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Analysis: Do Republican Voters Really Care About Immigration?

Image: Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks with his daughter Ivanka and his wife Melania at his sides at his 2016 South Carolina presidential primary night victory rally in Spartanburg

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks with his daughter Ivanka (L) and his wife Melania (R) at his sides at his 2016 South Carolina presidential primary night victory rally in Spartanburg, South Carolina February 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst JONATHAN ERNST / Reuters

The major storyline for Donald Trump over the last year has been his harsh language towards Mexico and the immigrants coming from our southern border, but the election is revealing an important split between Trump supporters and the rest of Republican voters.

Donald Trump took another step towards the office of the presidency last night, dominating the South Carolina primary election and likely sweeping up all of the available delegates in that state. But exit polls measuring the motivations of the voters are showing a deep split between Trump voters and more moderate Republicans when it comes to immigration.

For instance, in each of the first three states; Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, immigration ranked dead last among Republicans as a priority for their most important issue. The other three issues, the economy/jobs, terrorism, and government spending, all rank far higher than immigration. But among Trump voters, immigration has ranked first in each state by a long shot.

Voters were then asked what to do about undocumented immigrants, whether they should be offered a chance to apply for legal status, or whether they should be deported to their home country. In New Hampshire, 56 percent of Republican voters said that "illegal" immigrants should be offered a chance to stay with legal status. And in South Carolina, 53 percent of Republican voters said the same. But among Trump voters, deportation was the preferred choice far beyond any other voter.

The question about deportation wasn't asked in Iowa, but New Hampshire Republican voters and South Carolina Republican voters are not exactly the same breed of republican. South Carolina GOP voters are far more likely to identify as "very conservative", and far more New Hampshire Republican voters identified as "moderate". Also, only 25 percent of New Hampshire GOP voters identify as evangelical Christian, while 72 percent in South Carolina did; it was about 64 percent in Iowa.

Despite their differences in ideology and religion, two very influential factors in voting behavior, these Republican voters are surprisingly consistent on immigration as a low priority and on allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the country with legal status. Yet Trump voters are highly motivated by immigration.

There are two important reasons why we are getting these results on immigration. The first reason is that the polls are asking about terrorism and what to do about Muslim visitors. In each of the exit polls, voters are asked to rank terrorism among their priorities. Terrorism scored highest in South Carolina, at 32 percent, but it remained ahead of immigration as well in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Donald Trump has been clear about melting terrorism and immigration as one issue, while the other candidates have discussed those issues separately, with Cruz perhaps the one important exception.

Voters are asked if they support a temporary ban on Muslims who are not citizens from entering the country. In New Hampshire, 65 percent of Republican voters supported the policy, and 74 percent of Republican voters in South Carolina supported a ban on Muslim travel into the country. Trump voters are driving this response, making up more than half of the supporters for a travel ban. The question was not asked in Iowa.

A recent study by Joscha Legewie at Columbia University found that attitudes towards immigration are impacted by one's perception about terrorist events. By asking the voters questions about terrorism, the exit polls are separating immigration from terrorism as a security issue.

But the context under which voters view immigration matters, and if the respondent conflates immigration with terrorism, respondents are more likely to take a harsher stance towards immigration. Donald Trump has conflated the two issues and his voters are responding as such.

Clearly, Republicans are viewing Muslim visitors as a security issue, not an immigration issue, but so far non-Trump Republicans don't seem to view traditional immigration as a security issue. This may change as we get to border states, such as Texas, where immigration is generally seen as a security issue with the border.

Finally, another reason we may be seeing more moderate responses to immigration is that Republicans have for some time now agreed that immigrants should have some pathway to legalization or citizenship. A 2014 Pew Hispanic Research study found that 61 percent of Republicans said that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the country.

Donald Trump has been using shocking language about immigrants to get attention from the media, but so far it seems as though Republican voters in general are split with Trump supporters on how they view immigration issues. This may be an important point of contention as Trump advances in the primaries and the remaining candidates are left wondering how to respond.

Stephen A. Nuño is an associate professor of political science at Northern Arizona University.

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