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Immigration: Paying Attention?


In a post on Wednesday on the recent CBS News/New York Times poll on immigration, I argued that survey respondents will often answer questions about complex public policy issues for which they lack pre-existing opinions. Respondents frequently form on-the-spot opinions, drawing on other previously held attitudes or values cued by the question text. To illustrate that point, I used a cross-tabulation from a recent SurveyUSA automated poll in Charleston, South Carolina and in so doing, inadvertently stumbled into a more complicated question: Whether the relatively small number that are closely following news about the immigration reform bill may be more or less supportive of the bill than other Americans.

The intriguing discrepancy at the heart of both issues is that while majorities of Americans react positively to the "the major provisions" of the immigration reform bill as described by the CBS/New York Times poll, the Rasmussen automated survey shows a two-to-one (48% to 26%) plurality of likely voters opposed to something described only as the "immigration reform proposal agreed to last week." A recent SurveyUSA sampling of adults in the Charleston, South Carolina media market showed a similar result.

I argued -- and continue to believe --that the vast majority of Americans have little sense of the details of the immigration reform bill. Thus, I speculated on Wednesday that the negative reaction measured by the automated pollsters is mostly a reflection of Americans' underlying attitudes toward illegal immigration (most say it is a big problem) and the way the government seems to be handling the issue (most say badly).

To support that speculation I offered a crosstabulation from the SurveyUSA Charleston study that showed lower levels of support for "the immigration reform bill" among those who said that they did not understand the provisions of the bill well.

05-30%20SUSA%20immigration.png

The problem is that in a release I had not yet seen, Rasmussen Reports provided a similar tabulation showing essentially the opposite result. While all voters in his survey oppose the immigration bill by a 48% to 26% margin, the 37% that say they are following news about the bill "very closely" oppose the legislation by an even bigger margin (69% to 23%). While Rasmussen did not include the complete cross-tabulation, we can extrapolate that the less attentive respondents divided more closely, with 28% in favor, 32% opposed and 40% unsure.

So we have another puzzle. One possibility, of course, is that adults in the Charleston, SC media market have a different perspective on immigration than adults nationally. But a more convincing explanation comes via email from Mickey Kaus, who argues that saying you "understand the provisions" of the bill is different from saying you are "following news stories" about it: "Neither accurately captures whether someone does or does not understand the bill. In fact, the more you follow it the more you realize you don't understand it."

So for both reasons, let's set aside that SurveyUSA result. But that leaves us to consider the more complicated question I inadvertently stumbled into: Does paying more attention to news about the immigration debate make you more opposed to the bill? It might, but unfortunately that question is virtually impossible to resolve with the data available because -- as any good researcher will tell you -- correlation is not causation. If the most attentive tend to be more negative about the immigration bill, that may be because their greater exposure soured them or because those who pay more attention were more inclined to oppose an "immigration reform" bill from the beginning.

The CBS/New York Times data provide a hint that this pattern may be the results of the latter phenomenon. A tabulation provided to Pollster.com by Kathy Frankovic, the polling director at CBS, shows that those who have heard or read "a lot" about "changing the laws of immigration" are significantly more likely to agree that "our immigration policy has so much wrong with it that we need to completely rebuild it" (56%) than those who have heard "some" (47%) or "not much/nothing at all" (46%):

06-01%20cbs%20nyt%20immigration.png

Even this result provides only a clue, and complicating it all further, the Rasmussen and CBS/NYT polls are about as different as two surveys can be (including mode, population, field dates and question wording, to name the most obvious). Without a news exposure experiment or at least a set of surveys that tracks changing attitudes over time, we really cannot know for certain either way.

Before moving on, I want to take this discussion back from the minutia: The polling results worth watching most closely are those that measure pre-existing attitudes about immigration in general, illegal immigration in particular and the job the government seems to be doing handling both (but especially the flood of illegal immigrants). These questions -- as well as those that probe reactions to words like "amnesty" and "deportation" -- will provide the best guide to the way public opinion on this issue will drive both the legislative debate and the upcoming presidential campaign.

PS: Kathy Frankovic's column this week is also deals with the immigration poll and focuses on the unique way that attitudes on this subject cross party lines.

 

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