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Americans are more worried about terrorism, race, and immigration than they were last year

Eek!
Eek!
(Ollyy via Shutterstock)

Is America more xenophobic than it was a year ago?

That's the implication of a new Gallup poll tracking which issues Americans are more concerned about now than they were in 2014:

gallup poll march 2015 crop

(Gallup)

Add them all together, and you get a national mood of xenophobia and fear — the same national mood that turned the runup to the 2014 elections into a sustained panic over ISIS and Ebola.

What's much harder to parse is how much of this is grounded in reactions to specific news stories, and how much is a general gestalt. How much of the increased concern over "race relations" is a reaction to the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner by police officers, or the killings of police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos? How much of the concern over "terrorism" is a specific reaction to news stories about ISIS?

It's hard to untangle the two. But it's a little easier when looking at changes in public opinion from month to month — which helps show how particular news stories affected the American mood.

What sparked the rise in concern about race and immigration?

Gallup is comparing these poll results to what Americans were thinking about in March 2014. And a lot has changed since then. Luckily, Gallup also tracks what Americans think is the "most important issue" on a monthly basis.

Concern about "racism/race relations," for example, spiked in early December 2014 — right after grand juries declined to indict the police officers who had killed Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York. Prior to December, only 1 percent of Americans had named it as their biggest concern; that month, 13 percent did. But much of that spike in interest evaporated: in subsequent months, 3 to 5 percent of Americans have named race relations as the country's biggest problem.

child black lives matter Win McNamee/Getty Images

Four-year-old Marley Hendrix Totten joins a group of protesters as they gather outside the headquarters of the Washington, DC, Metropolitan Police Department as part of a planned "28 Hours for Mike Brown" protest on November 25, 2014. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Or take the issue of "illegal immigration." Over the past several months, there's been a heated political debate over President Obama's executive actions that would allow millions of unauthorized immigrants to apply for protection from deportation — which could easily be feeding a xenophobic mood. But in between last year's Gallup poll and this year's there was also the summer 2014 border crisis, when tens of thousands of Central American families and unaccompanied children entered the Rio Grande Valley and turned themselves over to Border Patrol officers.

Gallup's monthly polling last year showed the border crisis did cause a big spike in concern about illegal immigration — the percentage of Americans listing "immigration" or "illegal aliens" as the most important problem facing the US rose to 17 percent in July, then topped 10 percent again twice during the fall. After President Obama announced his executive actions, however, there was not an increase in the number of Americans naming immigration as the most important problem. It's stayed between 6 and 8 percent for the last several months.

The immigrants coming into Texas last summer were completely different from the immigrants whom President Obama attempted to grant relief last fall. But they're both counted under the rubric of "illegal immigration" when it comes to public opinion.

This isn't a matter of Gallup being sloppy. A lot of debate around unauthorized immigration conflates people who are just coming to the US with people who've been here for years. And often, concerns about terrorism, immigration, and race relations feed into each other: Republican politicians were quick to hypothesize that ISIS terrorists could sneak over the border from Mexico, for example; and worries that racial tensions will spill into violence likely will make Americans feel less safe at home. All of this makes it hard to tell where concern driven by seeing news stories ends and concern driven by intangible fears begins.