enforcement policies as two sides of the same (white) nationalist coin, plenty of voters see them as quite distinct.
Which doesn’t mean that the American electorate is thirsting for decorous nativism. The safest thing one can say about U.S. public opinion on immigration is that it is confused. Just last year, a Washington Post–Schar School poll found 81 percent of Americans — including a majority of Republicans — believe that all undocumented immigrants who pass a criminal background check should be given legal status. And yet many of those same voters also ostensibly believe that until it is politically possible to grant such immigrants mass amnesty, it is well and good for Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to arrest and deport any random undocumented immigrants they happen to come across.
This contradiction likely flows from the way immigration policy pits two popular intuitions against each other. On the one hand, the typical voter feels it needlessly cruel to deport immigrants who are already here and not causing anyone harm; on the other hand, that voter is sympathetic to the notion that the government must “enforce the law” and “secure the border.”
The wording of Morning Consult’s survey appears to prime that latter intuition:
As you may know, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has planned a series of raids to arrest and deport thousands of undocumented immigrants. These immigrants have outstanding court orders to be removed from the U.S. Do you support or oppose these raids by ICE?
The reference to outstanding court orders, while accurate, not only primes concerns about the rule of law, but may also convey the misperception that the immigrants in question have been implicated in non-immigration-related crimes. Meanwhile, relevant facts that might tip opinion in the other direction go unmentioned. For example, Kevin McAleenan, acting secretary of Homeland Security, pushed to have the mass deportation raids canceled last month, out of fear that it would result in the removal of the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens. And some immigration-enforcement agents have reportedly “expressed apprehensions” about arresting migrant children and babies. Had these concerns been shared with respondents — or had the question merely indicated that the targets of the raids were largely women and children — it seems likely that support would have dropped below the majority threshold.
Nevertheless, existing survey data suggests that efforts to increase immigration enforcement currently enjoy more popular support than measures aimed at liberalizing enforcement, such as decriminalizing illegal entry, a substantively good policy that multiple Democratic presidential candidates recently endorsed. And conservative immigration policies are disproportionately popular with white, non-college-educated voters, who are overrepresented in both the Electoral College’s battleground states and the Senate.
All this said, Wednesday’s Morning Consult poll also found that voters are evenly split on the question of which party they trust more on immigration, with 41 percent favoring the Democrats, and 40 percent the Republicans.
So it is unclear if Democrats are paying a significant price for their leftward drift on immigration policy during the Trump era. And there’s reason to doubt that the party would gain many votes by meeting the president halfway on the issue. The precise details on the Democratic nominees’ “issues” website are sure to matter less than the broad themes of his or her campaign. Given the significant number of white swing voters in the Rust Belt who lean left on economics but right on immigration, there’s a decent case for Democrats to simply deemphasize the latter issue rhetorically during the general election campaign. By the same token, there is some political logic to Trump’s myriad efforts to increase the electoral salience of “border security.”
But there is no evidence that his virulently racist approach to achieving that objective does him any favors. A Republican president who knew how to dog-whistle to white anxieties about demographic change, while superficially championing an inclusive conception of American nationalism, would almost certainly derive more political benefit from hard-line border-enforcement policies than Trump has. The president does not say virulently racist things because he is an unscrupulous politician willing to maximize his vote share by any means necessary; he says such things because he is a virulent racist.