Immigration, Presidential politics, and Partisan Polarization Among the American Public, 1992–2018

Document Type


Publication Date



We extend theories about “immigration backlash” and right-wing populism in three ways by analyzing trend data to examine the interplay between views of immigration, partisan polarization, and voting patterns in presidential elections. First, we document how immigration views became more aligned with partisan polarization between 2000 and 2018. Second, we show that immigration views were significantly more predictive of voting for Donald Trump in 2016 compared to Republican presidential candidates in the 1992 through 2012 elections. Due to increased partisan polarization, the indirect effects of immigration views on presidential voting (as mediated through political ideology and party identification) also increased over time, and were stronger in 2016 compared to previous elections. Finally, we show evidence of a post-Trump backlash on immigration views, with political independents and Democrats becoming significantly more favorable toward immigration after 2016. By 2018, the American public was more polarized over matters of immigration than at any time previous in the available data, and these views corresponded more strongly with voting patterns. These findings highlight the increasing importance of immigration for understanding partisan politics in the contemporary U.S., and reiterate the importance of anti-immigrant sentiment and partisan polarization to the success of right-wing populism in electoral democracies.