Framing Labels and Immigration Policy Attitudes in the Iowa Caucuses: “Trying to Out-Tancredo Tancredo”

Abstract

We use an experiment built into a series of surveys of Iowa voters during the 2008 Iowa Caucus campaign to test the effect of differing group framing labels on immigration policy preferences. We find that certain framing labels matter, but only among Republican partisans for whom the immigration issue is important. We also find that issue importance produces more conservative policy preferences for Democrats as well as Republicans. We examine and discuss these results as well as their implications for the immigration debate, the interaction between issue salience and policy preferences, and the theory of political framing in general.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The subtitle of this paper is a reference to a claim that Tancredo made on November 28, 2007 that his fellow Republican contenders were trying to “out-Tancredo” him in their efforts to be perceived as the most hard-line on immigration policy (Boston Globe, November 29, 2007).

  2. 2.

    Beyond social identity theory, framing the policy target as “Mexican” compared to say, “Asian,” might lead to more support for deportation simply because Mexico is geographically closer to the United States, making it a more direct and less-expensive process to deport Mexican immigrants. Another possibility might be that there is less public sympathy for Mexican immigrants since they are rarely perceived as victims of human rights abuses like immigrants from African or southeast Asian countries. We thank an anonymous reviewer for bringing this to our attention. Since our data do not allow us to conclusively prove which theoretical mechanism is correct, we rely on prior research to argue that the social identity mechanism is more likely because racial policy attitudes (including immigration policy attitudes) are largely driven by a combination of racial threat, symbolic racism, and, to a smaller extent, principled political conservatism (see Kinder and Sanders 1996; Sniderman and Piazza 1993; Tolbert and Grummel 2003). This suggests that a “Mexican” frame is more likely to cue racial/ethnic concerns than other motivations related to geography or human rights considerations (see also Brader et al. 2008).

  3. 3.

    We pool our data to take advantage of the larger number of cases and the alternative framing experiments in a single analysis as well as to provide clarity in presentation of the results. The two separate framing experiments have the same “baseline” frame: “undocumented immigrants.” Each then has a different alternative frame (“undocumented Mexicans” or “illegal immigrants”). This allows us to consider the experiments as one in which there are two treatments and a control. Alternative specifications where we analyze the studies separately find substantially similar results. When we run the ordered logistic regression analyses independently for October 2007, when we conducted our ethnicity experiment, and January 2008, when we conducted our “illegal” experiment, we find similar and significant support for the effects of issue importance and party preference as we report here.

  4. 4.

    Alternate specification using a multinomial logit estimation confirms the findings from our ordered logit analysis. In comparison to the baseline category of “amnesty,” support for “conditional citizenship” is significantly conditioned by party preference and education. Support for “deportation” is conditioned by issue importance, party preference, and education. As we later argue, importance should matter much more to those choosing deportation because of the punitive nature of that option.

  5. 5.

    This assumes, of course, that the ethnicity frame does not implicitly convey an indicator of legal status. It is possible that some respondents assume that all immigrants from Mexico are undocumented, thus this finding may be at least partially attributable to perceived legal status as well as ethnicity.

  6. 6.

    This also complements previous research investigating the “pliability” of politically tolerant political attitudes. It has been shown that it is easier, using competing arguments and frames, to persuade those who are tolerant on certain issues to adopt more intolerant attitudes than it is to persuade those who are intolerant to adopt more tolerant attitudes. See Gibson (1998) and Peffley et al. (2001).

  7. 7.

    From these results, we are not able to conclusively state whether immigration rhetoric in the campaigns influenced the policy preferences of Iowa voters or if the frames merely helped uncover preferences that were already present. Rather, we simply identify whether shifting frames causes, ceteris paribus, changes in public opinion on the issue of immigration.

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Acknowledgments

Authors are presented alphabetically and are equally responsible for the content of this report. Replication data are available from the authors upon request. A previous version of this paper was presented at the 2009 Conference for the Southern Political Science Association in New Orleans, LA. We are indebted to the editors, anonymous reviewers, and conference discussants for their extremely constructive feedback and suggestions. We also acknowledge and appreciate assistance from James Krueger of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

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Correspondence to Benjamin R. Knoll.

