Actually, according to recent polls, the majority of the American public doesn’t share the GOP front-runner’s views on Syrian refugees, Muslims, and "illegal" immigrants.
A perfect storm is brewing for those looking to stir up fears of the foreign-born in the United States. An outside observer might be led to believe that the extreme views on immigration held by politicians like Donald Trump represent those of average Americans or at least the Republican electorate, given ceaseless media coverage of his position.
But various public opinion surveys conducted over the past year suggest otherwise. For the American public generally — and for moderate Republicans more specifically — reason continues to outdistance fear on immigration. The leading Republican candidates’ platforms, as well as much of media coverage of the 2016 U.S. presidential race, are significantly out of step with public views.
Republican candidates interested in the long road to the White House should take heed.
Against the backdrop of a Syrian refugee emergency turned global migration crisis, the violent attacks in France and California raised American public anxiety about terrorism and Islamic extremism. Politicians have called for blocks on Muslims, mass deportations, and all-out immigration moratoriums.
Donald Trump’s first television ad airing in Iowa and New Hampshire ahead of next month’s primaries, expertly captures the tempest. The 30-second spot juxtaposes grainy images of masked terrorists, Arabic script, and explosions with a mob of people running toward what is supposedly (but not actually) the U.S.-Mexico border. The ad blurs true terrorism threats with the minimal danger posed by immigrant workers and tangles the distinct problems facing Mexican immigrants and Muslim refugees, like much of Trump’s rhetoric around these issues.
Ted Cruz, challenging Trump for the top spot in Iowa, has also released his own immigration ad to begin airing in New Hampshire, predicting “economic calamity” caused by unauthorized immigration. He’s also appealing to enforcement and security hard-liners, recently calling for permanent deportation of the country’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants.
But a host of nationwide public opinion surveys conducted over the past eight months surveys show that the American public does not share these exaggerated positions and supports different policy approaches.
Overall, Americans — both Democrats and Republicans — tend to differentiate between threats from foreign-born terrorists and the plight of economic migrants and refugees fleeing war. Solid majorities of Americans view international terrorism (69 percent), violent Islamic extremist groups like the Islamic State (64 percent), and Islamic fundamentalism (55 percent) as critical threats to the United States, according to the nationwide 2015 Chicago Council survey conducted in June 2015. By contrast, far fewer are as concerned about large numbers of immigrants or refugees entering the United States (44 percent).
While several other nationwide polls conducted in December after the San Bernardino and Paris attacks show that many Americans are hesitant to accept more Syrian refugees, majorities of Americans oppose proposals that block Muslims from entering the United States, according to additional nationwide surveys conducted in December from NBC News/The Wall Street Journal, CBS News, and ABC News/Washington Post. A nationwide Pew survey from December reports that 61 percent of Americans believe that Muslims should not be subject to additional scrutiny solely because of their religion. And Americans feel significantly more threatened by homegrown jihadis (55 percent) than radicalized foreign visitors (18 percent), and even less so by terrorists potentially hiding amongst Syrian refugees (15 percent), according to a December 23 nationwide
Moreover, even after the recent violent incidents in San Bernardino and Paris, a majority of the American public continues to support immigration reform. A nationwide Associated Press/GfK poll fielded immediately following the San Bernardino attack in December indicated that a majority of Americans continue to favor a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, despite concurrent increases in the percentages who say that terrorism and the threat from the Islamic State are also “important” to them personally.
While the Chicago Council survey shows that Republican voters are more concerned about immigrants and refugees than Democrats — and have been since 2004 — not all Republicans are alike when it comes to immigration reform. There are important attitudinal differences on these issues between Republicans who self-identify as ideologically conservative (about three-quarters of Republicans by the Chicago Council measure) and those who self-identify as moderate (about one-quarter of Republicans). While there are many issues with self-identified ideology scales in surveys, it is used here to make an illustrative point. Moderate Republicans significantly break from their conservative counterparts when it comes to the perceived threat from Islamic extremism and immigration policy.
Majorities of both moderate and conservative Republicans are fearful of terrorism, but moderates are 18 percentage points less likely than conservatives to say that Islamic fundamentalism is a critical threat (52 percent moderate versus 70 percent conservative). While majorities of both moderates and conservatives are alarmed by the threat of large numbers of immigrants and refugees (55 percent moderates, 66 percent conservatives), moderates are much less likely to support extreme policies like deportation for undocumented immigrants.
Overall, 56 percent of Americans believe that “illegal” (as worded in Chicago Council surveys since 1994) immigrant workers currently in the United States should be allowed to stay in their jobs and be put on a path to citizenship versus 29 percent who think they should be forced leave the country. Moderate Republicans are somewhat divided on the issue: 45 percent believe unauthorized workers should be allowed to stay in their jobs and apply for citizenship versus 38 percent who say they should be deported. By contrast, a plurality of conservative Republicans say that these workers should be deported, but a full third also favor a path to citizenship (47 percent favor deportation versus 35 percent who favor citizenship).
Backed by such reason among their supporters, moderate Republican political voices are attempting to counter their peers’ extreme positions. But they seem to get lost among louder voices like Trump.
House Speaker Paul Ryan distanced himself from Trump’s remarks in a December 8 statement saying that a ban on Muslims “is not conservatism” and not what the party or the country stands for. Republican primary candidate Jeb Bush defended Muslims as the United States’ “strongest allies” in the fight against the Islamic State, cautioning against pushing them away with extreme policy proposals. He also once called illegal immigration an “act of love,” and has taken his fellow candidates to task for their sharp pivots to the right on immigration. Candidate John Kasich advocates for balancing security interests with smart border policy: “We don’t want to stop people from coming in.”
Even U.S. Representative Steve King, who chair Cruz’s presidential campaign, sees more common ground with Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders’ immigration platform, which prioritizes jobs for American workers, than that of some in his own party. In an interview with an Iowa radio station over this past summer, King said: “I admire Bernie’s passion and I notice that his immigration position is closer to mine than it is some of the presidential candidates on the Republican side.
While it may make sense for candidates like Trump and Cruz to appeal to the most conservative base ahead of primaries, Republican strategists should coach them to play a longer game. For a candidate to be electable in November, he or she must carry votes across political and demographic divides. Ultra-conservative positions on immigration and closing borders do not jibe with even the moderate cohort of the Republicans’ own base, let alone overall public opinion.
This pattern is not fresh news to Republican candidates. Indeed, one of the biggest takeaways from the 2012 Republican National Committee “autopsy” was to reach out to minorities, especially Latinos, and to “embrace and champion” immigration reform. “If we do not,” the report said, “our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”
Ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire, candidates like Trump are chasing votes — and the media is chasing sensationalist soundbites. The media, at least, may gain ratings or readership. But the Republican Party — and indeed, the country — has much more to lose if its moderate bloc doesn’t turn up the volume.
Dina Smeltz (@RoguePollster) is a senior fellow for public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Sara McElmurry (@s_mcelmurry) is the assistant director for immigration at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
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