Polls Show 2024 Is Shaping Up to Be an ‘Immigration’ Election

The only question is which party seizes the issue, because disgruntled voters are blaming everybody

By Andrew R. Arthur on April 2, 2024

F ox News and Harvard/Harris each just released their latest polls, and they reveal immigration is shaping up to be the main issue in the 2024 election, when all 435 House seats, 33 Senate seats, and most saliently, the White House are all up for grabs. The only real question is which party will be able to seize the issue — because right now, disgruntled voters are blaming everybody.

The Fox News poll was conducted by Braun Research, Inc. between March 22 and 25 under the direction of Beacon Research (a Democratic shop) and Shaw & Company Research (a GOP one). It included 1,094 registered voters, and the margin of error is +/- three percentage points.

The Harvard/Harris poll was conducted by The Harris Poll and Harris X for the Center for American Political Studies at Harvard University between March 20 and 21 and surveyed 2,111 registered voters.

President Biden’s Handling of Immigration. Respondents to the Fox News poll were first asked whether they approved or disapproved of the president’s handling of immigration, and the results were not good for the incumbent.

Two-thirds of those polled, 67 percent, disapproved of Biden’s handling of immigration, compared to just 30 percent who were happy with the job the president is doing on the issue. That 30 percent approval rating is Biden’s lowest on this issue in the 35 months Fox News has been polling on this question; conversely, the 67 percent disapproval rating is the president’s worst on immigration ever.

Biden fared slightly better with respect to his handling of immigration in the Harvard/Harris poll, but not by much: Just 36 percent of respondents approved of Biden’s handling of immigration — his lowest marks among 10 topic areas surveyed.

Top Issues Facing the Country and Most Important Issue Personally. That’s a problem for a president seeking reelection in just over seven months, because respondents to the Harvard/Harris poll said immigration is the top issue facing the country, the choice of 36 percent of those surveyed and leading inflation by three points.

There was a partisan skew on those responses, with 53 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of Independents identifying immigration as a top concern, compared to just 20 percent of Democrats.

Hispanic voters were more likely to say that immigration is a major issue than voters generally, with 41 percent of that demographic identifying it as a top problem.

That poll separately asked respondents what issue is most important to them personally, and not surprisingly, inflation led, at 38 percent; immigration was the second-leading choice at 21 percent. It should be noted, however, that those figures represent a three-point decline on this question for inflation from the most recent Harvard/Harris poll and a four-point rise for immigration.

If the president believes that his State of the Union (SOTU) address alleviated voters’ concerns about the border, it’s not reflected in this poll.

Speaking of the SOTU, just 43 percent of respondents in the Harvard/Harris poll thought Biden had done an adequate job of addressing immigration during that speech, compared to 57 percent who believed that he had given the issue short shrift. Most importantly, 64 percent of Independents believed that the president had done an inadequate job of addressing immigration in his annual address to Congress.

“What is the Biggest Failure of the Biden Administration?” Respondents in both polls were asked a similar question about the “biggest failure” of the Biden administration. One policy area came out on top in both, and it wasn’t even close. You’ve likely guessed by now which one it was.

“Immigration/border security” was identified as the biggest failure of President Biden and his team by 31 percent of those in the Fox News poll. By contrast, just 17 percent of those respondents said it was “inflation/the economy”; 13 percent identified “foreign policy”; and 3 percent blamed Biden for “not standing up to Republicans and Trump”. It should be noted that “everything/too many to list/general failure” took third place, at 15 percent.

Responses were even worse for the incumbent in the Harvard/Harris poll, with 46 percent of those surveyed saying Biden’s biggest failure was that he “created an open borders policy and a historic flood of immigrants”. “Weak leadership at home and abroad” came in second in that poll at 27 percent, closely followed by inflation, the public debt, and the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

It should be noted that “none/nothing/made things better” was the fifth most popular choice (at 6 percent) in the Fox News poll, and “has not had any meaningful failures” tied for eighth in the Harvard/Harris poll at 16 percent, so Biden does have his supporters.

“What Do You Think Was the Biggest Accomplishment of the Trump Administration?” Contrast that question in the Fox News poll with a separate one respondents were presented with: “Thinking back to the Trump administration, what do you think was the biggest accomplishment of the Trump administration?”

Some 35 percent of respondents said “the economy” was the former president’s biggest win, and 9 percent liked what Trump did with respect to foreign policy. That said, while 5 percent were pleased with everything the 45th president did, 27 percent couldn’t identify anything Trump accomplished.

By now you likely realized I jumped over “immigration/border control”, the second choice for the biggest accomplishment of the prior administration and the response of 10 percent of registered voters polled.

“What Was the Biggest Failure of the Trump Administration?” It should be noted that Fox News polls and “Fox News” are two totally different things, and pollsters there did not shy away from asking respondents, “What was the biggest failure of the Trump administration?”

You likely won’t be shocked to hear “personal characteristics” led that list, the choice of 23 percent of those polled, followed by a three-way tie (at 12 percent) between: “everything/too many to list/general failure”; “January 6/threat to democracy/2020 election response”; and “Covid/pandemic response”.

None of those are surprises, but what may be is that just 3 percent identified border security and immigration — a topic that included “child separation” — as a Trump failure.

The separation of migrant children from their parents at the Southwest border was essentially the only immigration-related topic then-candidate Joe Biden focused on during the 2020 election, and it’s still a key talking point for congressional Democrats. This poll, however, suggests it’s in the rear-view mirror for voters more concerned about the ongoing migrant disaster.

