The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What do Americans think about the wall? The answer would surprise you if you read Drudge.

A weeping Honduran woman and her child wait along a border bridge after being denied entry from Mexico into Brownsville, Tex. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts argued Monday that public attitudes on immigration have been trending away from the Trump administration’s hard-line restrictionist position of reducing legal immigration flows and building a wall to halt illegal immigration flows.

A CBS/YouGov poll from last week largely confirms public disapproval of President Trump’s handling of this issue:

A large majority of Americans — 72 percent — disapprove of family separation. Although Republicans split on that policy, generally — half support it, half oppose it — Republicans do give the president high marks (81 percent favor) for his handling of the matter, overall.
Among the three-quarters of Americans overall who labeled the separation as a problem, 31 percent say the president has ended a problem he himself created; 27 percent (many of whom are Republicans) said he ended a problem he did not create; and 41 percent (largely Democrats) said he did not end the problem, despite having signed an executive order aiming to do so . . .
One-third of Americans and registered voters say the separation policy will be a very important matter in their congressional vote this fall. Of those who say it will change, more say it will make them vote Democratic than Republican. That gap is even larger among those who have never voted in a midterm before, meaning that if Democrats are to try to use discontent over this issue, it might be necessary for them to get new voters to the polls.

So these do not seem like great numbers for the current administration. Townhall’s Timothy Meeds, however, looked at the entire poll and did manage to frame the results from one answer in a way that is more favorable to Trump:

CBS poll released today showed that more Americans than not want illegal alien families either detained or deported all together. But, that same poll shows that 51% of Americans believe that a wall along the United States southern border is a good thing, even if that structure does not span coast to coast.
According to the poll, 32% of Americans believe that “a wall along the U.S. Mexican border” is a “good idea that can probably be completed.” 19% of those polled answered that the wall is a “a good idea that should be tried, even if it cannot be completed.”  48% of the 2063 adults polled said the wall was a “bad idea.”

Drudge tweeted out Meeds’s column declaring, “POLL: MAJORITY SAY BUILD WALL…” And then the conservative echo chamber kicked into overdrive:

As noted in this space repeatedly, public attitudes about immigration have been trending away from Trump for a while now. But it is also true that ordinary Americans see illegal immigration and narcotics trafficking as bigger threats than elites do. So maybe the wall is an example where Trump represents a slim majority of the American people?


If the CBS/YouGov poll results were similar to other recent poll results about the proposed wall, then I could see the validity of this argument. But an even more recent poll suggests that the CBS/YouGov poll was an outlier. The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) commissioned a survey during the exact same period. PRRI’s director of research, Daniel Cox, reported out the results:

The public is not any more supportive of building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Thirty-one percent of the public favor the construction of a wall while 63% are opposed. Public views have not changed significantly over the past six months. In 2017, roughly one-third (36%) of Americans expressed support for the construction of a wall along the country’s southern border.3
Political differences are again stark. More than two-thirds (68%) of Republicans support building a border wall while 27% of independents and only 7% of Democrats agree. Nearly nine in ten (89%) Democrats oppose building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

I also checked Polling Report to see what other polls in the past two months said about U.S. attitudes about building the wall. Here’s what I found:

  • Quinnipiac University Poll. June 14-17, 2018: 39 percent support building a wall, 58 percent are opposed.
  • Pew Research Center. June 5-12, 2018: 40 percent support building a wall, 56 percent are opposed.
  • CBS News Poll. May 3-6, 2018: 38 percent support building a wall, 59 percent are opposed.

So, since May, five polls have been conducted on the question of building the wall. Exactly one of them shows a bare majority in favor of building the wall if the responses are aggregated. The other four show pretty solid majorities in opposition. Going further back, the numbers pretty much have looked like this since the 2016 election. The only exception is if the $25 billion price tag gets mentioned — in which case, support for building the wall drops to the low 30s. Oh, and as it turns out, the mainstream media has less of an effect on public attitudes on this issue than the president’s bully pulpit. So even though he has the largest microphone, Trump is losing.

Maybe, just maybe, that CBS/YouGov result was an outlier because of the way  the question was framed.

There is a reason I keep harping on this issue. Pundits keep asserting public support for immigration restriction, but the data keeps not backing up that assertion. A few days ago, Nate Silver noted, “Immigration is a weird issue where pundits, despite being quite liberal on the issue themselves, probably underestimate how liberal the general public is.”

This is a synecdoche of a wider pundit problem in analyzing Trump’s presidency:

If conservatives or commentators get most of their polling information from Drudge, then they will infer from this week that Trump’s positions reflect the majority of America. They are very, very wrong.