Immigration and the Border Surge to the Fore in Latest WSJ Poll

Voters have had enough out of the administration, but will Republicans blow their edge on these issues in Senate border talks?

By Andrew R. Arthur on December 11, 2023

The Wall Street Journal just released its latest poll, and it shows immigration and the border are surging to the front of the line among issues voters are most concerned about. More importantly for ongoing Senate talks over immigration restrictions and border security, it also reveals that there are a lot of voters who won’t vote for a candidate who doesn’t agree with them on these pivotal issues. The GOP plainly has the edge here, but will congressional Republicans blow it?

The poll was conducted between November 29 and December 4 by research outfit Fabrizio Lee and surveyed 1,500 registered voters.

Biden’s Favorability, and Trump’s 

There’s a lot of bad news for the president in this poll, starting with the fact that just 36 percent of respondents have a favorable impression of Joe Biden — and a mere 17 percent view the incumbent “very favorably”. 

By contrast, 61 percent of those polled have an unfavorable impression of the president, with half — 50 percent — viewing Biden “very unfavorably”. Ouch. 

The president’s favorability has declined significantly in that poll since November 2021, when 42 percent of respondents had a favorable impression of him, but more importantly just 45 percent of surveyed voters had a “very unfavorable” take on Biden. Given the fact that just a third — 33 percent — of total respondents identify as “Republican”, this is not just simple partisanism.

Not that Donald Trump is doing much better. The same proportion of respondents — 50 percent — have a “very unfavorable” impression of the last occupant of the Oval Office, but on the plus side for the Republican frontrunner for the 2024 presidential nomination, 41 percent of respondents had a favorable impression of him, and a quarter of respondents (25 percent) viewed him “very favorably”. 

And, for what it’s worth, Trump’s share of respondents who view him very unfavorably has actually dropped 2 points from August, when 52 percent had a most dour take on the 45th president. 

Trump’s overall favorability in the Journal poll was 41 percent. That 5-point favorability gap between Biden and Trump could be a game-changer in a tight election. 

‘What Issue Is Most Important to You When Thinking About Who You Will Vote For?’

The poll also asked respondents: “What issue is most important to you when thinking about who you will vote for in the 2024 Presidential election?” The results were surprising. 

What wasn’t surprising is that the “economy” — issues like “economic growth”, “economic recovery” and “other economic issues” — took the top spot, the choice of 21 percent of those polled. 

What was surprising, however, is that these economic issues have taken a tumble since the Journal’s poll in August, when 24 percent of respondents stated that they would be focusing on their pocketbooks when casting their ballots next November. 

“Abortion” came in third, and there were surprises there as well. Some 7 percent of respondents stated that it will be their main consideration when voting for president the next time around. 

That seems low given the oversized impacts that abortion has played in the recent off-year voting in Ohio, Virginia, and Kentucky, but as Karl Rove — George W. Bush’s election mastermind — opined in November, advocates and many in the media may be hyping the impact of the issue (or maybe not, as I’ll explain below). 

Abortion was actually the number 2 issue for 2024 voters in the Journal’s polling in April, the choice of 11 percent of respondents. 


Which brings me to the Journal’s polling on the impact of immigration when the electorate convenes to elect a president come November. 

There were three subparts to the responses — “fix immigration system”, “U.S.-Mexico border”, and “migrants” — but regardless, it was the most important issue when electing the next president (or keeping the current one) for 13 percent of respondents. 

That is a 2-point jump from August, but more significantly, it’s more than twice as many respondents as identified immigration as their main issue in April (6 percent). 

That timing is particularly important given that in April, immigration and the border were all over the news, given concerns that migrants would pour over the Southwest border once Title 42 expired on May 11

That surge did not come as quickly as was feared, and in fact Border Patrol apprehensions at the Southwest border actually dipped in May to below 100,000 — their lowest level since February 2021, Biden’s first full month in office. Despite contentions then that the administration had solved its border crisis, that decline didn’t last. 

By August, apprehensions rebounded back above 181,000, and Democratic mayors in big cities like New York and Chicago were feeling the strain of caring for migrants released pursuant to Biden’s border policies. 

Those strains have only worsened as the migrants have continued to pour in. In September, nearly 219,000 migrants were apprehended at the Southwest border, the third worst month of Biden’s presidency, even while thousands of others evaded apprehension and made their way into the country unimpeded. 

