Wall Street Journal Poll: Immigration’s a Driver in the Midterms

But the GOP is losing its edge; if they don’t lead, Republicans could spend two more years in the minority

By Andrew R. Arthur on September 7, 2022

Between August 17 and 25, the Wall Street Journal conducted a poll of 1,313 registered voters. It revealed that immigration will be a key driver in the November midterm elections, but that Republicans are losing their edge on the issue. That could change, but if they don’t show some leadership on the issue, the GOP will allow a big opportunity to slip away.

Democrats Surge on the Generic. That poll shows that Democrats have overtaken Republicans on the generic question of “All other things being equal, if the election for Congress were held today, would you be more likely to vote for the Republican candidate or the Democratic candidate for Congress?”

Last November, 44 percent of respondents stated that they “probably” or “definitely” would vote for a generic Republican, compared to 41 percent who probably or definitely would vote for a generic Democrat.

In March, that shifted to 46 percent who would pull the level for the GOP, while Democratic interest remained at 41 percent. In the most recent polling, Republicans are back to 44 percent support, but Democrats have rebounded (and then some) to 47 percent.

Issues of Importance to Voters. Turning to immigration, the results of that poll reveal that it is a hot topic for voters.

Respondents were given a list of 35 different issues (plus options for “Other” and “Don’t Know”) and asked which would be the most important when they voted for Congress in November.

Of those 35 issues, two related ones were identified at or near the top of the list: The economy (“Economic growth/Economic recovery/Other economic issues”) came in first at 16 percent, while inflation (“Reducing cost of living/Gas prices/Oil prices/Food prices”) came in third at 11 percent.

Those are two issues that poll well for the GOP, given that respondents gave Republicans a four-point edge over Democrats (44 percent to 40 percent) on the question of which party “has a better economic plan to make life easier for people like you”, and a 12-point edge (44 percent to 32 percent) on the question of which party is better able to “get inflation under control”.

Abortion (“Abortion rights/Protecting women’s right to choose/Roe v. Wade/Banning abortions”) came in as the second most important issue in the midterms at 13 percent, and that one is a big problem for the Republicans.

Democrats have a 21-point advantage (48 percent to 27 percent) over the Party of Lincoln on the question of which is better able to “handle abortion policy”. If you are looking for a reason why Democrats are beating Republicans in the WSJ generic, that’s the first place to look.

Immigration (“Fix immigration system/U.S.-Mexico border/Migrants”) came in fourth of the list of voters’ 35 most important issues in November, at 7 percent. That may not sound like a lot of interest but consider that 24 of those 35 issues clocked in at 2 percent or less interest, and three others (including “Guns”) are the most important issue for just 3 percent of voters. And, as usual, voters who are concerned about immigration and the border are really concerned.

Best Party to Fix the Immigration System. On its face, this is good for Republican congressional candidates.

Fifty-three percent of respondents stated that “illegal immigration and border security” make it more likely that they will vote in November (40 percent much more likely), compared to just 1 percent who responded that it makes them less likely to vote. Fewer than half, 45 percent, stated it would have “no impact”.

By comparison, on the hot-button topic of abortion, 56 percent — just three percentage points more — said that the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade made it more likely that they would vote in the midterms, compared to 2 percent who asserted it would make it less likely, while 41 percent — just four percentage points fewer than on the issue of immigration — said it would have no impact.

Why is that good for the GOP? Because Republicans have a 15-point edge over Democrats (44 percent to 29 percent) on the question of which party would be better able to fix the immigration system, and a 26-point margin (49 percent to 23 percent) on which would do a better job of securing the border.

The latter is a bigger margin than the Democrats have on abortion — raising the question as to why the national Republican party is not making a bigger deal of what the editorial board at Bloomberg Opinion has termed “Biden’s border fiasco”.

The fact that the GOP has not highlighted immigration and the border is likely the reason why the party is slipping when it comes to the opinion that it is better able to address either issue.

For as big at that 26 percentage-point margin on border security is, it represents a decline in support for the GOP on the issue. When the Journal asked the same question in March, Republicans again held a 26-point edge, but then a majority — 51 percent — trusted Republicans in Congress more. Fortunately for those on the right side of the House, trust in Democrats to handle the issue has diminished by two points as well.

On the other hand, those who trust neither party to secure the border has increased by four percentage points in the interim, from 12 percent in March to 16 percent in August.

Trust in the ability of either party to fix the immigration system reveals a similar pattern. In March, 45 percent trusted GOP members of Congress on that count, and 30 percent put their faith in Biden’s fellow partisans, one point higher for each. The “Neither” vote has jumped from 14 percent in that earlier poll to 19 percent in the last one.

GOP Blowing What Should Be a No-Brainer. This should be a no-brainer for Republicans. Biden inherited what was arguably the most secure Southwest border in history and in a period of less than 20 months turned it into a basket case.

Under the 46th president, Border Patrol agents at the U.S.-Mexico line have apprehended more than three million illegal entrants, setting new apprehension records in FY 2021 and in FY 2022 (with two reporting months still to go).

The administration has released more than 1.1 million of those apprehended migrants into the United States (where they will remain for years), while an estimated 900,000 other illegal entrants were able to evade overwhelmed agents (400,000 in FY 2021 and a half million thus far in FY 2022) and make it into this country.

Still, the GOP is largely sidestepping this issue. You will hear leading Republicans talk about “the border” as a tertiary, quaternary, or quinary talking point, or part of a long list of issues that they will tackle, but never as the critical issue the American people understand it to be.

To be fair, Republican House leadership has introduced a number of excellent immigration proposals that will make a difference. Some are obvious, like constructing border barriers and hiring more Border Patrol agents and ICE officers. Others, like mandating E-Verify, require some salesmanship.

If they knew what was good for them, Republican candidates nationwide would be promoting all of them, not as passing references but while really beating the drum. The point of the Bloomberg Opinion piece is that “leadership” is needed at the border and on immigration generally. As the Journal poll makes clear, if Republicans can show they will lead on these issues, they will have a leg up in November.

In our republican system, elected representatives are both leaders and servants of the people. To win in November, Republicans must show they will lead the country out of the disaster at the Southwest border, and aren’t just servants of the special interests that benefit from unlimited cheap labor. If they don’t show leadership, the GOP could spend two more years languishing in the minority.