Immigration & border security… A winning strategy for Republicans?

Independent Center Contributor Gabriel Mitchell

In 2016 Trump won the federal presidential election. This outcome surprised many political scientists and news anchors. His rallying call to “build the wall!” motivated Republican voters en masse. Back in 2016, immigration mattered a lot.

Unsurprisingly immigration remains a hot topic two elections later. For the upcoming presidential election, 21% of American voters ranked Immigration as the most pressing issue in America. This makes it the second most picked choice in the Independent Center’s ongoing polling of issues. Their first pick was “Jobs and The Economy”, reflecting American anxieties around rising inflation. Don’t forget you can sign up to view this data yourself here.

This proposes an interesting question, just how much will immigration matter to Republicans this election cycle?

To answer this let’s look at our data. If we isolate Republicans in our national survey data, 33% of these voters view it as the most pressing issue. Unlike other voters, immigration is the number one issue on their minds.

So is the answer pretty straightforward? Republicans should lean into the immigration topic once again, right?

Well… it’s not that simple. Our data suggests a far more complex narrative. 

First of all, age plays a big factor in how much a Republican cares about immigration. 

If we split voters around the 50 years of age mark we get an interesting contrast. Republican voters aged 50 and above overwhelmingly view immigration as the most pressing issue in America. 45% of them mark it as their number one issue. Republican voters under 49 view it as a much less pressing issue. Like most Americans, it remains their second most pressing issue, but the number of Republicans who picked it is much lower, at 19.2%

It’s important to note that voter turnout correlates with age. According to research by Our World in Data voters 60 and older have a 71.4% turnout. As voters get younger turnout rates get lower. Voters 45-59 have a 66.2% turnout rate. 30-44 are at 56.9%. 18-29 are at 43.4%. Perhaps the 50 and up crowd, which is so heavily focused on immigration, will remain a big influence on the party until these younger voters start to get older, or at least increase their turnout.

How does race affect the data?

It’s tempting to assume that the racial demographics of Republican voters may influence the importance of immigration for them. Republicans are indeed more likely to be white our survey data shows 81% of Republican participants self-identified as white. Perhaps a lack of Hispanic voters influences a focus on the immigration topic. This assumption does face a major challenge. Within our surveys, the percentage of Americans who self-identify as Hispanic across the three political affiliations we studied (Republicans, Democrats, and Independents) is nearly equal.

Additionally, white and Hispanic voters view immigration with similar importance. 23% of white voters put it as their most pressing issue and 20% of Hispanic voters did the same. If race is an influence on how Republicans view immigration then the split is not between Hispanic and White voters, but between Black and white voters. Black Americans are significantly less likely to view immigration as their highest priority. They are the only racial demographic that ranks immigration as the third most pressing topic, instead of the first or second.

Of course, to gain insights into the success or failure of a political strategy we shouldn’t just look at the values of voters within that party. To win, Republicans have to secure the vote of the undecided independent voter.

We have two different studies to look at here. In our survey from January 2024, we found that independent voters rank immigration as their second most pressing issue, with “Jobs and the Economy” their first. Only 19% of these voters saw immigration as their highest priority. 

However, our late 2023 survey which focused specifically on independent voters found that immigration ranked third. In this survey, only 13% of independent aligned Americans viewed immigration as their most pressing issue. Concerns about government leadership ranked as second.

When framing their immigration policy solutions, Republicans should keep in mind that independent voters are less radical than them on the subject. Surveyed voters were given a statement and asked to select which of the three available options best reflected their own view. 

For immigration, we started with the statement, “Borders are used to control immigration”. Within the available options, 51% of Republican voters expressed a desire for an immigration policy that strongly limited the entry of new immigrations, while 41% preferred a mixed solution that made it easier for necessary immigration to come in a legal way. The remaining 8% preferred the idea that nationality and the place of one’s birth should not influence what rights a human has. While not necessarily open borders, this third option would lead to the most relaxed immigration policy of the three. 

A majority of independent voters, in our 2023 survey, prefer the middle-of-the-way immigration policy. Specifically, 55% picked “The Government shall regulate immigration to allow necessary immigrants to come in a legal way.” The remaining voters were split on the other options but 29% picked  “We must strongly limit the entry of new immigrants and/or expel those who do not integrate.”

So, will immigration be the winning strategy for Republicans in November?

While the future remains uncertain, our analysis provides some clear insights. Immigration holds significant weight for all voters, yet it is particularly crucial for older white Republicans, underlining a distinct demographic influence within the party. 

For younger and non-white Republicans aiming to reshape the party’s priorities, boosting voter turnout is essential. Moreover, when targeting independent voters on the topic of immigration, Republicans should consider moderating their rhetoric and ensuring that economic issues, which rank as top concerns for many Americans, are not sidelined.

Given its prominence in public discourse, immigration could very well be the decisive factor in this year’s election, highlighting the importance of a balanced and inclusive approach to this complex issue.

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