The Polarization of the American Electorate. Special Series on Trump and Biden Positions on Key Issues

The Immigration Issue

June 24, 2020

I’m sure that you are familiar how America has become polarized over the last decade. This relatively new phenomenon is mainly based along partisan lines. For example, when pollsters show how the public views the economy, Democrats and Republicans have significantly different evaluations when faced with the same data.

With the White House occupied by a Republican president, Republican voters have more positive views and Democrats more negative opinions. It’s like these two groups occupy different countries: the Republic of Republicana and the Democratic Territory of Americana.

This phenomenon is not just based on partisanship alone. Partisan voters also take their cues from party leadership as well, with the occupant of the White House particularly influential. Donald Trump’s suggestion that injecting Lysol could possibly cure the Covid virus caused Maryland’s hotline to receive over 100 calls asking if it was a good idea after he made that suggestion on TV.

Donald Trump has a loyal and almost religious-like devotion from his supporters. To test how that devotion influences their opinions on common issues such as immigration, education and health care. Using Democratic or Republican identity, however would not isolate the Trump voter specifically. We need a better method to measure both the Trump’s and Biden’s supporters opinions and intensity on key issues.

Having published a number of academic political papers over the years, I have used data developed by the American National Election Studies (ANES), that conducts regular surveys of American opinion on hundreds of issues.

One of it’s signature questions is called the Feeling Thermometer, which measures opinions on people or issues by a thermometer rating, where ratings between 50 degrees and 100 degrees mean that you feel favorable and warm toward the person, group, or country. And ratings between 0 degrees and 50 degrees mean that you don’t feel favorable and warm toward a person, group, or country. The higher the thermometer rating indicates greater support intensity for the candidate.

Demonstration Thermometer
Feeling Thermometer Example

In December of 2019, the ANES conducted a pilot study of 3,165 interviews conducted online containing hundreds of political and social questions, in addition to feeling thermometer ratings for Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Since I wanted a contrast between Trump and Biden voters on everyday issues, this data set seemed perfect.

My solution to this problem, was to subtract Trump’s thermometer rating from Biden’s. I call this the Biden-Trump net thermometer rating. The average was for 4,271 values, was a +5.1.

Since we subtracted Trump’s rating from Biden’s, all positive values represent Biden’s net thermometer rating and all negative values are Trump’s. The distribution of these ratings is shown in the graph below.

The graph shows that the data forms a normal distribution, with the bars to the right of the center representing Biden’s net ratings and bars to the left are Trump’s net ratings. The mean is +5.1, meaning a there is a slight net advantage for Biden, but in general, the two sets of net ratings between the two candidates is very close.

Now that we have candidate intensity variable, we can compare how the two sets of voters differ from each other. Let’s start with one my favorite example in this series and see how the net ratings classify Trump and Biden voters on issues as an example.

*Net thermometer ratings: Positive ratings indicate Biden supporters and negative ratings represent Trump supporters. The larger the numerical value indicates their support intensity for either candidate.

The ANES survey asked questions on how much a threat certain countries are to the US security. The responses range from “not at all” to a “great deal.” In this case the country is Mexico.

The five bars have a value ranging from 38.06 for “not at all” to -56.11 for “a great deal.” Since that number is negative, it tells us that most Trump supporters chose this response. A smaller number of Trump supporters chose “a lot.”

Most Biden supporters chose “not at all,” as shown by the +38.06 net thermometer rating. Remember, positive numbers represent pro-Biden supporters and negative values Trump.The larger the number, the more intense voters like either Trump or Biden.

I have to say the responses to this question surprised me. After all, I don’t look at Mexico as a particularly important security risk to the US. The entire Mexican army wouldn’t make good parade in America.

That’s obviously what Biden supporters thought. But Trump supporters were not thinking traditional risks to our security, but about the risks of Mexican illegal immigrants entering the country.

So let’s start this series of Trump vs Biden supporters opinions on important issues facing the nation. Today’s series starts with the subject of immigration. We all know how Donald Trump feels about this issue. Let’s see how his base reacts to this issue, starting with the border wall.