Appendix A: Variable Question Wording and Coding

Appendix A: Variable Question Wording and Coding

Framing Experiment Dependent Variable

March 2007 and August 2007 Hawkeye Polls (does not include framing experiment):

Which comes closest to your view about what government policy should be regarding undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States? Should the government: (1) Deport all undocumented immigrants, (2) Allow undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States to work for a limited amount of time, (3) Allow undocumented immigrants to become U.S. citizens if they meet certain criteria like learning English and paying back taxes, (4) Allow undocumented immigrants to become permanent residents with no requirements.

October 2007 Hawkeye Poll (includes framing experiment):

Which comes closest to your view about what government policy should be regarding undocumented [immigrants/Mexicans] currently residing in the United States? Should the government: (1) Deport all undocumented [immigrants/Mexicans], (2) Allow undocumented [immigrants/Mexicans] to remain in the U.S. as guest workers for a limited time, (3) Allow undocumented [immigrants/Mexicans] to become citizens if they meet criteria like learning English and paying their back taxes, or (4) Allow undocumented [immigrants/Mexicans] to become permanent residents with no requirements?

January 2008 Hawkeye Poll (includes framing experiment):

Which comes closest to your view about what government policy should be regarding [undocumented/illegal] immigrants currently residing in the United States? Should the government: (1) Deport all [undocumented/illegal] immigrants, (2) Allow [undocumented/illegal] immigrants to remain in the U.S. as guest workers for a limited time, (3) Allow [undocumented/illegal] immigrants to become citizens if they meet criteria like learning English and paying their back taxes, or (4) Allow [undocumented/illegal] immigrants to become permanent residents with no requirements?

Responses to these questions were used to construct a four-point ordinal variable with higher values associated with more conservative policy preferences (i.e. deportation). In both surveys, respondents were randomly sorted into either the control or treatment framing group. Policy options 1–4 in the question wording were also randomized.

Independent and Control Variables

Immigration issue salience: this variable is constructed as a combination of responses to two questions. Respondents were presented with a randomized list of issues and asked to choose the one that was most important to them. (“I am going to read a list of issues. Please tell me which ONE is the most important to your vote for president in 2008.”) Those that did not choose immigration as most important were subsequently asked: “How important is a candidate’s position on undocumented immigration to your vote for president in 2008? Is it very important, somewhat important, or not important?” Responses were then combined and collapsed into a dichotomous variable of issue importance. Immigration was of “high” importance if respondents said that this issue was most or very important. Immigration was of “low” importance if they said that immigration was somewhat or not at all important. Note: in the January 2008 post-caucus survey, respondents were asked about issue importance in regards to whom they voted for in the caucus they attended instead of their “vote for president in 2008.”

Income: “Last year, that is in 2006, what was your total family income from all sources, before taxes? Just stop me when I get to the right category.” Categories progressed in increments of $10,000 from less than $10,000 to $150,000 or more. This is an ordinal variable with higher values associated with higher income levels.

Age: “What is your age?” This is a scale variable.

Education: “What is the last grade or class that you completed in school?” This is an ordinal variable with higher values associated with higher education levels.

Church attendance: “Aside from weddings and funerals, how often do you attend religious services… more than once a week, once a week, once or twice a month, a few times a year, seldom, or never?” This is an ordinal variable with higher values associated with more frequent church attendance.

Born-again Christian: “Would you describe yourself as a ‘born again’ or evangelical Christian, or not?” This is a binomial variable coded “1” if the respondent replies in the affirmative.

Labor union membership: “Is anyone in your household a member of a labor union?” This is a binomial variable coded “1” if the respondent replies in the affirmative.

Male gender: This is a binomial variable, coded by the interviewer.

% Urban and % Latino: Both variables as per the respondent’s zip code according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

Partisanship: For the October 2007 survey, we measure partisanship by asking those respondents, who we determined to be a likely caucus-goer, which party’s caucus they were planning to attend. (“If you do go, which party’s caucus do you plan to attend?”) This allowed for some individuals who classified themselves as independents to be included in this variable, as they had to choose to attend either the Democrat or Republican Party’s caucus. For the January 2008 post-caucus survey, we measure partisanship by which party’s caucus the respondent actually attended. (“Which party’s caucus did you attend, Democrat or Republican?”) Again, this allowed for some independents to be included as either a Democrat or Republican.

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Knoll, B.R., Redlawsk, D.P. & Sanborn, H. Framing Labels and Immigration Policy Attitudes in the Iowa Caucuses: “Trying to Out-Tancredo Tancredo”. Polit Behav 33, 433–454 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-010-9141-x

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Keywords

  • Immigration attitudes
  • Framing labels
  • Ethnic cues
  • Iowa Caucuses