Expert Commentary

Framing labels and immigration policy attitudes in the Iowa caucuses

2010 study in Political Behavior examines public opinion survey data on immigration rhetoric and policy preferences among Iowa caucus-goers.

Iowa has seen significant demographic changes in the past decade as its Latino population has grown. How this trend intersects with voting patterns and political attitudes is of strong interest to scholars and election observers, of course, because of the Iowa Caucuses’ importance in the presidential nomination process.

A 2010 study from Rutgers University, Virginia Military Institute, and Centre College, Kentucky, published in Political Behavior, “Framing Labels and Immigration Policy Attitudes in the Iowa Caucuses: ‘Trying to Out-Tancredo Tancredo,’” examines public opinion survey data from the 2008 election cycle. The study’s authors focus on how the immigration issue is packaged, what types of responses it elicited — what political scientists sometimes call “framing effects” — and how terms such as “illegal alien” and “undocumented Mexican” resonate with segments of the Iowa voting public.

The study’s results include:

  • “Framing the immigration policy issue in terms of ‘undocumented’ vs. ‘illegal’ did not influence policy preferences among Iowa caucus-goers in the 2008 primary season.” However, “framing the issue with an explicit ethnic cue, i.e. ‘Mexican’ vs. ‘immigrant,’ did influence policy preferences,” particularly among certain Republicans.
  • The more partisan a GOP caucus-goer is, and the more he or she ranks immigration as an important issue, the tougher the policy response he or she will likely support. “Republicans who view immigration as highly important are much more likely to be punitive, while those Republicans for whom immigration is of low importance are much more likely to choose a relatively lenient policy option — conditional citizenship.”
  • Racial cues have a strong influence on those Republican voters most focused on immigration: “When the ethnicity frame was not presented to these respondents, they were 45% likely to choose conditional citizenship. However, when the frame was presented, likely Republican caucus-goers who were most concerned about immigration were only 25% likely to select conditional citizenship.” This group was also more likely to choose punitive measures: the likelihood of selecting deportation rose from 34% for those who had not received the frame to 57% to those who had received the frame.”
  • However, Republicans who attach a low degree of importance to the immigration issues are no more likely than Democrats with similar profiles to support punitive policies.

The study’s authors conclude by pointing out that, in Iowa, the framing effects of racial cues “hold only for a small, though vociferous, group of caucus-goers.” Overall, “since Iowa caucus-goers are among the most politically aware and attentive voters in the country … there was less chance of ‘moving’ respondents by framing experiments.”

Tags: race, Latino, Hispanic, presidency, Iowa/New Hampshire

About The Author