GOP Reps Slip in Recent Polling on Immigration

A funny thing happened on the way to the midterms

By Andrew R. Arthur on August 4, 2022

Opinion outfit Morning Consult and Capitol Hill journal Politico have just released their latest poll. It shows that illegal immigration at the Southwest border weighs heavily on respondents’ minds, but more importantly it reveals that trust in congressional Republicans’ ability to handle the issue has slipped. A funny thing has happened on the way to November’s midterm elections, and the GOP would be wise to correct course if it expects victory.

Levels of Concern Over Illegal Immigration. That poll was conducted between July 29 and 31 of 2,006 registered voters. It revealed that 67 percent of respondents were concerned about illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border, with 38 percent stating that they were “very concerned” about the situation there.

Males were more concerned than females (69 percent to 65 percent), and the older respondents were, the more likely they were to be concerned: 75 percent of those aged 65 and older voiced concern about illegal migrants at the U.S.-Mexico line, compared to just 52 percent of those aged 18 to 34, with other age groupings falling somewhere in between.

Republican voters were, not surprisingly, the most concerned (87 percent, with 67 percent stating that they were “very concerned” about illegal immigration), and Democrats were the least concerned (51 percent, but just 17 percent asserting that they were “very concerned”).

Independents — as is their wont — fell somewhere in between: 61 percent were concerned, with 29 percent stating that they were “very concerned” and 32 percent replying that they were “somewhat concerned”.

That said, among the various political factions, Democrats were the most likely to state that they were “not concerned at all” about illegal immigration at the Southwest border — 18 percent, compared to 14 percent of Independents and just 3 percent of Republicans.

Levels of Trust in Each Party. Given all of that, you would assume that voters — regardless of political stripe — would trust Republicans in Congress more than Democrats to handle immigration, and you would be “sort of” correct.

Forty-four percent of respondents trust Republicans in the House and Senate to handle immigration, compared to 41 percent who trust congressional Democrats. Not surprisingly, Democratic voters were more likely to pull for their representatives, trusting congressional members of the Party of Jackson by a margin of 77 percent to 10 percent for their GOP legislative counterparts.

And, again, it is not a shock to learn that Republican voters trust their team by an 84 percent to 6 percent margin for Democrats when it comes to handling illegal immigration at the Southwest border.

With less than 100 days before the November midterms, however, the biggest issue for either side is what the non-aligned, Independent, swing voters think. They also prefer GOP handling of illegal immigration at the Southwest border, by a margin of 40 percent to 32 percent for congressional Democrats.

The Slippage. Given all of that, one might assume that this poll is unalloyed good news for the GOP, at least on this issue. One would be wrong, however.

Morning Consult/Politico asked the same question, about trust in handling illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border in a poll they conducted between May 20 and 22. That poll revealed significantly higher trust in Republican congressional handling of the disaster unfolding on the Southwest border.

At that time, the Republicans held a 10-point edge, 47 percent to 37 percent, over their Democratic colleagues. While Democratic voters then also pulled for their side, it was by a smaller margin, with 73 percent putting more faith in their fellow partisans compared to 13 percent who trusted Republican members of Congress more.

Republican voters also trusted Republican representatives more then, by an 88 percent to 3 percent margin for congressional Democrats.

Most troubling for the Party of Lincoln, however, in that earlier poll Republicans held an 18-point lead over Democratic members in trust among Independents when it comes to handling illegal immigration, 44 percent to 26 percent.

Republicans still have an edge with the electorate overall in handling illegal immigration, but that edge has plainly slipped in just a two-month period.

What Happened? “What happened?”, you may ask. There is no clear answer, but I can make some educated guesses.

First, Republicans in the House and the Senate had just come off a series of high-profile hearings in late April and early May, at which DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas floundered in responding to GOP questioning about his handling of the border disaster.

Mayorkas is that unique sort of politician who plays well to those who agree with him and repulses those who don’t (sort of a low-boil Donald Trump).

He defiantly pushes back against contentions that the border is in “crisis” (he views it as a “challenge” to be managed), and as I have explained before, he has ditched deterrence as a border strategy in favor of quickly moving illegal migrants into the United States to apply for asylum.

