CONTRIBUTOR

Guns And Immigration: Critical Wedge Issues Of 2016

07/08/2016 06:33 pm ET | Updated Jul 09, 2016

Throughout the campaign, since January, we have been and will be polling Americans on their policy preferences. We want to know: Which candidate’s platform is closest to the ideology of the American voters, Hillary Clinton’s or Donald Trump’s? Our weekly polling has tracked 11 issues, and we find that on two major public policy issues, immigration and gun control, are particularly interesting in how they divide the voters and candidates.

Voters strongly support additional gun control measures, something backed by Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and rejected sharply by the Republican rank-and-file, including presidential candidate Donald Trump. In the other direction, voters strongly support reducing the number of immigrants coming to the US, something backed by Trump and rejected by Clinton, again in unison with most of the Democratic rank-and-file.

Politically, it make sense for candidates to back their base on these issues, given the strong wedge appeal associated with them, i.e., the power to drive a wedge in the opposing coalition. Exhibit A: Many Republican voters support extending gun control, in line with the Democratic nominee. Exhibit B: Many Democratic voters are weary of immigration and more competition in the low-wage labor market, more in line with the Republican nominee.

So far, it looks like the Republican wedge appeal could be more hurtful to the Democratic coalition than vice-versa. But, we believe that the Democratic wedge appeal might resonate more with Republicans than the Republican wedge appeal with Democrats come November: Support for additional gun control is trending upwards over time, while support for limiting immigrants is trending downward. According to this data, what was a winning strategy in the primaries may not be as successful in November. Of course, exogenous shocks, events beyond the control of either candidate, can always change the course of things. For example, we found that support for gun control and limiting immigrants both temporarily increased sharply after the June 12 mass-shooting in Orlando.

The data is collected through Pollfish’s mobile polling system and then modeled and post-stratified to the expected voting population. This is not a traditional probability-based telephone survey, but a non-probability-based mobile survey. This method is much cheaper and faster, allowing a team of researchers on a limited budget to track respondents weekly on a variety of issues. And, we are confident that modeling and post-stratification, combined with the large number of responses, allows us to successfully gauge public opinion.

Lowering the number of immigrants is supported by about 50 percent of the American voters. We specifically ask, “The number of immigrants from foreign countries should be…” and provide answers that range from: “increased a lot” to “left the same as it is now” to “decreased a lot”. Lowering the number of immigrants is very popular, and not just among Republicans. Sixty-four percent of Republicans want to limit immigration a lot or moderately, but so do 51 percent of independents and 43 percent of Democrats, making immigration a powerful wedge issue. 39 percent of Democrats favor a stable immigration policy and 18 percent would increase immigration moderately or lot.

David Rothschild
Percent of voting population supporting different positions on immigration

While Trump’s push for heavy restrictions on immigrants, in defiance of Republican party orthodoxy, is clearly popular in his party and across the general election voters, support for curtailing immigration has decreased all election season through our June 11 survey, as we note above. There are two possible reasons for this: 1) Clinton supporters do not want to be associated with a key aspect of the Trump platform, and 2) voters are changing their policy preferences.

Increasing gun control is as popular as decreasing immigrants and its support is on the rise. We specifically ask, “How do you feel about federal laws to make it more difficult for people to buy a gun?” and provide answers that range from “favor very strongly” to “neither favor nor oppose” to “oppose very strongly”. 65 percent of Democrats support increased gun control strongly or very strongly and 43 percent of independents, but so do 34 percent of Republicans, again making gun control a powerful wedge issue and potentially dangerous to Republican electoral strategy.

David Rothschild
Percent of voting population supporting different positions on gun control

Unlike opposition to immigration, support for gun control has been steadily increasing this election season. More and more voters are stating they support some form of increased gun control, especially in the aftermath of the Orlando mass-shooting. What’s more, this increase in support for gun control has been stable over time.

No doubt, immigration is a powerful wedge issue capable of hurting the Democratic coalition of voters, and gun control is a powerful wedge issue capable of hurting the Republican coalition of voters. So far, we find that immigration is able to drive a deeper wedge into the Democratic coalition than gun control into the Republican coalition, because more Democratic voters support the Republican position on immigration than Republican voters support the Democratic position on gun control. But, the trend is increasingly looking to favor the Democratic candidate. If it continues, we could very well witness a reversal of this pattern come election day.

This article is coauthored with Tobias Konitzer who is a Ph.D. candidate in communication at Stanford University.

Methods Note: We develop a dynamic statistical model that yields probabilities of sub-demographic groups supporting any issue, and is able to parse out noise from substantive movement. We then weight these probabilities based on the proportion of this sub-demographic in the likely voter space. We estimate the likely voter space leveraging Big Data on all registered American voters. The data was collected in 23 waves and includes 23,000 responses total.

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