Election 2019

How did immigration play in Pennsylvania during the midterms?

Not the way the GOP hoped.

A Ross Township polling location on Election Day 2018

A Ross Township polling location on Election Day 2018

MJ Slaby / The Incline
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Sanctuary cities. The caravan. ICE.

Nationwide, the GOP counted on immigration to be a galvanizing force for voters in this month’s midterms. In Pennsylvania, it was a “winning strategy” that failed to win in key races for U.S. Senate and Congress, as well as governor.

But where did it miss its mark here and by how much?

New polling released after the election offers some insight. Immigration Hub, a pro-immigration advocacy group and arm of Laurene Powell Job’s Palo Alto-based Emerson Collective, commissioned a poll of just over 800 Pennsylvania voters. An additional oversample of 206 voters was conducted in the outer Pittsburgh DMA, meaning those counties in Pittsburgh’s media market not including Allegheny.

The polling conducted by Global Strategy Group (GSG) between Nov. 6 — Election Day — and Nov. 8 asked voters about what got them to the polls and how immigration factored or, for many, how it didn’t in deciding whom to cast their vote for.

Nick Gourevitch, a partner at Global Strategy Group, provided the following insights while announcing the results in a conference call Tuesday, Nov. 13:

  • Asked if Lou Barletta’s hardline or Trump-like positions on immigration were more of a reason to vote for Barletta or against him, those polled by GSG in Pennsylvania said it was more reason to vote against him, by a nine-point margin.
  • Voters who cast ballots for Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey in this election and Trump in 2016 were posed the same question and said, by a 14-point margin, that they felt it was more reason to vote against Barletta.
  • Pennsylvania voters found Barletta’s Trump-like immigration platform more concerning than Republican messaging aligning Sen. Bob Casey with sanctuary cities and open borders, by a margin of 48 percent to 37 percent. The margin among Casey-Trump voters was even wider at 52 percent to 32 percent.
  • Instead of immigration, more voters — 46 percent — said healthcare was the top issue for them. This was followed by those who identified jobs and the economy as their top concerns, followed by Social Security and Medicare. (Democrats nationwide made healthcare the main focus of their midterm campaigns.)
  • The Immigration Hub also commissioned a survey of nearly 2,000 registered Pennsylvania voters, polling their views on gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner’s “Caravan” ad. According to the results, Wagner’s ad failed to mobilize the majority of Pennsylvania voters to support him and in some cases backfired by increasing the turnout intentions of both liberal-leaning and moderate women. 62 percent of moderate suburban female voters did not support Wagner’s ad, the survey found.
  • “Voters found that Republican candidate alignment with Trump on immigration was more of a reason to vote against those candidates than to vote for them, including with politically important groups like voters in Pennsylvania who voted for Trump in 2016 and shifted to Bob Casey in 2018,” Gourevitch said. Casey beat Barletta statewide with 55.6 percent of the vote to Barletta’s 42.8 percent.


Tyler Moran, director of the Immigration Hub, added of this outcome, “Trump made this election about immigration and the caravan, and it backfired for the Republican Party. By large margins, Trump candidates lost, including Pennsylvania’s own Barletta, Wagner, Chrin and Rothfus.”

What’s the practical effect of all this?

Moran said with Democrats in control of the House now, the GOP can expect a more progressive agenda including proposed solutions for Dreamers and Temporary Protected Status-holders.

“And if they want to win elections in the future,” Moran added of the GOP, “they should listen to voters who want bipartisan solutions and not use scare tactics that divide and distract the electorate.”

But the immigration messaging didn’t fail everywhere in the U.S.

Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, said “It worked in some of the Trump-won states with [Democratic] senators: Indiana, North Dakota, and Missouri. But just in that limited sense.”

In Pennsylvania, Republican Party officials doubled down on immigration as a driving force in the runup to the midterms, with state GOP Chairman Val DiGiorgio calling the Democratic Party a “full-throttle open-borders party” and saying the president’s near-singular focus on the border was good news for state Republican candidates.

But F&M polling data released more than a month before the election showed just six percent of the 545 Pennsylvania registered voters sampled — including 256 Democrats, 213 Republicans, and 76 independents — believed immigration, illegal immigrants and refugees to be the most important consideration when it came to choosing a U.S. Senate candidate.

Data released by F&M five days before the election showed seven percent of 537 registered voters polled in Pennsylvania — 254 Democrats, 211 Republicans, and 72 independents — felt the same way.

That polling data, released Nov. 1, also ranked immigration ninth on a list of the issues respondents said were most important to them when considering which candidate for governor to support, behind items like healthcare, insurance, taxes, education, economy and civil liberties.

Immigration was 11th on a list of what voters thought to be the most important problem facing Pennsylvania today and second on a list of what they think the most important problem facing the United States is today.

Dozens march in Beechview for a Day Without Immigrants

Dozens march in Beechview for a Day Without Immigrants

Jasmine Goldband

But 43 percent of respondents gave the Trump administration a failing grade for its handling of immigration overall — that’s the lowest level since May of 2017, according to F&M’s polling.

And while Pennsylvania voters remained more concerned with topics like healthcare, F&M’s polling revealed that the Trump administration’s family separation scandal this summer remained a potent motivator for a wide swath of the electorate.

Asked whether the separation of families caught crossing the U.S. border illegally would make them more or less likely to vote, 57 percent of respondents said a “great deal more,” 18 percent said “somewhat more,” four percent were “somewhat less likely,” two percent were “much less likely,” 18 percent said it had “no effect,” and one percent said they “didn’t know.” Thirty-six percent of those polled identified as moderates, 35 percent as conservative and 29 percent as liberal.

Polling from Immigration Hub released well ahead of the midterms found the family separation policy to be a key motivator for a set of Republican and moderate voters — mainly white, educated women and women of color — who were outraged by the practice.

Want some more? Explore other Election 2019 stories.

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