Given all the attention on the Trump Administration’s controversial “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, it was only a matter of time before we had credible polls looking at what the subject. Those polls are in– and while it looks like 60% of the public disagree with the policy’s effect of separating kids from their family, about 55% of Republicans agree. Many on the left are drawing a consistent conclusion: Roughly 55% of Republicans support the barbaric practice of tearing kids from their parents and locking them in cages.


The implication is false.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely a minority of people who want to see immigrant children in cages. They are best described as “sociopaths” and need to be vigorously repudiated. I just highly doubt that– and what a sign of the times that I even need to write this sentence– the majority of Republicans fit that description.

Let’s take a look at a typically worded poll on the topic from CNN/SSI:

The options are “Agree”, “Disagree”, and “Don’t Know.”

The question is worded vaguely enough that Republicans and Liberals will approach it differently as a result of their media environments and policy preferences. Republicans see the focus on illegal immigrants and indicate their support on harsher punishments for people crossing the border. Indeed, polling suggests that most Republicans think that the separation is nothing other than an unfortunate, but necessary, legal requirement. Democrats see the question as reflecting the Administration’s prerogative to separate children from their families as a deterrent for future undocumented immigrants. They think about the descriptions and images of the detention centers that are largely absent or recontextualized in conservative media spaces.

In short, the questions are worded in such a way that it allows liberals and conservatives to answer two identically worded but completely different questions.

Further, when presented with this– and a couple other options– conservative support for the program plummets. People are not aware that alternatives exist. The fact that so many people split tells us that Republicans are not as keen on family separation as some would claim.

These poll results are not evidence that the majority of Republicans are heartless. We ought to do our best to remember that reality is hardly ever so stark and simple.

This post is an abridged analysis. The full version can be found here.

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Peter Licari
Peter is a PhD student in American Politics and Political Methodology at the University of Florida studying political behavior, elections, and polling. He identifies as an ideological moderate and a center-left Republican. While he departs from the party line on a handful of salient issues (Gay Marriage, Climate Change, and Abortion), he tends to identify strongly with many of the party's core values including equality of opportunity, empowering individual liberty, the importance of state and local governance, and the power of a fair market. He firmly believes in the necessity of limited government intervention on those issues enumerated by the constitution and by legal precedent but is leery at expansion beyond that sphere. He also blogs at and doodles web-comics at What little spare time remains is dedicated to long-distance running, reading, playing video games with his ever-patient fiancee, Stephanie, and to oddly productive one-sided conversations with his cat, Asia.