NBC News Poll: Solid Majority Trusts GOP On Border Security

Republicans’ strongest issue, while trust in Dems on immigration plummets

By Andrew R. Arthur on November 3, 2021

On October 31, NBC News released a poll conducted by Hart Research Associates/Public Opinion Strategies of 1,000 adults, conducted between October 23 and 26. It showed that a wide majority of respondents trusted Republicans more than Democrats in dealing with border security, and a decline in trust in Democrats to deal with immigration generally.

When it came to dealing with border security, a whopping 48 percent trusted Republicans, compared to 21 percent who trusted Democrats more (12 percent trusted both equally, while 17 percent trusted neither of them).

That 27-point spread was the widest gap between the two parties among the 13 areas polled, and the strongest issue for Republicans.

The remaining responses, in order, were dealing with: Controlling inflation (R+24); crime (R+22); national security (R+21); the economy (R+18); being effective and getting things done (R+13); immigration (R+9); election security (D+1); voting rights (D+5); abortion (D+10); education (D+10); coronavirus (D+12); and climate change (D+24).

You will note that respondents were asked about “border security” and “immigration” separately, and that there was a wide margin between support for the GOP when it came to dealing with the border on the one hand and when it came to dealing with immigration.

The two issues have likely merged in my mind over the almost three decades I have been working in the field, but for many Americans each is very different. “Immigration” for the vast majority of Americans likely refers to legal immigration, whereas “border security” is illegal immigration, as well as the drug smuggling and a basic loss of national sovereignty an open border brings.

Or, in the words of former President Barack Obama: “[W]e're a nation-state. We have borders. The idea that we can just have open borders is something that ... as a practical matter, is unsustainable.” The American people have apparently seen the disaster at the border, and they are taking it out on the party they hold responsible.

That said, however, the nine-point preference for Republicans in dealing with immigration generally reflects a shift among respondents away from Democrats more than a movement toward the GOP.

In the most recent poll, 39 percent trusted Republicans more when it came to dealing with immigration, compared to 30 percent who put their faith in Democrats (10 percent trusted the two equally, and 20 percent trusted neither).

Just over a year ago, in October 2020, it was Democrats who held the advantage on the issue, by six points, 44 percent to 38 percent for Republicans (9 percent trusted both, 8 percent trusted neither). Thus, it is not so much that trust in the GOP on immigration has surged in a year, but that trust in Democrats’ handling of immigration has slipped — significantly.

In fact, it has been more than six years since Republicans were trusted more than Democrats in dealing with immigration. That earlier poll, in July 2015, favored the GOP by just two percentage points, 32 percent to 30 percent for Democrats (14 percent trusted both equally, 21 percent trusted neither).

That followed polling in September 2014 in which Republicans held a seven-point advantage over Democrats in dealing with immigration, 35 percent to 28 percent for Democrats (15 percent trusted both equally, and 19 percent trusted neither party).

Of course, that poll was taken during a period of near-certainty that the so-called “Gang of Eight” bill, which passed the Senate in July 2013 and would have offered amnesty to millions of illegal aliens, was going to die in the Republican-controlled House.

Then-Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) admitted that the bill was going nowhere on the House floor in June 2014, asserting that Republicans’ “chance to play a role in immigration policy is over.” The inevitable defeat of that amnesty bill may well have been why support for the GOP in handling immigration was so high in the late summer and early fall of 2014.

All of that said, the percentage of respondents who trust GOP handling of immigration has never been higher in the NBC News polling, which stretches back to November 2005 (when Republicans had the trust of just 19 percent of those polled on the issue).

From September 2014 to August 2018, trust in GOP handling of immigration had languished in the low-to-mid 30 percent range (dipping to 29 percent in April 2018), before hitting 37 percent in August 2018 (when Democrats were trusted by 41 percent of respondents).

With a slight dip to 36 percent trust in the GOP’s handling of immigration in October 2018, their support has increased gradually since, to, as noted, 38 percent a year ago and 39 percent in the most recent poll.

What does all this mean? That’s open to interpretation, but for all the derision that Donald Trump took when it came to his immigration policies, he left the Republican party in good shape as the party that had an immigration plan and an interest in border security.

Trump, curiously, failed to make immigration a big issue in the 2020 campaign though (which may account, in part, for his narrow defeats in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), but Republicans in midterm elections might want to consider taking a strong position on immigration and border security, their obvious strengths (and the president’s greatest weaknesses).

On the flip side, Democrats can win back the voters with whom it has lost support when it comes to handling immigration. Open borders and amnesty may sound great at Georgetown cocktail parties and toney faculty lounges, but they do not seem to be playing well in Peoria.

As I have said before about other polls, this is just one, and simply a snapshot of public opinion. For Republicans, when it comes to immigration and border security, however, those various snapshots are creating a moving picture — provided that they are willing to watch and pay attention.