How public attitudes are shaping Texas GOP leaders’ response to Trump border policy

Photo by Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

Results from the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll illuminate how public attitudes provide the context for the political and policy responses of Texas’ elected leaders to President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy on immigration on the U.S.—Mexico border. Continued support for Trump, and for restrictive immigration policies writ large among the GOP base, are tempering GOP elites’ apparent fears: First, of further backlash should the policy remain in effect; and second, as is becoming increasingly apparent, should unwinding the politically damaging internment of separated children prove almost as disastrous as the original approach.

Nearly universal Democratic condemnation combined with weak and divided attitudes among Republican voters toward the separation of parents and children created a particularly difficult situation for GOP officials and opinion leaders. They must respond in tandem with a White House seemingly improvising with little regard for Republicans in Congress and state governments.

The president’s attempt to defuse the situation by shifting policy toward the detainment of the reunited families, along with a presumed end to separating new detainees, came only after GOP leaders revealed a default approach to their difficult political position: embrace the president’s claim — at best, contentious and at worst, untruthful — that it was Congress’s responsibility, and oppose the policy without confronting the president. The president’s blithe approach to truth and consistency make this a politically perilous path, but in the absence of the will to defy him, Republican elected officials are left with few other options.

Both the uniformity of Democratic outrage and the softness of the narrow GOP plurality that supported the policy in its initial form were evident in responses to an UT/TT Poll item that asked: “Do you support or oppose separating children and parents who are apprehended while trying to enter the U.S. illegally?”

As the Tribune reported last week, only 32 percent of Texans supported this policy, while 57 percent expressed opposition — 44 percent expressing strong opposition. Among Democrats, opposition was overwhelming, with 73 percent saying that they “strongly opposed” the separations. Among Republicans, a plurality, 45 percent, expressed support for the policy, but only 25 percent expressed strong support (in contrast, 18 percent expressed strong opposition).

Given this environment, state leaders’ lack of immediate response to the crisis unfolding on Texas’ large foreign border in the early weeks of June is no surprise. A closer look at subgroups in the poll reveals the cross-pressures on GOP leaders. While 55 percent of Tea Party identifiers (whose intense interest in politics and tendency to vote make them a good proxy for GOP primary voters) expressed support for the policy, a plurality of GOP women (42 percent) opposed it. Among GOP men, support increased to 56 percent.

Of course, elected officials — especially Republicans who will be facing voters this November — must consider more than just public attitudes toward the policy. They also must consider Trump, the public owner of the policy in all its shifting guises, who retains the allegiance of the GOP base and thus the power to shape the fates of the party’s candidates — just ask Mark Sanford. In Texas, the president remains a clear figurehead of the GOP, and one in good standing with its base. Among Republicans, Trump’s job approval stands at 88 percent (up 5 points since February polling). By comparison, 80 percent of Republicans approve of the job Gov. Greg Abbott is doing, 73 percent for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, 65 percent for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and 46 percent for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.

With Trump in such good stead with GOP voters, the much-maligned GOP-led Congress provides a perfect place to deflect responsibility for the situation on the border — and the presidentially directed policy that created it. Congressional job approval in Texas stands at just 19 percent overall, with 59 percent disapproval. Approval among Republicans stands only slightly better, with 31 percent approving of the party-controlled Congress and 46 percent disapproving. While non-Tea Party Republicans are slightly more positive, with 38 percent approving and 35 percent disapproving, 67 percent of Tea Party Republicans expressed disapproval of Congress’ job performance. When it comes to institutional scapegoats, Congress is the go-to choice — even for members of the party that holds the majority in that very same legislative branch.

Given this constellation of attitudes, it made sense for state GOP leaders to follow the lead of the president, albeit with a Texas spin: decrying the horrific scenes on the border and calling for action from the political institution which Texans regard with something between faithlessness and disgust.

In a letter to the Texas congressional delegation on the day that Trump altered course (reverse seems too strong here), Abbott wrote: “This disgraceful condition must end; and it can only end with action by Congress to reform the broken immigration system.” Cruz, a day before, introduced legislation to keep families together while speeding up the process of adjudicating asylum claims, saying, “This must stop. Now. We can end this crisis by passing the legislation I am introducing this week.” Patrick waited until after the course change to issue a statement praising it, which read in part, “I support the executive action President Trump has taken today. No one wants to separate families and the president’s action will ensure that those who are crossing our border illegally are detained and our laws are enforced. I continue to urge Congress to move forward with an immigration plan that includes increased enforcement resources, a border wall, and reforms to the immigration process.”

Not all GOP leaders took this route. Texas House Speaker Joe Straus is not facing the voters this fall and, like many other GOP leaders who have chosen to exit the field in the midst of the Trump era, was characteristically apostate from other members of the Trump-following state leadership. He condemned the policy more roundly in a letter to the president, with little apparent concern for sidestepping (or ignoring, as in Patrick’s case) Trump’s authorship of the mess: “In order to at least begin addressing this issue, there is no need to wait for Congress to act. That’s why I respectfully ask that you move immediately to rescind the policy... It is wrong to use these scared, vulnerable children as a negotiating tool.”

As the extent to which the president’s executive order was primarily a political move aimed at staunching public criticism without much apparent consideration of its actual implementation becomes more apparent, it would appear that the president met Straus’s first request, but has neglected his second one. Given Trump’s support and the underlying attitudes toward immigration both legal and illegal among the GOP base, it is very unlikely that the president’s tactical retreat will signal any larger shifts in his approach to the issue — or, here in Texas, in the response of the party he leads.

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James Henson

Texas Tribune pollster and director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin


Joshua Blank

Research director, Texas Politics Project, University of Texas at Austin