Immigration Jumps in Importance in Poll in Wake of ‘Del Rio’

Some interesting divergences based on gender and education

By Andrew R. Arthur on September 29, 2021

A September 18 to 21 poll of 1,500 U.S. adults by UK periodical The Economist and opinion firm YouGov showed a huge jump in the number of respondents who viewed immigration as the “most important issue” (out of 14 choices). That likely reflects fallout from the recent border debacle in Del Rio, Texas. It also revealed an interesting rise in the importance of immigration among white, college-educated men, and a decline among their female counterparts.

“Del Rio”. As I explained in a September 24 post, the events that unfolded in that erstwhile sleepy south Texas border town during the past two weeks have made “Del Rio” shorthand for a border in chaos. It resulted from poor (or non-existent) policy emanating from the White House and inconsistent (to be kind) messaging from key administration officials that continued through the crisis.

“Del Rio” also apparently moved the needle in some curious ways as it relates to the importance of immigration as an issue among various demographic groups, though there may be other factors in play.

Immigration as the “Most Important Issue”. Immigration surged as the “most important issue” for respondents in the most recent poll, jumping three percentage points (from 7 percent to 10 percent) compared to similar polling conducted just two weeks before. That shows the public is paying attention to events at the border.

In a similar Economist/YouGov poll conducted between September 4 and 7, “immigration” ran sixth as the most important issue to respondents, behind healthcare (17 percent), jobs and the economy (14 percent), climate change and the environment (13 percent), national security (9 percent), and taxes and government spending (8 percent).

Immigration tied with civil rights in sixth place, again with 7 percent of respondents apiece.

What a difference the chaotic scenes at the border have made. Immigration is now in fourth place, behind healthcare (18 percent), climate change (15 percent), and jobs (13 percent).

Significant Shifts Among White Males Who View Immigration as the “Most Important Issue”. The change is particularly marked among white males, and the results are interesting.

Twelve percent of white men without college degrees identified immigration as the most important issue, up two percentage points from the earlier poll.

Then, there are the white males with college degrees, where the shift is, quite frankly, shocking.

Ten percent of them named immigration as the most important issue in the September 4 to 7 polling. That increased seven percentage points in just two weeks, to 17 percent. Immigration is now the leading issue among this cohort, beating even climate change (14 percent) and jobs, taxes, and healthcare (each at 13 percent).

That presents some seriously bad news for the president and his fellow Democrats heading into the 2022 midterm elections. As Bloomberg explained in its 2020 election post-mortem, Donald Trump lost in his reelection bid “because urban, college-educated voters swung toward Joe Biden in overwhelming numbers”.

Most significantly, the outlet found: “In swing-state counties with a majority of college-educated White people, Trump’s average margin of victory shrank by 1.8 points, a big change from 2016, when he boosted the margin for Republicans by a staggering 12 points in those areas.”

That shift was particularly crucial in the Philadelphia, Atlanta, Charlotte, Phoenix, and Columbus suburbs, the lower peninsula (“the mitten”) of Michigan, and in Boston’s New Hampshire suburbs.

Trump won Ohio (by 8 percent) and North Carolina (by a slim 1.4 percent margin), but he lost Georgia (by .2 percent), Arizona (by .3 percent), Pennsylvania (by 1.2 percent), Michigan (by 2.8 percent), and New Hampshire (by 7.4 percent). Each state, however, will be holding hotly contested Senate races in the mid-terms.

Almost as curiously, the Midwest was the only region in which immigration failed to break double digits as the most important issue. Eleven percent of those in the South, and 10 percent in the West and Midwest, said it was most important issue. Six percent of Midwesterners felt the same.

Healthcare, at 23 percent, was the big concern there — the highest percentage for any of the 14 issues in any region, and one that sucked the air out of the room for the rest.