The Immigration Issue

Trump has used this issue of a border wall since the 2016 campaign, so it is no surprise that his base is enthusiastic about this statement. Biden supporters, on the other hand, are in general opposed to the wall.

As for a path to citizenship, Trump supporters are opposed to citizenship, even if they pay a fine and pass security checks. Simply put, they don’t want these immigrants here.

This chart only confirms that Trump supporters just want them sent back to their home country. Biden enthusiasts are generally opposed to sending illegals back.

Even with the Covid-19 pandemic, if we can’t send them back, for Trump devotees putting illegals in detention centers that are overcrowded with bad conditions is an option for them. Biden supporters don’t support this option.

For a Trump supporter, releasing immigrants because the detention centers have no room, even under supervision, is not an option. For Biden fans, releasing illegal immigrants under supervision seems OK to most.

Separating children from their parents rather than keeping them together in detentions centers draws the most differences between Trump and Biden supporters.

I suspect that both sides are taking their cue’s from recent news coverage about the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that separates all illegal immigrants’ children, even infants, and sent them to other federal facilities. Even some Trump followers objected the this policy.

Although not exactly an immigration issue, speaking in public in a foreign language does bother Trump devotees, as the chart below shows.

This series final chart, does suggest that a person speaking Spanish at a restaurant annoys Trump supporters. “A mal…”

In the next series on the polarization between Trump and Biden supporters, I will cover how they feel about experts and scientists advice. This will give you some idea why many people won’t wear masks. Look out for it and stay safe…

By Jim Kane

Jim Kane is a pollster and media advisor, and was for fifteen years an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Kane is founder of the polling firm USAPoll and served as the Director of the Florida Voter Poll. His political clients have included both Republican and Democratic candidates, including the Republican Party of Florida, and both the Sun-Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel newspapers. At the University of Florida, Professor Kane taught graduate level courses in political science on Survey Research, Lobbying and Special Interest Groups in America, Political Campaigning, and Political Behavior. In addition to his professional and academic career, Jim Kane has been actively involved in local and state policy decisions. He was elected to the Broward County Soil and Water Conservation Board (1978-1982) and the Port Everglades Authority (1988-1994). Kane also served as an appointed member of the Broward County Planning Council (1995-2003), Broward County Management Review Committee (Chair, 1990-1991), Broward County Consumer Protection Board (1976-1982), and the Broward County School Board Consultants Review Committee (1986-1990).


  1. I always read your articles as soon as you post them. You put a lot of work into the research and I find them to be interesting and worth reading. Which is why I was surprised by your statement in the third paragraph – “Donald Trump’s suggestion that injecting Lysol could possibly cure the Covid virus”. I hope you are aware that Mr. Trumps remarks followed a presentation by Department of Homeland Security undersecretary for science and technology Bill Bryan. During the briefing, Mr. Bryan talked about research showing the virus can be killed by bleach and alcohol on surfaces. Mr. Trump never mentioned Lysol at all. His exact words were “I see the disinfectant that knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning? As you see, it gets in the lungs, it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that,” Mr. Trump never suggested that people “start injecting Lysol”. He was merely stating it would be interesting if any research was done on some sort of cleaning in the lungs. I know most of the media ran with headlines stating that Mr. Trump was telling people to inject Lysol, and of course his political rivals caught on and spread the disinformation. The over one hundred calls to the Maryland hotline were probably people who read the headlines of these media stories and not people who support Trump, although I have no way of knowing that for sure. I know how powerful words are, and this is why I am responding to this post. I know that just a few misplaced words in any political article can distort reality and it gets repeated endlessly until people think it is the truth. I always try to do my own research and check things for myself. Thank you very much for all the research you do and the way you present it.

    1. James, I appreciate your comment and you are right that Donald Trump never said for people to try injecting Lysol. This was my attempt at humor in explaining how voters often take messages from party leaders and in retrospect, that was in poor taste. I try not to inject my personal political beliefs, but having watched that task force press conference live on TV, his question to Dr. Birx about whether there had been any research on using a disinfectant and her reaction to the question was both humorous and telling. The 100 phone calls to the Maryland hotline, however, did happen, so it obviously sent a message to some people, and that was my point. But I get your concerns, and thanks to the comment. Jim

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