Issue Importance When Casting a Vote. Next, respondents to the Fox News poll were given seven different issues (“the economy”, “election integrity”, “immigration”, “health care”, “abortion”, “foreign policy”, and “climate change”), and asked how important each would be when deciding who to vote for in November.

In response, 74 percent of respondents identified immigration as an issue that would be extremely (48 percent) or very (26 percent) important to them when they are at the polls. The remaining issues fell in the order of importance as they’re listed above, with the economy being the most important and climate change the least.

Fox News last polled on this question in October 2019, at which time, again, 74 percent of registered voters identified immigration as a key factor in casting their ballots.

The difference is that intensity over this issue has increased by five points from that earlier poll, when just 43 percent of respondents said that immigration would be extremely important to them when voting and 31 percent said it would be very important.

Who Do You Trust — Biden or Trump? Finally, respondents to the Fox News poll were asked, irrespective of who they planned to vote for, who they trusted to do a better job on each of those seven issues — Joe Biden, or Donald Trump.

Biden bested Trump when it came to climate change (Biden +18), abortion (Biden +12), election integrity (Biden +6), and health care (Biden +3). Trump may have the upper hand on foreign policy (Trump +11) and the economy (Trump +15), but his biggest edge over Biden was on immigration, with Trump’s handling preferred to Biden’s by 18 points, 57 percent to 39 percent.

Compare that to Fox News’ polling in September 2020 — two months before the last general election — when Biden’s handling of immigration was preferred to Trump’s by eight points, 52 percent for the then-challenger to 44 percent for the then-incumbent. A lot has changed in less than four years.

“Is the Immigration Problem at the Borders Getting Better, Worse or Staying the Same?” The Harvard/Harris poll also asked, “Is the immigration problem at the borders getting better, worse or staying the same?”

That one provided some slightly positive news for the president, with 58 percent saying that it was getting worse, 18 percent believing it was better, and a quarter, 25 percent, saying it was the same.

The “positive” for Biden in those responses is that when Harvard/Harris asked this question in February, just shy of two-thirds of voters, 63 percent, said that the border was getting worse, so it could be said that the president has picked up five points in a month.

Of course, some of those respondents in the earlier poll could have seen that the border was bad and concluded that it remained the same in the latest one. Regardless, the administration has stopped at least some of the hemorrhaging on what is shaping up to be a major problem.

Should Biden “Keep its Border Policies” or “Make it Tougher to Get in the US Illegally?” Finally, Harris X and The Harris Poll asked respondents: “Do you think the Biden administration should keep its border policies the same or make it tougher to get in the US illegally?” Curiously, this was an issue that united respondents of all political stripes.

Nearly three-quarters of those polled, 73 percent, want the administration to take harsher actions at the Southwest border, including 88 percent of Republicans, 78 percent of Independents, and 56 percent of Democrats.

Still, 44 percent of Democrats want the administration to keep its border policies the same (compared to 22 percent of Independents and 12 percent of Republicans), and it’s those voters that the administration is plainly listening to, because the president and his DHS secretary aren’t changing a thing at the Southwest border.

A Pox on Both of Your Houses — and on the House and Senate Most of All. You’d think such sentiments would give congressional Republicans a huge edge, but their Democratic colleagues have been surprisingly effective at foisting blame for the ongoing disaster at the Southwest border onto them for blocking the “bipartisan” Senate border bill.

In a different Fox News poll, this one from early March, respondents were more likely to blame Congress for the situation at the border than the Biden administration, by an 81 percent to 72 percent margin.

And there is no partisan skew on this point — 80 percent of Republicans and 82 percent of both Democrats and Independents pointed to congressional inaction for what a plurality of respondents in that poll deemed a border “emergency”.

If the GOP conference thinks they can simply throw brickbats at the White House over what’s happening at the U.S.-Mexico line and thereby skate to majorities in the House and Senate come next January, they are sorely mistaken.

The only chamber controlled by the GOP is the House, and Republicans there have done little more than rely on their passage of H.R. 2, the “Secure the Border Act” — which is admittedly an effective measure to control illegal immigration — to say that they are “doing something” about the border.

It’s plainly not enough. When I was a young staffer, my boss made clear to me that legislation is “results oriented”. That’s plainly true in this instance, as Republican “process-oriented” box-checking exercises on border security aren’t swaying anybody.

House Republicans could call Democrats’ bluff by considering the Senate bill, marking it up, and sending it back to the Upper Chamber. That could be a risky proposition as the GOP only has a paper-thin majority in the House, and therefore would have to keep the entire conference in line (and/or bring Democrats in vulnerable seats on board) to fix the glaring flaws in that proposed measure.

That said, 14 House Democrats voted for a resolution in January “denouncing the Biden administration's open-borders policies”, so an effective replacement to the Senate bill could draw unanticipated support.

Democrats, on the other hand, have a huge opening to “flip the script” on the border by expanding detention resources and pressing the White House for a tightening of DHS releases. That said, they are doing pretty well legislatively, all things considered, with their current tu quoque strategy against Trump and the GOP.

Even if the press and media outlets are cooling on the “emergency” at the Southwest border, registered voters aren’t — they’re only growing more disgruntled at a lack of a response from our government, the administration and Congress alike. That provides opportunities for both parties in the run-up to the November elections; the only question is which party seizes the opportunity to make things better.