Nativist and Nationalist Currents Running Strong in the Texas GOP

The combination of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign with the United Kingdom’s dramatic vote for “Brexit” from the European Union has brought renewed attention to the populist-tinged brew of nationalism and nativism flowing through Trump’s rhetoric as he competes for the presidency. 

Results from the June 2016 University of Texas / Texas Politics Project Poll reveal a thirst for such rhetoric in attitudes toward immigration, international trade, U.S. involvement in foreign countries, and even for more specific appeals identified with Donald Trump, such as building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico and banning non-citizen Muslims from entering the United States.  

Previous polling along with election results and recent legislative politics in Texas illustrate that these attitudes predate Trump’s rise. Loud advocacy for increased spending on border security to stem illegal immigration, more punitive approaches to undocumented immigrants already in the country, and the rhetorical linkage of immigrants to crime have been hallmarks of campaigns going back at least as far as Rick Perry’s use of the “sanctuary cities” meme in his successful 2010 campaign against Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White. More recently, both Senator Ted Cruz and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick won office by persevering in Republican primaries in 2012 and 2014, respectively, with campaigns built in significant part on promises to secure the border, restrict immigration, and take punitive approaches to people in the country without authorization.  

Trump has embedded his often incendiary rhetoric on immigration and the border in a broader context that paints the United States has having been on the short-end of both trade deals and diplomatic relations. During the Republican presidential primary, Ted Cruz lacked Trump’s flair for the outrageous though he occupied similar territory in both rhetoric and policy approach (or, at least, policy implications). Looking at results from this month’s poll suggests that their appeals seem likely to resonate with Texas Republicans, though much less so with Democrats on most of these issues.

Advocacy of restrictive policies on illegal immigration and undocumented immigrants living in the United States continues to sharply divide Democrats and Republicans, while serving to unite Republicans of different stripes. Republicans oppose comprehensive immigration reform whether it contains a path to citizenship or simply a means to legal residence: 62 percent of Republicans oppose the former, and 53 percent oppose the latter; even larger majorities of Democrats support both. Tea Party identifiers among these Republicans are much more deeply opposed to any comprehensive immigration reform than are their non-Tea Party fellow Republicans, though majorities of both factions oppose both forms of comprehensive immigration reform. Republican factions are much more similar when it comes to agreeing with the proposition that anyone in the country illegally should be deported immediately: 75 percent of mainline Republicans and a nearly indistinguishable 77 percent of Tea Party Republicans agree with the idea. Among voters who say they would vote for Donald Trump in the general election, 81 percent favor immediate deportation; support drops to 21 percent among Clinton voters.

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Strongly support49%16%9%
Somewhat supoort25%39%20%
Somewhat oppose10%13%23%
Strongly oppose6%19%39%
Don't know10%14%10%

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Strongly support28%14%17%
Somewhat support39%20%22%
Somewhat oppose12%9%15%
Strongly oppose5%38%37%
Don't know16%19%9%

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Strongly agree9%45%48%
Somewhat agree13%31%29%
Somewhat disagree22%13%12%
Strongly disagree49%9%8%
Don't know/No opinion6%3%3%

Skepticism abounds about the economic effects of the kinds of trade deals that have been central to American economic policy since the aftermath of World War II. The poll included the following item:

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Good for the United States economy23%
Bad for the United States economy41%
Have not had much impact9%
Don't know/No opinion26%

Overall, would you say that international trade deals have been good for the United States economy, bad for the United States economy, or have not had much impact on the United States economy?
1.     Good for the United States economy 
2.     Bad for the United States economy
3.     Have not had much impact                  
4.     Don’t know/No opinion                

Of those who had an opinion, half thought that trade deals have been bad for the United States economy (41 percent) or have had no impact (9 percent). Democrats were evenly divided on whether such agreements were good or bad (34 percent to 33 percent, respectively), but in an echo of the tone of the Republican primary contest and the presumptive candidate that emerged, only 17 percent of Republicans thought that trade agreements had been good, while 51 percent thought they had been bad.  

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Good for the United States economy34%19%17%
Bad for the United States economy33%45%51%
Have not had much impact12%10%7%
Don't know/No opinion21%26%24%

Texans were more closely divided in response to a more broadly framed question about the United States’ role in the world - a reflection of how nationalism and national security concerns continue to shape attitudes. In the midst of heightened concerns about international terrorism in the wake of the Orlando shootings and coordinated terrorist attacks in other parts of the world, as well as discussion of alliance politics in the presidential campaign, we asked a variation of a commonly used question:

Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: This country would be better off if we just stayed home and did not concern ourselves with problems in other parts of the world.

About half of Texas voters, 49 percent, disagreed with this statement, while 44 percent agreed with it. While majorities in both parties disagreed with the U.S. just staying home, Republicans – whose party has been a mainstay of support for a strong U.S. presence abroad in the post-war period – were split almost evenly, with a slim majority disagreeing with the isolationist statement. Liberal internationalism and perhaps support for the Democratic president and his former secretary of state who is running to replace him, presumably inform a higher level of disagreement with the statement among Democrats (60 percent, versus 34 percent of Democrats who favor staying at home).  

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Strongly agree11%18%14%
Somewhat agree23%50%32%
Somewhat disagree27%18%29%
Strongly disagree33%9%20%
Don't know6%5%5%

Substantial support exists among Republican voters for Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslim immigrants from entering the U.S. and to build a wall on the Mexican border, with Democrats largely opposed to both proposals. Trump’s trademark proposals generated responses with stark partisan patterns, which resulted in majorities of respondents favoring both proposals. Fifty-two percent supported Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the border, buoyed by the support of 76 percent of Republicans. As with other items that resonate with Republican concerns about immigration and the border, the proposal earned almost identical levels of support, above 80 percent, from both Tea Party and mainline Republicans. 

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Strongly support10%41%54%
Somewhat support11%18%22%
Somewhat oppose9%3%9%
Strongly oppose64%27%8%
Don't know/No opinion7%11%7%

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Strongly support9%60%60%
Somewhat support11%23%22%
Somewhat oppose10%6%3%
Strongly oppose64%6%10%
Don't know/No opinion6%5%5%

The idea of banning non-citizen Muslims from entering the United States was similarly popular – 52 percent of Texas voters supported the idea – and just as divided along partisan lines, with 67 percent of Democrats opposed and 76 percent of Republicans supportive. Both Democratic opposition and Republican support increased since we asked about the proposal in February 2016: the Democratic opposition increased 10 points, and Republican support increased 13 points. Whatever the distaste with which some Republican leaders view Trump’s proposals and the rhetoric he has and continues to use to pitch them, they appear to have become part of the firmament of the partisan universe in the presidential campaign – and are finding an accepting audience among Republicans in Texas.

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Strongly support13%31%48%
Somewhat support13%21%28%
Somewhat oppose23%15%10%
Strongly oppose44%19%6%
Don't know8%14%8%