Latest Polling Pours Gasoline on Senate Border Negotiations

Most voters polled didn’t even know how bad things are—and when they did find out, they wanted a change

By Andrew R. Arthur on December 19, 2023

Harvard’s Center for American Political Studies issued its latest poll, this week, conducted by The Harris Poll and Harris X, and it reveals that a solid majority of registered voters want Senate negotiators to stem the tide of illegal migrants entering across the Southwest border—even though most of those polled wildly underestimated the number of migrants entering illegally. When respondents did realize the magnitude of the border surge, 70 percent called for “new, stricter policies to reduce the flow of people across the border”, including 55 percent of Democrats and 71 percent of Independents. As those negotiations heat up, this poll simply pours more metaphorical gasoline on the political fire. 

That Harvard/Harris poll included 2,034 registered voters, who were surveyed between December 13 and 14. 

Biden’s Immigration Approval Plummets

The first key takeaway from that poll is that the president’s approval over his handling of immigration took a big hit in the past month, falling from 46 percent in favor in November to 38 percent in the most recent poll. 

Biden has seen a drop in his popularity across the board in the last month, but even then, nowhere has his support dropped so markedly as it has with immigration. Approval of Biden’s handling of the economy, for example, fell just 2 points (from 44 percent to 42 percent), while favorability of the job that he is doing to stimulate jobs fell 3 points, from 50 percent to 47 percent. 

The president’s handling of immigration has long been a political liability for Biden and Democrats, and it’s simply getting worse. Part of that, ironically enough, may have to do with the ongoing congressional negotiations, which have brought the crisis at the border to the public’s attention. 

Simply put—the quicker Senate negotiators reach an agreement, the better it’s likely to be for the president and his party, regardless of what reforms are ultimately agreed to. 

Immigration Surges to the Top of Voters Concerns

Relatedly, 28 percent of respondents stated that immigration is among the most important issues facing the country today, a three-point jump from November. “Price increases/inflation” tops the list (the choice of a third, 33 percent, of those polled), and voters’ concerns over that issue also rose 3 points from the prior polling. 

Immigration has now surpassed “economy and jobs” (chosen by 23 percent of respondents) in terms of importance in that poll, and aside from inflation, it’s also the only issue that saw a rise since November. By contrast, voters’ concerns about the Israel-Hamas conflict fell by 5 points (to 7 percent), the only issue that declined in importance since November. 

Which of These Issues Is Most Important to You Personally?

Harvard/Harris also asked respondents “Which of these issues is most important to you personally?” Once again, immigration came out near the top of the pile. 

Not surprisingly, a plurality of voters polled—40 percent—put inflation first on their list of personal concerns, while immigration took second place, at 14 percent. That’s a significant amount of interest for an issue that has affected most voters only tangentially in the past, suggesting that the harmful effects of the administration’s immigration policies are beginning to impact taxes, public safety, and quality of life in communities across the United States. 

There is a partisan skew on this point, however. Just 6 percent of Democrats and 11 percent of Independents consider immigration to be the issue that is most important to them, while a quarter of GOP voters—25 percent—are most concerned about immigration among the 9 issues presented. 

That suggests that there may be tough sledding ahead for any Senate compromise in the Republican-controlled House, forcing Senate GOP negotiators to walk a tight line between Democrats in the upper chamber—many of whom consider any border or asylum restrictions to be “too extreme”—and House Republicans, who will consider anything less than H.R. 2 to be a sell-out. 

Every Republican congressman is up for reelection or seeking another office come November (except for 8 who will be retiring), while 9 key GOP senators will be facing voters in the next election, including Mike Braun (Ind.) who’s leaving the Senate to seek the governorship of the Hoosier State. Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), on the other hand, has had enough and will be leaving public life.

Retirees aside, they will all have to answer for their votes on immigration and border reform and—if they’re smart—will likely cast them accordingly. 

Missing Donald Trump

Interestingly, 60 percent of respondents in the Harvard/Harris poll assert that they “miss Donald Trump's policies on the economy, immigration and crime”, likely warming the former president’s heart.