It is difficult to separate Donald Trump from immigration enforcement. In September 2017, the website FiveThirtyEight reported that "Trump's Hardline Immigration Stance Got Him to the White House." Among its conclusions was the fact that "immigration tends to be an issue that is more important to Republicans than Democrats."

If that is true, an increase in voters’ view of immigration as an issue could be a harbinger of a shift in educated white males toward the GOP.

The Importance of Immigration to Voters, Generally.These curious trends continued when respondents were asked how important immigration was to them (a different question from the one that asked respondents which issue was “most important” to each).

Forty-eight percent of respondents stated that immigration was “very important”, and an additional 32 percent stated that it was “somewhat important” in the latest polling. That was up two percentage points from the earlier poll for respondents who viewed immigration as being very important, but down three percentage points for the “somewhat important” respondents in the September 4-7 poll.

The Wild Shift in the Importance of Immigration to White Males, by Education. Among white males with no college degree, the percentage of those who viewed immigration as a very important issue fell two percentage points from the earlier polling (54 percent for September 4-7, 52 percent for September 18-21). That said, as a “somewhat important” issue, immigration gained three percentage points, to 31 percent, up from 28 percent in the earlier poll.

But then there were white males with college degrees. A whopping 58 percent of them said that immigration was very important in the latest poll, up 10 percentage points from the one conducted two weeks earlier.

There was not a big drop-off among white males with college educations who deemed immigration to be “somewhat important”, though: 28 percent in the September 18-21 poll, compared to 31 percent in the previous one.

Where was the difference among this cohort? Those respondents who described immigration as “not very important”. That was the answer of 19 percent of white males with college degrees two weeks ago, but just eight percent of them in the most recent one.

Curious Opposite Shifts Among Educated White Females. That said, there were some curious shifts in the other direction among white females, particularly those with college degrees.

Forty-nine percent of white females without college degrees stated that immigration was very important in the latest poll, and an additional 34 percent deemed it somewhat important. That is a drop of three percent and an increase of 1 percent from the prior polling, notable but not especially so.

For those white females with college degrees, however, the differences were more notable. In the most recent Economist/YouGov poll, 43 percent of them said that immigration was very important, and 33 percent stated that it was somewhat important.

In the September 4-7 poll, however, 48 percent in this cohort deemed immigration to be very important (meaning a five-point drop in the recent poll), and 37 percent deemed it somewhat important (a four-point rise). So, immigration is still important among this group, but not as much as two weeks before.

The respondents in this cohort who deemed immigration to be “not very important” jumped from 13 percent to 21 percent in the latest poll, however, and white female respondents with college degrees who said that immigration was “unimportant” rose from 1 percent in the earlier polling to 3 percent.

The shifts among white women with college degrees on their view of the importance of immigration compared with their male counterparts is baffling, but I don’t want to read too much into it, for one reason.

The percentage of white women, both with college degrees and without, who viewed immigration as the “most important issue” remained static, polling at 7 percent and 6 percent, respectively. That was true even as the importance of health care as the most important issue surged among both cohorts to 23 percent, up five and six percentage points, respectively.

The Key Takeaway. Immigration had been largely off the radar of most of the mainstream media since the disaster at the Southwest border broke in March, with pictures of children rolled up in Mylar blankets on the floors of temporary shelters flooding the internet and the airwaves.

The humanitarian and national-security disaster at the border has become worse since March (as I predicted it would in February), but by and large, the media has stopped paying attention. “Del Rio” pushed new pictures of conditions reminiscent of Third World refugee camps to every major media outlet, and Americans now know how bad the situation has become.

Republicans could use this to their advantage by continuing the narrative of how bad things at the Southwest border are. Democrats, on the other hand, could improve their electoral prospects by shifting gears of their policies and staunching the flood of migrants into the United States.

That said, immigration is plainly an important issue right now among voters in some key, swing-vote demographics. Whether it remains that way depends on how bad the border disaster becomes, and what new disasters are in the offing for the Republic.