And while Republican governors like Greg Abbott (R-Tex.) and Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) have long complained about the costs to their states of the administration’s migrant policies, in December they were joined by Arizona’s Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, who sent a letter to the White House demanding $512 million in reimbursement for money that her state has had to spend on the border crisis.

The border crisis — which the administration has long denied is even occurring — is now front and center nationwide. 

The Deal-Breaker Issue for Voters

Which brings me to the most interesting question in the Journal poll:

Some people feel so strongly about an issue that they won’t vote for a candidate if they disagree with them on that issue. Of the following issues, what is the one issue you most strongly feel you couldn’t vote for a candidate who disagrees with you about it?

Abortion — be it pro-life or pro-choice — has long been a litmus test for certain voters, so it’s not surprising that it came out of top, with 19 percent of respondents stating that a candidate must share their views on the issue to win their votes.

The second choice — tied with whether the candidate “believes the 2020 election was legitimate” — is “immigration” at 13 percent, more important among the electorate than aligned views on “guns” or “climate change” and even a bigger sticking point than monetary issues like “government debt” and “taxes”.

While its possible that this reflects a response from certain voters that any candidate who doesn’t favor the administration’s (unprecedented) migrant-release policies won’t get their votes, it’s much more likely a statement that voters have seen what the White House is offering at the border and have had plenty, thanks. 

Consider the following, from the Journal’s own Kimberley Strassel last week, discussing the Senate’s border talks following a successful Republican effort to keep Democrats from sidestepping the issue: 

Democrats are already glumly beginning to confront facts. “Senators work to revive border talks after foreign aid face plant,” explained Politico, noting that Mr. Biden has now “cracked the door open to further Democratic concessions.” Republicans know they have real leverage and came out of the vote reiterating core demands of tougher asylum requirements and a reduction in mass releases of immigrants into the U.S. 

That said, the Journal’s editorial policy has a center-right slant, as does Strassel herself. But what about liberal political expert Ruy Teixeira? He also discussed the border talks the same day Strassel’s op-ed appeared, and this is what he had to say in an opinion piece captioned “The Democratic Coalition Is Falling Apart”:

Look what’s happening with the immigration issue that has come to the fore in the negotiations over aid to the Ukraine and Israel. Instead of eagerly embracing a deal to move the aid forward that would include fairly modest reforms to the asylum system and other changes to tighten border security, Democrats are evincing the greatest reluctance to make such a deal. And this is despite the reality that voters, including most persuadable voters, view the Democrats as absolutely abysmal on the issue of border security. 

Note that the emphasis above was in the original in Teixeira’s piece. When the guy who co-authored a bestseller in 2002 titled “The Emerging Democratic Majority”, which had served as a handbook and a roadmap for Democratic operatives for more than a decade, tells the president and his party that they are out of step with voters on border security, they’d do well to listen to him. 

But then, Republicans should listen too, particularly those in Congress who rely on the New York Times or certain libertarian “experts” to gauge the electorate’s appetite for even higher levels of immigration and the economy’s need for more cheap immigrant labor. But if they don’t trust Strassel or Teixeira, they should at least glance at the Journal’s poll.

Ironically, those Senate talks may be heightening voters’ concerns about immigration and making them even more keen to punish politicians who are allowing the border crisis to fester. 

There is an axiom in politics, “The enemy isn’t the other party’s candidate — it’s your voters’ despair”. No one is going to bother heading to the polls to vote for a clear loser, and worse, no one wants to invest money in a campaign that’s headed to defeat. 

For the last three years — ever since Joe Biden was elected president — a sense of resignation seems to have set in among voters concerned about the effects of unlimited immigration on the nation, its sovereignty, and its economy. 

Immigration helped Republicans seize the House in 2022, but as long as Democrats controlled the Senate, it was assumed that any reforms would be dead on arrival in the Upper Chamber. 

For what it’s worth, though, the GOP would likely have gained additional seats in 2022 had more Republican candidates not shied away from immigration — either because it’s become a “third-rail” issue or because they did not believe what voters were telling them about their concerns. 

Not anymore. This could be a watershed moment like 1996, when real congressional wins on controlling immigration begat even more reforms. The only ones who can blow it are Republicans themselves. They have “real leverage” on an issue in which “persuadable voters. . . view the Democrats as absolutely abysmal”. They should trust the pundits and read the poll.