That’s significant, given that the results of the poll “were weighted for . . . political party, and political ideology”, and 6 out of 10 voters aren’t Republicans. 

In that vein, 57 percent of respondents stated that Trump had better immigration policies than Biden, while 43 percent preferred the current immigration regime. 

Again, there was a partisan skew, but this one was much more interesting. Some 80 percent of Democrats favored Biden and his immigration policies, but still 1 in 5 of the president’s fellow partisans—20 percent—liked Trump on immigration better. And Independents preferred Trump on immigration to Biden by a 60 to 40 margin. GOP voters overwhelmingly preferred Trump, 93 percent to 7 percent for Biden. 

Ukraine Funding for Border Funding 

I may be saving the second best for second last, but Harvard/Harris also asked respondents: 

Republicans are holding up aid to [Ukraine and Israel] because they want additional measures for U.S. border security included in the bill. Do you think that the Republicans should hold up the aid until they get added border security funding or pass the aid without border funding?

The results were not nearly as close as even I would have thought, with a solid majority of voters—65 percent—telling the GOP to hold the line on Ukraine and Israel funding until they receive more for the border. By comparison, just 35 percent of respondents want the foreign aid to be passed without border funding.

Interestingly, even a majority of Democrats want the border funding included, by a 51 percent to 49 percent margin, as do 83 percent of GOP voters and 61 percent of Independents. 

This question would have been better if Harvard/Harris had substituted “border reforms” for “border security funding”, as even President Biden is willing to throw cash at the border (which would simply be used to process migrants into the United States more quickly) to get the Ukraine money ($61 billion) he seeks. That said, I think border funding is a proxy in this case for the reforms Senate Republicans are seeking. 

That definitely strengthens GOP negotiators’ position, particularly given the other responses in this poll (including one I haven’t mentioned yet) that indicate voters are fed up with the immigration status quo. This is the Republicans’ issue to lose, and more than just their core base is cheering for them to succeed. 

Voters Don’t Really Know How Bad the Border Is

Finally, Harvard/Harris asked respondents: “How many border crossings by illegal immigrants do you think are occurring each year?”

The correct answer, in FY 2023, was more than 3.2 million: 2.045 million illegal entrants apprehended by Border Patrol at the Southwest border; 10,000 others at the Northern border (more than 4 times the FY 2022 total); 7,833 at the Coastal borders; and a whopping 1.137 million at the ports (an all-time record). 

By contrast, three-quarters of registered voters, 75 percent, thought that the actual total was less than a million, with nearly a quarter—24 percent—placing total illegal crossings at between 100,000 and 250,000. An additional 11 percent said that it was somewhere between 1 and 2 million, and 6 percent believed illegal crossings totaled between 2 and 3 million. Just 8 percent got it right. 

Separately—and this is probably the most important question in the poll—Harvard/Harris asked: 

Over 3.2 million came into the United States illegally over a twelve-month period ending September 2023, and more than 400,000 have crossed since then. Given these numbers, should the administration continue its current policies or issue new, stricter policies to reduce the flow of people coming across the border? 

In response, 70 percent of those polled called for “new, stricter policies to reduce the flow of people across the border”, including 55 percent of Democrats, 85 percent of Republicans, and 71 percent of Independents. Just 30 percent of voters, once they knew the true facts, preferred the existing state of affairs. 

It would be political malpractice of the highest order for congressional Republicans not to trumpet the border numbers since Joe Biden took office. That 3.2 million figure should preface every press release, every public statement, and any pronouncement of any sort issued on congressional letterhead or that comes out of the mouth of a Republican with a member’s pin. 

That figure—3.2 million—is the population of Iowa, where the first Republican votes for the party’s presidential candidate will be cast, and nothing would portray the scope of this disaster more clearly. It’s 5.7 times the population of Milwaukee, site of the 2024 GOP convention, and 20 percent more people than call Chicago—where Democrats will hold their convention in August—home. And it’s more than three times the population of the president’s home state of Delaware.