Leading Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have both come out with harsh anti-immigrant proposals to toughen border security, deport undocumented immigrants, and restrict certain immigrants from entering the United States. Trump in particular has used inflammatory rhetoric to stoke fears about immigrants, calling them “rapists” and “drug dealers” and suggesting they may be a security threat.
But, according to a new report from the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), many Republican voters may not actually agree with those sentiments.
As part of its 2015 American Values Atlas survey, PRRI found that a slim majority of young Republican voters between the ages of 18 and 29–51 percent — believe that “the increasing number of newcomers to the country strengthens American culture and way of life.” There’s a generational divide when it comes to this subject; only 22 percent of Republican seniors believe that recent immigrants strengthen American society.
There’s a similar contrast among white evangelical Protestants, “a key part of the Republican base,” according to the PRRI report. About 55 percent of young white evangelicals surveyed said that immigrants strengthen the country, while 57 percent of white evangelical seniors said that immigrants are more likely to threaten the country.
The data also found that those who belong to religiously unaffiliated, non-Christian religious traditions, as well as non-white Christians, hold the most positive views of immigrants. White Christians expressed “substantially more ambivalence about immigrants,” with 45 percent of Mormons, 44 percent of white Catholics, and 41 percent of white mainline Protestants stating that immigrants strengthen the country.
“The study is a good reminder that the conversation that’s happening around immigration…for the leading candidates on the Republican side is not one that’s very representative of the general public opinion, or even younger Republican voters as well,” Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, told ThinkProgress. “Particularly anti-immigrant conversations that make the argument that immigrants are a threat are less likely to resonate among younger Republican voters, or even younger evangelical voters, for that matter.”
The survey also found that across political parties, six out of ten Americans think undocumented immigrants should be given a way to adjust their legal status and a pathway to citizenship. South Dakota was the only state in which a majority of voters did not support a path to citizenship for immigrants.
Anti-immigrant conversations that make the argument that immigrants are a threat are less likely to resonate among younger Republican voters.
The report was based on more than 42,000 interviews conducted between April 2015 and early January 2016. During that time period, both Trump and Cruz have called to build up a border wall along the southern U.S.-Mexico border and to repeal the 14th Amendment, a demand that would mean people born to foreign parents in America would no longer automatically become U.S. citizens. Trump publicly called to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, while Cruz commended him for bringing the issue to the general public. And Trump promised to deport undocumented immigrants and let the “really good people” back into the country, while Cruz said that he would never give undocumented immigrants the chance to come back to the country. Since the survey questions were asked, both candidates have continued to staunchly defend these anti-immigrant sentiments.
But those attitudes have come at a cost. Some first-time Latino voters are already rushing to register to vote against Trump and Cruz because they’re turned off by the candidates’ anti-immigrant platforms. As one Latino voter previously told ThinkProgress’ Alice Ollstein, Trump “does not respect us. This is one of our motives for going to fight, because we want to make sure he’s not elected.”
Latino votes are crucial to the general election. A Latino Decisions poll previously found that Republican presidential candidates may need anywhere between 42 and 47 percent of the Latino vote, especially in key battleground states like Virginia, Ohio, New Mexico, Florida, Nevada, and Colorado. According to a GOP autopsy report, which was released soon after Mitt Romney lost in 2012, the future of the Republican party lies in making inroads with minorities and embracing Latino voters.
Plus, as younger Republicans become increasingly diverse, it’s possible that anti-immigrant rhetoric may also turn off Republican voters in general. Jones explained that while Republicans over the age of 65 are overwhelmingly white and non-Hispanic, younger Republicans are much less homogeneous.
The real challenge is how to pivot back to the center, how to reach Independent voters, less ideological members of their own base.
“That experience growing up with rubbing shoulders with a more diverse generational cohort is also playing a role,” Jones said. “I think that speaks to the importance of those conclusions of that Republican autopsy report about why it’s important for the party to reach out to a more diverse generation because even among their own ranks, people are already identifying as Republican and it’s in fact already becoming more diverse than the older generation.”
Jones said that Republicans who have taken a hard-line stance on immigration will “have a particularly hard time” reaching younger voters and independent voters who are more supportive of a pathway to citizenship. He added that a federal immigration bill — like the 2013 Senate-approved comprehensive immigration bill that included a pathway to citizenship — could still be widely accepted by Americans.
“The real challenge is how to pivot back to the center, how to reach independent voters, less ideological members of their own base,” Jones added. “It’ll be quite a challenge to pivot from things like building a wall or closing down immigration to certain categories of people to a policy [supported by] mainstream Republicans.”