Polling Center: GOP Candidates Bet on Border Security

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s recent call for an additional $60 million in annual state funding for “a continuous surge operation” in the border region dramatically raised the ante in the high-stakes discussion of immigration and border security in the 2014 Republican primary campaign. Republican candidates at the state and national level remain sharply conflicted over how to talk about immigration reform in ways that resonate with the restrictive attitudes prevalent among GOP primary voters without antagonizing current and future Latino voters.

Results from the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll suggests that invoking border security might offer a safe way to speak directly to a GOP primary audience, linking immigration concerns to a tightening of the border without alarming general election voters, including many Latinos.

There is clearly an audience for this: Border security was the second most frequent response when we asked Texans to identify the most important problem facing the state in the October 2013 UT/TT Poll. The most frequent response? Immigration. The two subjects are perennial frontrunners: They were the two most popular responses in all three polls we conducted in 2013, and have been in the top three or four responses in every poll we have conducted since 2009.

The staying power of border security and immigration comes in large part from the consistent importance accorded these issues by Republicans. In 11 UT/TT polls conducted between February 2010 and October 2013, at least 44 percent of Republicans identified one of the two as the most important problem facing the state. Concern among Republicans surged during the 2010 election campaign: More than half chose the issues in each of four polls we conducted that year, with the highest combined total reaching 65 percent in February 2010.

So it’s not surprising that Dewhurst and others in the lieutenant governor’s race are seeking media attention and primary votes by talking up border security. “DAN PATRICK BORDER CHAMPION” reads the all-caps caption on the border security and immigration policy page of the Houston Senator’s campaign website; Jerry Patterson’s “Immigration, Assimilation, and Border Security” policy page likewise proclaims “immigration reform and border security are mutually dependent, not mutually exclusive”; and Todd Staples uses a governmental website clearly branded under the Texas Department of Agriculture, protectyourtexasborder.com, to demonstrate his concern with border security by sharing stories of violence and corruption in Mexico in his “Border News” section.

The relationship between border security and immigration is neither logically fixed nor necessarily uniform among all Texans. In some cases, it’s plausible to think that talking forcefully about them serves as what is commonly thought of as dog whistle political rhetoric, a signal that communicates an implicit message to those who hold anti-immigrant attitudes (“I want to keep immigrants out of Texas”) within a message that is literally emphasizing something else (“I want to enforce the rule of law and protect public safety”).

While one can’t definitively say who is hearing what when it comes to calls to secure the state’s southern border, there is clearly an audience for proposing to pump resources into border security — in general terms, something akin to what Dewhurst wants to spend that $60 million on. We asked half of the sample (600 people) in our October poll if they supported “Tightening U.S. border security and providing Border Patrol with increased technology, infrastructure, and personnel” and found broad support across most major demographic categories — and many fewer divisions among Texans than when we ask about comprehensive immigration reform more generally.

More than three-quarters of Hispanic respondents supported increased border security, only 8 points less than Anglo respondents. And while 90 percent of rural respondents support increasing security at the border, that support only drops to 78 percent among urban and suburban respondents. The takeaway is that there is no wellspring of opposition for GOP candidates to worry about when touting border security. And looking just over the horizon to the GOP primaries, increasing border security is supported by 92 percent of Republicans and 96 percent of Tea Party Republicans.

Border security is thus the win-win-win issue of the Fall 2014 season — something that no haute Republican candidate can leave home without. It’s a win because of its attractiveness to the GOP primary voters they’re currently courting. It’s a win because of its knock at the federal government’s unwillingness or inability to secure the border. And finally, it’s a win because it doesn’t appear to be an issue that hurts the GOP with Hispanics in an increasingly Hispanic Texas — as long as GOP candidates don’t seem over-enthusiastic, stray into rhetoric perceived as tone deaf and anti-immigrant (“self-deportation,” anyone?), or stir the pot in angry corners of the electorate in ways that embarrass their efforts to split the difference among very different groups of voters.

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.