Texans' Perceptions of Threats to the U.S. and GOP Politics After the Paris Attacks

Expressions of grief and solidarity immediately poured into American mass and social media in response to last Friday night’s terror attacks in Paris.  The shock and outrage continued, but by Sunday night, the grim events in Europe were quickly incorporated into the campaigns of the 2016 presidential primary elections. By Monday, the inexorable grind of partisan politics continued as a parade of state governors publicly declared their opposition to any efforts by the Obama administration to implement a previously announced plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Texas Governor Greg Abbott joined the movement early in the day, a grasstops resistance campaign fought disproportionately by GOP governors: As of Monday night, only one of the 31 state chief executives joining the opposition was not a Republican.

It would take a heavy dose of naiveté  to deny that there is at least a plausible argument for invoking careful screening procedures for refugees from the failing states of the Middle East (something that is already on-going and why there are actually so few refugees currently emigrating to the United States),  especially after news that one of the Paris attackers allegedly masqueraded as a Syrian refugee in order to travel through several countries, eventually reaching France. But neither does it make one an unrequited cynic to suggest that in addition to legitimate policy concerns, there is a real domestic political context to these governors’ public opposition to the relocation of Syrian refugees in Texas, or elsewhere in the U.S. The latter seems particularly true given state governors’ limited ability to resist federally ordered refugee relocations.

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Right direction44%17%6%
Wrong track41%68%90%
Don't know15%15%4%

Results from the most recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll point directly to the political context of Gov. Abbott’s hectoring letter to President Obama on Monday, as well as to the rhetoric emanating out of the GOP nominating contest. The November 2015 UT/TT Poll sought to probe the electorate’s sense of the threats facing the United States as the 2016 Presidential primary campaign entered a more active phase. Much of the talk in stump speeches and on debate stages, especially among the candidates of the party not currently occupying the White House, have conveyed a sense of the country faltering in the face of threats foreign and domestic. This sense of the primary campaigns is amplified by polling results that show 90 percent of Texas Republicans saying that the country is on the wrong track. In many ways, it has been this sense that GOP front-runner Donald Trump has captured in his “Make America Great Again” slogan, and his frequent exhortations that the U.S. just doesn’t win anymore.

With all this as backdrop in early November, we asked respondents what they perceived to be the greatest threat facing the United States. The results from this item (with data collection completed just a few days prior to the Paris attacks), didn’t contain any major surprises. Reflecting years of polling on perceptions of the major problem facing Texas, the most frequent response on our list of threats was “illegal immigration,” cited by 22 percent, followed closely by “attacks by foreign terror groups (e.g. Isis or Al Qaeda)” (18 percent) and “political polarization” (12 percent).

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Unfriendly nations8%
Foreign terrorist groups18%
Illegal immigration22%
Decaying U.S. infrastructure10%
Polarization / Partisan conflict12%
Climate change5%
Computer network vulnerabilities2%
Racial tensions6%
Gun violence / Mass shootings9%
Don't know / no opinion3%

The context for Governor Abbott’s profiling on the issue can be seen in the differences in partisan and ideologically driven perceptions of threat. The primary ranking of immigration was fueled by conservative perceptions of illegal immigration as the greatest national threat, cited by 36 percent of Republicans, followed at a distance second by terrorist groups (21 percent). Democrats were split between “gun violence / mass shootings” and “polarization / intractable political conflict,” each chosen by 17 percent. Comparing the Democratic to the Republican responses cited above, 14 percent chose foreign terrorist attacks (the third most common response among Democrats); but only 6 percent of Democrats chose immigration.

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Unfriendly nations8%7%9%
Foreign terrorist groups14%20%21%
Illegal immigration6%19%36%
Decaying U.S. infrastructure11%8%10%
Polarization / Partisan conflict17%12%7%
Climate change10%5%1%
Computer network vulnerabilities2%1%3%
Racial tensions8%5%5%
Gun violence / Mass shootings17%7%2%
Don't know / no opinion4%1%2%

Thus however defensible Governor Abbott’s caution in policy terms, the high profile announcement, covered widely in state and national media, was also guaranteed to resonate with Republican constituents whose sense of threat from immigration is a well-established fact of political life in Texas. In fact, the politics of immigration and especially border security had already been harmonized with counter-terrorism during the most recent legislative session as part of the public justifications for increased border security spending. Governor Abbott’s letter to President Obama simply repeated well-publicized instances of border region apprehensions of terror suspects, as well as the linkage to ISIS of the Garland, TX shootings in May (though that link appears somewhat tenuous). 

