How voters' evolving views on immigration and cultural change will affect the 2016 election

Posted July 28

Recent events like the airport attack in Istanbul and Britain's vote to leave the European Union have changed the rhetoric regarding immigration and its relation to terrorism.

A study released on June 23 by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institute revealed that public anxiety driven by immigration and terrorism will likely have a big impact on the upcoming election.

It found that a prominent fear of terrorism hitting close to home is translating into mixed feelings about immigration, and that feelings toward immigrants is contributing to disparities in general happiness among different communities.

PRRI and the Brookings Institute conducted the study by asking 2,607 adults from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., in English and in Spanish, how immigration and fear of terrorism will affect how they vote in the upcoming presidential election. What they found was, in the words of PRI Director of Research Dan Cox, “instructive.”

“There’s really this visceral feeling of insecurity and economic uncertainty that this survey uncovers, and I think it helps explain a lot about what’s going on in our politics today,” Cox said.

The report found that a heightened fear of terrorism was on the rise even before the Orlando nightclub shooting in June. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed said they were "feeling somewhat or very worried that they or a member of their family will become a victim of terrorism."

“This is not a general concern towards terrorism; it’s very personal and internal,” said Robbie Jones of PRRI in a press conference revealing the study Thursday.

But despite the 18 percent increase in those who are “somewhat afraid” of a terrorist attack, most U.S. citizens oppose drastic policy changes to immigration, like building a wall or refusing entry to Syrian refugees.

Immigration policy

In fact, 58 percent of those surveyed oppose building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, and 55 percent oppose passing a law that would deny Syrian refugees entrance to the U.S. Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed also oppose placing a temporary ban on Muslims from other countries entering the U.S.

A panel of experts, including Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute, gathered in Washington, D.C., to discuss the findings of the survey. Bowman, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan think tank, said this reflects an important aspect of American opinion.

“While Americans are not now — nor have they ever been — particularly enthusiastic about immigration, most people do not want to punish immigrants,” Bowman said.

The survey also offered some insight into recent controversy surrounding foreign influence. It found that 55 percent of those surveyed think that “the American way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence," and that 57 percent of people surveyed agreed that “the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life.”

Quality of life

Another aspect covered by the survey examines how Americans of different races feel about their quality of life. When asked if they thought racism against whites — or reverse discrimination — is as prevalent as discrimination against blacks, Hispanics and other minorities, 49 percent of Americans agreed and 49 percent disagreed.

Broken down by race, 57 percent of white Americans agree that reverse discrimination is a problem. Only 38 percent Hispanics Americans and 29 percent of black Americans agree.

Olsen said this demographics loss of "dominance" has contributed to heated political rhetoric.

“I think one thing to understand about the white, evangelical population is how much they — a large number of them — feel that the thing they had, cultural dominance in America, has been lost,” Olsen said.

That same population is one of the largest populations largely dissatisfied with the state of the nation as a whole, according to the survey. It said U.S. citizens are “evenly split” over whether the country has gone so far off track that it needs a leader who “break some rules." Forty-nine percent agree, 50 percent disagree.

"White working-class Americans (62 percent) and white evangelical Protestants (70 percent) are among the most likely to believe that American culture and the American way of life has changed for the worse since the 1950s," the report said.

It’s a bipartisan divide as well, though, with 87 percent of Republicans, 73 percent of independents and 58 percent of Democrats saying that they believe the country has gotten seriously off track.

“They are really feeling that they’ve lost something, like they’re experiencing this cultural displacement, Cox said. “I think that again is powering a lot of the politics and fueling some of the resentment we’re seeing.

“Many Americans say their economic situation hasn’t improved all that much since the Great Recession, so their financial situations remain somewhat precarious and they’re witnessing a lot of cultural change in the U.S.,” Cox said. “There’s an inundation of same-sex marriage, an increasing number of people who are no longer attending church regularly and an increase in non-Christian communities and the unaffiliated. They’re just seeing a lot of change occurring over a relatively short period of time.”

Some of those at the press conference said this could be a positive thing.

“On gay marriage I think we’ve reached a pause but not a plateau,” Bowman said. “I think attitudes will continue to change as one generation replaces another.”

In regards to what specific political predictions can be drawn from the survey, Cox warns against looking too far into it.

“It’s always dangerous ground to have the pollsters look too far down the road, but I think there are some hints here that some of Trump’s rhetoric is fairly divisive, at least the rhetoric around Muslims and immigrants is really going to backfire and not just among those communities,” Cox said.

Email:; Twitter: @sarapweber


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