Analysis: The political numbers that explain the Abbott and DeSantis migrant decisions
Republican governors like Greg Abbott of Texas, and more recently Florida’s Ron DeSantis, have been making a habit of sending migrants located in their Sun Belt states to northern Democratic-voting cities. While there may be policy reasons for their decisions, there are clear political considerations as well.
Both men, especially DeSantis ahead of a potential 2024 presidential bid, are using one of the most potent issues in Republican circles – immigration – to play to the base of their party in a number of ways.
No matter how you define the wave of migrants that have arrived from Central America, South America and the Caribbean, most Republicans don’t want them here.
A CNN/SSRS poll from earlier this year found that 65% of Republicans opposed allowing refugees from Central American countries to seek asylum in the US. This stood in contrast to Americans as a whole, 56% of whom favored allowing them to seek asylum.
Of course, most Republicans would argue that the migrants being sent north don’t meet this definition and instead are in the country illegally. More Republicans (56%) said they were extremely concerned about illegal immigration than any other issue, except for inflation, according to a recent Fox News poll.
(It is important to note that the migrants being sent north are asylum-seekers who have been processed by federal immigration authorities and are awaiting court dates.)
Worries about immigration at large are reaching new heights for Republicans. Gallup polling from earlier this year showed that 87% of Republicans were dissatisfied with the level of immigration into the country. That’s higher than any point this century.
And even when it comes to the broader question of immigration, this concern, like that of illegal immigration, ranks high. Immigration (not just illegal) ranked as the second most urgent concern facing the country for Republicans, per a Quinnipiac University poll from the end of last month. Again, only inflation beat it out.
For Americans overall, immigration ranked fifth in the Quinnipiac poll. This gets at why Abbott’s and DeSantis’ moves haven’t been nearly as positively received in the mainstream media as they have been in conservative spaces.
But the GOP governors’ actions aren’t only about immigration. It’s also about making Democrats look bad, especially considering they tend to support far more liberal policies on immigration.
Negative partisanship is one of the biggest drivers of politics these days. That is, you do something not because you like someone or something, but because you really dislike someone or something.
Today, the two parties are at each other’s throats in a way I’m not sure we fully realize. An astounding 62% of Republicans held a very unfavorable view of the Democratic Party, according to a Pew Research Center poll from earlier this year. Ten years ago, 43% of them did. Twenty years ago, the figure was just 20%.
Democrats also strongly dislike the Republican Party: A majority (54%) saw the GOP in a very unfavorable light, the Pew poll found this year.
The current situation isn’t just about the here and now, though. It’s about the future too. DeSantis, in particular, is a potential candidate for president in 2024. He has to know that immigration is what paved former President Donald Trump’s way to the White House in 2016. Trump’s highest vote share in the 2016 primaries was consistently among voters who said immigration was their most important issue.
DeSantis must also be aware of how Trump cannibalized media attention during the 2016 primary season at the expense of other candidates. Right now, one of the top topics in the media is this story you’re reading – about Abbott and DeSantis sending migrants to Northern cities.
DeSantis has become a master of attracting media attention for himself. Over the last six months, he’s gotten over 1,050 mentions on Fox News. Other non-Trump potential 2024 contenders have fallen far short. Former Vice President Mike Pence has had a little less than 600 mentions. For Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, it’s been a little less than 450. Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley got mentioned just over 160 times.
The fact is that using media attention to endear oneself to the Republican base is part of the point for folks like Abbott and DeSantis. Politics isn’t just policy, it’s about notoriety too. And there are few better ways to do that than through the issue of immigration.