There’s a certain type of person who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016. There’s also a different—and equally fascinating type—who voted for Trump in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020.
I’ve spent the last two years conducting monthly focus groups with these swing voters, first with Obama-Trump voters in 2019 and 2020, and then starting in January 2021 with Trump-Biden voters. Just because they’re all “swing voters” doesn’t mean the two voter identities are alike. For example, Obama-Trump voters are informed by local news, while those in the Trump-Biden camp largely view national cable news. Furthermore, the former seem more willing to embrace conspiracy theories than the latter.
But one similarity was readily apparent when I moderated focus groups on March 16 with a dozen Trump-Biden voters from Florida, Georgia, Arizona, Texas, Michigan, and Pennsylvania: Like the Obama-Trump voters, these Trump-Biden voters are paying a lot of attention to what’s happening at our southern border, and are deeply troubled by it.
In July 2019, during the previous migrant crisis at the border, I asked suburban Detroit Obama-Trump voters what our government should do about the problem. Larry, then age 68 from Eastpointe, MI said, “Send them back. We can only have some many people come into the country at once.”
Was Larry being cold-hearted? Perhaps. But Rhonda, a 48-year-old woman in the same session, politely echoed a similar message: “I feel terrible for those people, but there’s people here in this country that are struggling to survive. Again, I don’t want to feel like a jerk. I feel bad for those people, but I think we need to focus on the United States.”
Fast forward 20 months, and the Trump-Biden voters sound a whole lot like those Obama-Trump voters. When asked what America should do with an unaccompanied seven-year-old migrant from Honduras, Rob, a 49-year-old from New Hope, MN declared, “Send them back to Honduras.”
Rob is not alone.
Connie, 53, from Traverse City, MI, was unhappy that America’s welcome mat hadn’t been pulled indoors: “I’m not sure that the countries that are sending their children up here are getting the message.”
Rob, mentioned above, also worries about disease crossing the border. “If you give up control of your border, it’s not just people coming in who are immigrants; it’s other issues that get brought in, especially health issues. We’ve had outbreaks of measles in the United States, which we didn’t have for years.”
So, what should President Biden do about the problem? Kimberly, a 48-year-old from Cave Creek, AZ, said he should take a firmer approach: “I think he’s not being firm enough to say like, ‘Hey, people, it’s not that we’re against immigration, but…if you send your kids or you try to come here, we literally have nowhere to house you.’”
Ginnie, 60, from Luthersville, GA, sounded more resigned: “Well, once they’re here, you’re kind of stuck with them, but make sure that very few, if any more, arrive.”
When I pushed respondents for concrete steps to deal with the kids in U.S. custody, respondents struggled to suggest good options. One thought we should shelter children temporarily with American foster care families, an idea some others endorsed.
What was abundantly clear is that it’s easier to think about these kids as “the other” and keep them at arm’s length, rather than as humans in desperate straits. This sentiment was revealed in a very animated exchange I had with Janet, 64, who lives in Phoenix, AZ. At first, when I asked her what we should do with a seven-year-old who came by himself to the U.S. border, she dismissively said, “Nothing. It’s not our responsibility.”
I pressed harder. What about the prospect of “starving kids dying on our border”? Her response: “Where do we draw the line and say ‘enough’? We have starving children that are actually Americans that we do nothing about….It shouldn’t be our problem.”
Then I pushed even harder, noting that the kids at the border might not only starve, but might also be raped or murdered. “We have zero moral responsibility for them as far as you’re concerned,” I summed up, with the hint of a question in my voice.
That’s the moment I saw a different side of Janet. “OK, if you’re going to bring morals into it, that changes the whole thing,” she said in a different tone of voice. At that point Janet started referencing “those poor children and women.” She acknowledged “we do, as human beings, of course” have a moral responsibility for these migrants. And then she endorsed feeding them while here and sending them back “safely” to their home country. Her final caution: “We can’t be the world’s savior.”
Indeed, we cannot. But we can’t turn off our collective conscience merely because reality is too unpleasant.
U2’s Bono was right when he sang, “It’s no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest.” This pest may yet bring out the best in us, and save many desperate lives—if we can figure out a way to balance it with our concern for secure borders.
Rich is the president of Engagious. His company is the industry leader in scientifically testing and refining the effectiveness of business and issue-advocacy content, moment-to-moment. The firm helps its clients become more successful by applying the power of behavioral science and social psychology to dial test focus groups.