The resonance of Abbott’s response with GOP attitudes in Texas has been echoed in the rhetoric of a number of candidates on the presidential campaign trail, but with an added twist. In addition to echoing a general resistance to the relocation of Syrian refugees within the U.S., Jeb Bush suggested that the US “focus our efforts on Christians.” Likewise, Sen. Ted Cruz added that, “Christians who are being targeted for genocide, for persecution, Christians who are being beheaded or crucified, we should be providing safe haven to them,” further asserting that “there is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror” as a grounds for barring Muslim refugees but admitting Christian ones. The approach of both Bush and Cruz echoes previous discussions in the primary campaign about U.S. policy not doing enough to protect Christians caught in the civil wars of the Middle East, while also striking a chord with the widespread belief among conservatives in Texas that Christians are one of the groups currently experiencing the most discrimination in the US.

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Group"A lot" or "Some""Not very much" or "None at all"Don't know
Transgender people54%38%7%
Gays and lesbians54%41%5%
African Americans51%45%4%

In this political moment, the particulars of the Paris attacks present GOP candidates with a way to talk about immigration that simultaneously allows them to endorse (or continue endorsing) restrictive immigration policies without appearing to focus solely on Hispanics, even as it also allows them to bring Christian persecution into the immigration framework, too. Focusing restrictive immigration rhetoric on Muslims rather than Latin American migrants enables candidates to speak of the dangers of foreign immigration while reducing the potential to further alienate Hispanics. This turn also relieves some of the tension between Republican elites whose job it is to worry about the party's long term electoral prospects, and candidates whose short term focus is on predominantly white Republican primary voters with decidedly restrictive and punitive views regarding illegal immigration.  

There is evidence in our polling that the present dynamic might help the party in the effort to add some Hispanic votes. The greatest threat cited by Hispanics on the item described above? Foreign terrorists (22 percent)More surprisingly, the second greatest threat cited by Texas Hispanics was illegal immigration (17 percent), highlighting the complexity of Hispanic attitudes toward the issue of immigration (something that we’ve written about previously). If the GOP can thread the needle with their immigration rhetoric that turns the focus away from Hispanics, they may find a significant portion of the group more open to messaging on immigration focused on terrorism – and non-Hispanic migrants. 

By including the rhetoric of Christian persecution into this debate in the wake of the recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage and the ensuing feeling among some Christians about real or potential persecution based on their beliefs, the GOP candidates could also benefit from the reinforcement of anti-immigration attitudes with perceptions of widespread Christian persecution – in turn, also helping to mobilize the much-discussed evangelical base of the Republican Party.

While we realize that this is state specific data, these attitudes are present in other states with varying degrees of intensity. If not, we wouldn't be witnessing all but a handful of Republican Governors rushing to close the gates as publicly as possible on the heretofore unseen hordes of Syrian refugees.

There will continue to be much speculation about whether the Paris massacres will be a game changer in the 2016 election. Some early coverage has plausibly suggested that the events and the rhetoric that have followed might propel a Republican primary electorate thus far fascinated by Trump’s celebrity and Carson’s otherworldliness back toward safer candidates like Bush, Rubio, or even Kasich (or even the former prosecutor, Christie). But there’s also the real possibility that the seemingly unlikely alignment of anti-immigration impulses channeled toward Muslims for a time, evangelical concerns and the threat of terrorism will benefit the so-called anti-establishment candidate whose candidacy rests at the intersection of conservative ideals in each area: Ted Cruz. 

The prominent role of a Syrian who was likely never really a refugee, but masqueraded as one to reach Paris in order to play his terrible role there, has created the rhetorical space for a new variation on the immigration and border security trope that appeals to a broad section of Republican voters. The Paris attacks will clearly make national security and counter-terrorism more salient for now – and there was a significant portion of the GOP that saw terrorism as salient before the attack. But the quick incorporation of immigration as a central component of the national GOP response to Paris makes it unlikely that counter-terrorism will gain enough intensity to dislodge immigration in the gut reactions of GOP primary voters. The speed with which this incorporation has occurred suggests that, in fact, it may reinforce these reactions – and their impact on the GOP presidential race.