While the secretary’s testimony is likely the best talking point that congressional Republicans can offer, they cannot bring him up to the Hill unless the controlling Democrats agree because the GOP doesn’t control a majority in either chamber — and Democrats are likely aware of Mayorkas’ limitations.

That is just part of the GOP’s problem, however.

The other part is that the Republicans have no clear, expressed plan for what they are going to do to make the Southwest border any better if they are given the speaker’s gavel and the Senate president’s chair.

If the GOP captures control of the House, current Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is the front-runner to replace Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and Republican Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) will likely succeed Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

While McCarthy and Scalise both signed off on an April 25 letter to Mayorkas ripping the secretary’s handling of the Southwest border, and in particular his “actions to dismantle the security of our nation’s southern border and disregard for the enforcement of U.S. immigration laws”, neither is known as an “immigration hawk”, nor is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

They say all the right things when it comes to Biden’s handling of illegal immigration, but none has introduced legislation in the current, 117th Congress, that would address the border crisis. Of course, legislation on hot-button topics offered by the party in the minority usually goes nowhere, but at least it could form a framework for the changes that they will make if they take control.

Republican voters have been burned by leaders who were less than effusive about immigration enforcement and border security in the past, like then-Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) who undermined the likelihood of passage of compromise legislation offered by then-House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) by offering his own “compromise of a compromise” bill (which failed) in 2018.

An Opportunity — If the GOP Will Take It. Immigration is plainly an important issue to Americans. In an Economist/YouGov poll conducted between July 30 and August 2 of 1,500 citizens, 6 percent of respondents identified it as their “most important issue” out of 15 choices, trailing only inflation (18 percent), jobs and the economy (12 percent), healthcare (12 percent), climate change (10 percent), and taxes (7 percent).

While that might not make immigration sound like a particularly important issue, consider that immigration tied for respondents’ top issue in that poll with abortion — an issue many congressional Democrats are banking on in the midterms following the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org. to strike down Roe v. Wade and return abortion decisions to the states.

In fact, in that poll, immigration was the top issue for a larger percentage of Republicans (11 percent) than abortion was for Democrats (9 percent; each was the number one issue for 5 percent of Independents). If Republicans want to turn out their base, in other words, immigration is one place to start.

That is especially true given that midterm elections are usually referenda on the sitting president — and Democrat Joe Biden’s approval numbers on immigration are dismal.

In an earlier Economist/YouGov poll conducted between July 23 and 26 of 1,500 citizens, just 31 percent of respondents approved of Biden’s handling of immigration (10 percent “strongly”). By contrast, half of those polled disapproved of Biden’s immigration performance (37 percent strongly).

And that is one of Biden’s better performances. The RealClear Politics average of recent polling on Biden’s immigration job performance shows that the president is 22.8 percent underwater on the issue, with 58 percent disapproval compared to 35.2 percent approval.

Republicans running for Congress plainly have an opportunity to win votes by distinguishing themselves from Democrats on immigration and the border, but they need to give all those concerned voters a reason to do so by explaining what they can and will — if given the chance — do to make things better.

Conversely, Democrats can further narrow or erase the GOP’s edge on immigration by finally getting serious about the humanitarian disaster at the Southwest border.

It is not enough for Democratic mayors to complain that Republican border governors are dumping a handful of migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico line off in their cities. If anything, that underscores the other side’s complaints about Biden’s poor handling of the border.

The White House took a good first step when DHS announced that it would be fencing off the “Yuma Gap” (likely in an attempt to save a Senate seat in Arizona), and then squandered it when the White House press secretary farcically denied the administration was “finishing the wall” there.

As I have explained, Joe Biden has been all over the map in his lengthy public career on immigration issues. He likely wouldn’t lose any votes for himself or his party if he did the right thing now and brought the border under control, but he would definitely blunt Republican attacks on his performance there.

Congressional Republican candidates have the most to gain by differentiating themselves from the Democrats and White House on immigration. That means offering commonsense, concrete proposals on what they will do to staunch the human tsunami of illegal migrants over the Southwest border, as quickly as possible. They can’t wait for Joe Biden and Alejandro Mayorkas to save them.