Research Suggests 'Hidden' Support for Immigration Reform Among Conservatives

Social scientists have uncovered a phenomenon when it comes to measuring public attitudes: People are often reluctant to express support for a policy or to report unfavorable attitudes toward a group if this attitude is not "politically correct" or if they fear "social sanctioning" from their peer groups.
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On July 10, 2013, the House GOP caucus met to discuss their plans for immigration reform in the House of Representatives. This came almost two weeks after the Senate passed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill 68-32 with 14 Republican votes. After several hours, House GOP leaders emerged to announce that: 1) they're not going to consider the Senate bill, 2) they will address immigration in a more piecemeal approach, perhaps in a series of smaller bills, 3) they are not in any big hurry. This came as a surprise to some, given that in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 election many Republicans interpreted Mitt Romney's loss to be at least partially attributable to his 44 percent disadvantage among Latinos who made up 1 out of every 10 voters.

This led to talk that Republicans might finally be willing to work with Democrats to pass an immigration reform bill in early 2013. As Ezra Klein recently noted, though, House Republicans do not seem to be afraid of Latino voters or Latino interest groups any more. Indeed, conventional wisdom now is that many House GOP members are afraid to support comprehensive immigration reform because they fear a loss in their party's primary election to a more conservative, anti-immigrant challenger. The question then becomes: should House GOP members fear a primary loss if they support comprehensive immigration reform? Recent political science research suggests that these fears might be over-stated.

Social scientists have uncovered an interesting phenomenon when it comes to measuring public attitudes toward certain groups or policies: People are often reluctant to express support for a policy or to report unfavorable attitudes toward a group if this attitude is not "politically correct" or if they fear "social sanctioning" from their peer groups. Thus, it is sometimes difficult for researchers to get an accurate measure of public attitudes like racial prejudice. (To illustrate, imagine being asked this question on a survey: "On a scale of 1-10, how racist would you say that you are?") Since these attitudes often affect political policy preferences, it is still important to be able to measure these attitudes. To do so, social scientists have come up with innovative ways to measure "socially undesirable" attitudes in the public.

In my research, I try to better understand American attitudes toward immigration policy and especially nativism (or cultural threat), the feeling that our unique American culture and way of life is being threatened by foreigners or foreign influence. I suspected that I might not get an accurate response to this question if put directly on a survey. Thus, I turned to a method called a "list experiment."

This nativism "list experiment" was fielded on the 2010 Hawkeye Poll. This experimental method randomly splits up survey respondents into two different groups. The first group received the following question:

"[Here are] five things that sometimes make people worried or anxious. After I read all of them, just tell me HOW MANY of them worry you. I don't want to know which ones, just how many? 1) The federal government increasing taxes on the wealthy. 2) Professional athletes getting million-dollar-plus salaries. 3) Large corporations polluting the environment. 4) The New Orleans Saints winning the Super Bowl last month."

It's important to note again that the respondents are simply asked to give a number of how many things worry them, not to report which specific items worry them. The other group of respondents was given the exact same question and list but with the addition of a fifth option: "Our American culture and way of life being threatened by foreign influence." The researcher then takes the average of the first and second group, and the difference is the amount of people who included the final option (threat from foreign influence) as something that made them feel worried or anxious. The results of this list experiment revealed that 45 percent of respondents felt that our American culture is being threatened from foreigners.

What was more interesting, though, was that later in the survey, respondents were asked to answer the question directly: "Some people say that our American culture and way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence. Would you say you completely agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or completely disagree with this?" Here, 64 percent of the survey respondents said that they either completely or somewhat agreed. Compare that to the 45 percent who agreed when asked indirectly with the list experiment. This suggests that almost 20 percent of survey respondents were saying that they felt threatened from foreign influence when, according to the list experiment, they did not consider that to be something that made them worried or anxious. About one out of every five respondents was reporting that they felt threatened when they really were not. Why would this be the case? Presumably because some people feel pressure to say that they are worried about threat from foreigners when they are really not all that concerned. Perhaps they want to avoid appearing somehow unpatriotic or "un-American" if they did not say that they were concerned about influence from foreigners.

Further analysis indicated that some groups were more likely to "over-report" concern about foreign influence than others. For example, while 76 percent of ideological conservatives reported agreement with the foreigner threat question when asked directly, the list experiment revealed that less than half of conservatives (40 percent) are concerned about the threat of foreign influence -- that's a 36 percent over-reporting rate. In other words, one out of every three self-identified conservatives is saying that they are worried about foreigners when they really are not overly concerned. I also found similar results for those over 65 years old (38 percent over-reporting) and Republican partisans (21 percent over-reporting) -- the exact groups that make up the bulk of a GOP primary constituency in any given congressional district. Perhaps these individuals feel pressure to support their party's position on immigration even if they personally disagree, or at least are not very concerned. (All these results will soon be published in a forthcoming article entitled "Assessing the Effect of Social Desirability on Nativism Attitude Responses" in Social Science Research.)

Thus, the results of this political science research suggest that GOP House members should not worry quite as much about a possible primary threat from a more anti-immigrant challenger if they support comprehensive immigration reform. Those in the Republican primary electoral base are not as concerned about the possible influence of foreigners on American culture as conventional wisdom would have us believe. Indeed, this research suggests that there is more "hidden" support out there for immigrant-friendly policies like comprehensive immigration reform, especially among Republican primary voters.

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