Immigration is driving support for Trump more than in 2016

Former President Donald Trump’s ascendancy in the 2015 Republican primary polls was propelled by his robust stance on immigration. A 2018 study by political scientists John Sides, Lynn Vavreck, and others revealed that negative perceptions of immigrants consistently predicted Republican support for Trump from the initiation of his campaign in June 2015 to his formal acceptance of the GOP nomination in July 2016.

Contrasting with previous Republican nominating contests, attitudes toward immigration played a more influential role in the 2016 primaries. Trump skillfully harnessed anti-immigrant sentiments, a stark departure from the performances of then-Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who fared slightly better among pro-immigrant voters in the 2008 and 2012 GOP primaries.

While immigration was pivotal to Trump’s 2016 triumph, it emerges as an even more potent factor in the 2024 primaries against potential contender Nikki Haley, as evident in the New Hampshire exit polls.

Trump’s Evolving Support: Immigration Dynamics in the 2024 New Hampshire Primaries

From 2016 to 2024, Donald Trump’s backing has shown stability among New Hampshire primary voters favoring legal status for most undocumented immigrants, with a mere 4-percentage-point improvement last Tuesday compared to 2016. Despite an overall vote share increase of nearly 20 points, Trump’s support surged by 25 points among voters advocating for the deportation of most undocumented immigrants during the same period.

This strengthened support aligns with the growing proportion of Republicans advocating for the deportation of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. In 2016, only 41 percent of Republican primary voters in New Hampshire favored deportation, a figure that rose to 55 percent in the 2024 exit polls. This trend mirrors the increasing nationwide support for deportation among Republicans since Trump concluded his term.

Republican Immigration Priorities: Impact on New Hampshire Primary and National Trends

In New Hampshire and across the United States, Republicans are increasingly emphasizing immigration as a critical issue. In the recent Republican primary, 30 percent of voters identified immigration as their top concern, a significant jump from 15 percent in 2016. Correspondingly, Donald Trump’s support among this expanding segment of GOP primary voters, deeply concerned about immigration, soared from 53 percent in 2016 to an impressive 79 percent in 2024.

Several factors contribute to immigration’s heightened significance in Trump’s recent victory compared to his 2016 triumph. The intensified focus could partially result from heightened media coverage of the southern border, as my research indicates that media narratives can amplify the impact of attitudes toward social groups, including immigrants, during elections. Another crucial element is the distinct nature of Trump’s candidacy and the composition of the presidential candidate field in this year’s GOP primaries.

Immigration Dynamics: Shaping GOP Primaries from 2016 to 2024

In 2016, some Republicans aligned with Donald Trump’s critical stance on immigrants but hesitated to fully support him due to concerns about his experience, electability, and presidential demeanor. These GOP voters, not entirely ready for Trump’s nomination, had alternatives like Senator Ted Cruz, another immigration hardliner. Cruz garnered significant support, winning nearly 25 percent of the vote against Trump among 2016 primary voters with less favorable views of immigrants.

In contrast to the past, the current scenario features Trump as a seasoned candidate seeking a third consecutive GOP nomination. He faces a one-on-one contest against Nikki Haley, whose immigration stance is less defined than a staunch figure like Cruz. Trump has notably shifted attention to Haley’s background as the daughter of immigrants from India, questioning her birthright citizenship despite being born in South Carolina. This contrasts starkly with the multi-candidate landscape of 2016.

Trump’s Immigration Focus Strengthens Grip on 2024 GOP Primaries

In the 2024 Republican primaries, the dynamics of immigration attitudes as a key factor in supporting Donald Trump have intensified, especially in the context of a one-on-one race against Nikki Haley. This shift becomes evident when compared to the 2016 scenario, where the field of candidates provided alternatives, notably Senator Ted Cruz.

As Larry Bartels’s insights on presidential primaries highlight, voters tend to evaluate candidates more on their political merits as they acquire additional information. This pattern holds true for the link between attitudes toward immigrants and support for Trump, which has strengthened over the course of the New Hampshire primary campaign, where Trump and Haley were distinctly contrasted.

While New Hampshire offers a snapshot, the evolving importance of immigration in the 2024 primaries could solidify Trump’s dominance within the Republican Party throughout the election year. Further observations are needed to understand the full extent of immigration dynamics on Republicans’ support for Trump in the ongoing election cycle.

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