The Trump administration’s decision to separate children from parents at the U.S. border sparked outrage — even among many Republicans — like few other events since President Trump was sworn into office. The public, the press, Democrats and even congressional Republicans all lined up against the administration on the issue. The outcry was so strong it forced Trump to reverse the policy that had led to the seperations.
But the political news cycle moves fast these days. New outrages beg for attention. And as the administration worked to return children to their families ahead of today’s court-ordered deadline, political observers could be forgiven for wondering whether all this furor would have a lasting effect on Trump’s standing.
So … has it?
That’s a difficult question to answer. There are dozens of polls and dozens of poll questions you could look to as evidence. Sometimes they provide conflicting answers, and it’s difficult to isolate the effect of the family-separation policy from everything else that’s going on. In any case, it’s now been a little over a month since the separations became news, so it’s worth looking at the data we have. Recent polls suggest that Trump and the Republicans may not have suffered much lasting political damage in the wake of the separations. In fact, polling indicates that Republicans have emerged more unified and motivated by immigration than they were before the policy was publicized.
Polls conducted last month, at the height of public discontent with family separations, found that most Americans, including a significant percentage of Republicans, were opposed to the policy. Given that, our best starting assumption is probably that the crisis will prove harmful for Trump and Republicans, and that the best they can hope for is that it will turn out to be neutral for them.
Polls conducted in the wake of the administration’s reversal on separations, however, show that while a majority of Americans still oppose how Trump is handling the situation at the border, Republicans have largely unified in support of him.
According to a recent Quinnipiac poll conducted after the administration changed course on family separations, three in four Republicans said they approved of how Trump was now handling the issue. That’s a notably more positive response than Republicans gave on a related question a month ago, when Quinnipiac asked whether they supported the administration’s policy of separating families and 55 were in favor while 35 percent stood against it.
At the same time, polls show that as the family-separation crisis unfolded, Americans, especially Republicans, began to rate immigration as one of the most important issues facing the nation.
A recent Gallup poll found that 22 percent of Americans — the highest number recorded in Gallup’s 17 years of asking this question — named immigration as the “most important problem facing this country today.” This marks an 8 percentage-point jump from a Gallup poll conducted one month earlier. Gallup notes that significant spikes like this occur often in response to current events and points to the family-separation issue and increased deportations by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency as recent developments that may have influenced public opinion.
Most notably, 35 percent of Republicans ranked immigration as the most important problem facing the country, a 14-point jump from one month ago. Concern among Democrats has also grown, but it remains low in comparison: 18 percent of Democrats see immigration as the country’s most important issue, an 8-point increase from Gallup’s June poll.
Similarly, recent YouGov/Economist polls also show immigration as a rising concern among Republicans. A month ago, 13 percent of Republicans surveyed said immigration was the most important issue for them. Since then, Republicans have become increasingly concerned with immigration. According to the most recent YouGov poll, 21 percent picked immigration as their top concern.1
Did more Republicans start naming immigration as one of their most important issues because they thought Trump was doing the wrong thing at the border and that needed to be fixed? It’s possible, but the polls we have suggest otherwise. Even though polls last month showed Republicans divided on Trump’s family-separation policy, there is little evidence to suggest that it has harmed how they viewed his overall job performance on immigration.
The most recent Quinnipiac poll that asked respondents to evaluate how Trump is handling immigration found that 8 in 10 Republicans think he’s doing a good job, consistent with the previous month’s poll. Similarly, the most recent YouGov/Economist poll found that 79 percent of Republicans approve of his job performance on immigration.
Finally, let’s zoom all the way out. The highest-level metrics we have for what Americans think of Trump and the Republican Party are Trump’s job-approval ratings and the generic congressional ballot. And looking at FiveThirtyEight’s aggregate of approval polls, Trump’s approval rating has remained fairly steady throughout the last month. You could maybe argue that Trump’s standing has eroded a bit since mid-June — his disapproval rating is up by about 1 or 2 percentage points, and his approval rating is down about 1 point. But that could be statistical noise, and remember, a lot else has happened in the last few weeks that could be affecting Trump’s ratings, either positively or negatively. Trump’s ratings — 53 percent disapprove and 41 percent approve — are basically where they were at the start of June.
The generic ballot is even less definitive. Democrats had about an 8 percentage-point lead in mid-June — the same advantage they have now.
Of course, this story isn’t over. The government seemed to be on track to reunite all the families it had deemed “eligible” for unification in the hours leading up to the court-ordered deadline on Thursday. But the “eligible” group represents only about a third of separated families, which leaves hundreds of kids still in detention and facing an uncertain future. As the situation continues to develop in the weeks ahead, public opinion on the issue and how the Trump administration is handling it could still change.
CORRECTION (July 27, 2018, 10:42 a.m.): A previous version of this article transposed President Trump’s approval and disapproval ratings. The text has been updated.