How did immigration play in Pennsylvania during the midterms?

Not the way the GOP hoped.

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Angela Gervasi / Billy Penn

Sanctuary cities. The caravan. ICE. Nationwide, the GOP counted on immigration to be a galvanizing force for voters in this month’s midterms.

In Pennsylvania, it was a supposedly “winning strategy” that failed to score in key races for U.S. Senate and Congress, as well as governor.

But where did it miss its mark here, and by how much?

New polling data released after the election offers some insight. Immigration Hub, a pro-immigrants rights advocacy group and arm of the Palo Alto-based Emerson Collective, commissioned a poll of just over 800 Pennsylvania voters. Conducted in the two days following the election, the survey asked voters about what got them to the polls and how immigration factored in — or not — when it came to casting votes.

Tyler Moran, director of the Immigration Hub, summarized the outcome as a overall loss for Republicans.

“Trump made this election about immigration and the caravan,” Moran said on a Nov. 13 conference call with press, “and it backfired for the Republican Party. By large margins, Trump candidates lost, including Pennsylvania’s own Barletta, Wagner, Chrin and Rothfus.”

Per this poll, voters said Republican U.S. Senate candidate Lou Barletta’s hardline positions on immigration were more of a reason to vote against him than for him, by a 9-point margin. That negative balance held true with “politically important groups” like voters who went for Trump in 2016 and shifted to Bob Casey in 2018, the survey found. (Casey beat Barletta statewide 57 to 43 percent.)

Immigration Hub also commissioned a survey of nearly 2,000 registered Pennsylvania voters, polling their views on gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner’s “Caravan” ad.

According to the results, Wagner’s ad failed to mobilize the majority of Pennsylvania voters to support him and in some cases backfired by increasing the turnout intentions of both liberal-leaning and moderate women. 62 percent of moderate suburban female voters did not support Wagner’s ad, the survey found.

Immigration wasn’t even top of mind for most Pennsylvania voters.

Instead of immigration, 46 percent said healthcare was the top issue for them. This was followed by those who identified jobs and the economy as their high concerns, followed by Social Security and Medicare. (Democrats nationwide made healthcare the main focus of their midterm campaigns.)

 

What’s the practical effect of all this?

Moran said with Democrats in control of the House now, the GOP can expect a more progressive agenda including proposed solutions for Dreamers and Temporary Protected Status-holders.

“And if they want to win elections in the future,” Moran added of the GOP, “they should listen to voters who want bipartisan solutions and not use scare tactics that divide and distract the electorate.”

The immigration messaging didn’t fail everywhere in the U.S.

Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, said “It worked in some of the Trump-won states with [Democratic] senators: Indiana, North Dakota, and Missouri. But just in that limited sense.”

In Pennsylvania, Republican Party officials doubled down on immigration as a driving force in the runup to the midterms.

But F&M polling data released more than a month before the election showed just six percent of the 545 Pennsylvania registered voters sampled — including 256 Democrats, 213 Republicans, and 76 independents — believed immigration, illegal immigrants and refugees to be the most important consideration when it came to choosing a U.S. Senate candidate.

Data released by F&M five days before the election showed seven percent of 537 registered voters polled in Pennsylvania — 254 Democrats, 211 Republicans, and 72 independents — felt the same way.

That polling data, released Nov. 1, also ranked immigration ninth on a list of the issues respondents said were most important to them when considering which candidate for governor to support, behind items like healthcare, insurance, taxes, education, the economy and civil liberties.

Immigration was 11th on a list of what voters thought to be the most important problem facing Pennsylvania today and second on a list of what they think the most important problem facing the United States is today.

But 43 percent of respondents gave the Trump administration a failing grade for its handling of immigration overall — that’s the lowest level since May of 2017, according to F&M’s polling.

And while Pennsylvania voters remained more concerned with topics like healthcare, F&M’s polling revealed that the Trump administration’s family separation scandal this summer remained a potent motivator for a wide swath of the electorate.

Asked whether the separation of families caught crossing the U.S. border illegally would make them more or less likely to vote, 57 percent of respondents said a “great deal more,” 18 percent said “somewhat more,” four percent were “somewhat less likely,” two percent were “much less likely,” 18 percent said it had “no effect,” and one percent said they “didn’t know.” Thirty-six percent of those polled identified as moderates, 35 percent as conservative and 29 percent as liberal.

Polling from Immigration Hub released well ahead of the midterms found the family separation policy to be a key motivator for a set of Republican and moderate voters — mainly white, educated women and women of color — who were outraged by the practice.

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