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Big Republican donors are very open to Trump's harsh approach to immigration

US Border Patrol agents search a teenage girl as a younger girl looks on
US Border Patrol agents conduct a search of suspected unauthorized immigrants

On immigration, there’s a war in the Republican Party between the rank-and-file and big donors — or so the conventional wisdom suggests.

Donald Trump, according to this view, represents a revolt by white working-class voters against elites, who have failed to take seriously the issue of American jobs going to immigrants. Other times, pundits interpret harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric and restrictive immigration proposals from Republicans as cynical (or perhaps strategic) appeals to the white working class. In contrast, it’s understood that such draconian policies will find little support among large donors, who prefer more-open immigration policies.

But these narratives have never been rigorously tested. Our analysis of the opinions of donors suggests that an important part of the conventional wisdom is wrong: We find that harsh immigration policies do have support among some of the wealthiest — and most powerful — political actors in American politics.

It’s not that the conventional wisdom is entirely wrong. Restrictive immigration proposals do enjoy their strongest support among white, working-class Americans, who also express high levels of fear about the cultural and national security implications of Muslim immigration to the United States. And opposition to immigration is strongly correlated with racial resentment. It is also indisputable that Trump supporters are disproportionately likely to believe that rising immigration threatens core American values; and to express animosity toward immigrants (especially Muslim immigrants). Trump, of course, has explicitly played to cultural fear among whites.

Examining the views of donors of $5,000-plus

Yet we wondered about those big donors. As part of an ongoing research project on the preferences and contribution patterns of big donors, we compared the immigration preferences of the top 1 percent of donors — those who reported contributing more than $5,000 — to the preferences of other groups in society. These donations included contributions to specific candidates, PACs, party organizations, and ideological organizations.

Our analysis drew on a cumulative data file from the 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Studies surveys. By pooling together multiple surveys, we were able to obtain an unusually large sample of these "mega-donors," 305, as well as extremely large samples of several other groups: all political donors, individuals with family incomes over $150,000, and all American adults. (Across all surveys, there were 196,000 respondents.) To make the mega-donor sample nationally representative, we re-weighted the sample using data from Catalist, a political data firm with information on more than 260 million adults, and the Federal Election Commission.

We also made efforts to ensure that we correctly identified large donors. While it’s unlikely that many people lie about contributing large amounts of money to campaigns — being a mega-donor is not exactly a status that most people aspire to — we tried to account for this possibility by dropping from our analysis any self-identified mega-donors who were not also validated registered voters. On the whole, our approach allowed us to examine the preferences of elite donors, and other groups, with a great deal of precision.

We analyzed the data both with and without party identification, and the pattern held in both cases. Unsurprisingly, Republicans in general were more likely than Democrats to support very aggressive policies to slow the flow of illegal immigrants. Yet in both parties, mega-donors were more likely than the average voter to support such policies. They were also more likely to support aggressive anti-immigration policies than other donors, or even other wealthy people.

Surprisingly hard-line views

Our findings were striking. While mega-donors expressed attitudes similar to those of other groups on some questions — such as whether undocumented immigrants should be granted legal status, and the desirability of fining businesses that employ undocumented workers — they were much more supportive of harsher immigration measures. Nearly 74 percent of the elite donors in our sample supported a proposal to increase border patrols on the US-Mexican border, as opposed to 59 percent of donors, 56 percent of individuals with family incomes over $150,000, and 58 percent of adults.

Elite donors were also much more supportive than other groups of a proposal to empower police to stop and question anyone they think might be in the country illegally. While about 49 percent of mega-donors endorsed this proposal, support among each of the other groups hovered around 40 percent.

Taken together, these results suggest that, at least on the question of immigration, being a mega-donor is not simply a proxy for being a wealthy person. Mega-donors are a non-representative subgroup of wealthy people; they are a subgroup with distinctively harsh attitudes on key immigration questions. Contrary to conventional wisdom, draconian immigration measures may be appealing to a substantial fraction of the nation’s wealthiest — and most active — political contributors.

Given previous media accounts and scholarly research, our findings are a bit of a surprise. After all, journalistic accounts routinely feature high-profile examples of wealthy donors supporting more liberal immigration policies. Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg founded the group FWD.us to push for immigration reform. Jeb Bush, darling of the right-wing donor class, was a staunch advocate for immigration reform. More generally, the Chamber of Commerce, the largest business lobby in the country, is supportive of more liberal immigration policy.

And some other academic studies have concluded that big donors may have more liberal immigration attitudes than other voters. For example, a 2010 study by political scientists Brittany Bramlett, James Gimpel, and Frances Lee found that people who live in neighborhoods that supply large numbers of high donors are more supportive of liberalized immigration policies.

But these findings do not necessarily contradict ours. By focusing on a small number of high-profile media-savvy and cosmopolitan donors like Mark Zuckerberg, journalists might miss the much larger number of lower-profile donors with harsher immigration attitudes. Indeed, there are likely important divisions within the big donor class. Theda Skocpol and Alex Hertel-Fernandez, two leading scholars of donor networks, find just such a division on the issue of Medicaid expansion: The Chamber of Commerce split with the Koch Network, for instance. The lesson appears to be that while corporate coalitions might support more liberal immigration policies (in no small part to gain access to cheap labor), ideologically driven individual donors may be more opposed.

According to conventional wisdom, the anti-immigration movement represents a revolt against big donors.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

There are a few reasons why our results might differ from those in the neighborhood-based study of Bramlett, Gimpel, and Lee. One possibility is that the elite donor class shifted to the right on immigration issues in the Obama era (that is, after their study was conducted), perhaps due to the racial anxieties unleashed by his presidency.

Additionally, although the country is rapidly becoming more diverse, the donor class remains fairly homogenous. An investigation of the top 500 donors in 2014 by Open Secrets found that only one of the top donors was Latino. In our representative sample of mega-donors, only 7 percent were people of color, compared with 26 percent of the adult population. Less than 2 percent were Latino (compared with 7.3 percent for the adult population). The fact that the highest echelons of the donor class don’t represent the diversity of the nation could help explain why they are more likely to prefer policies that will disproportionately harm Latinos.

Also, neighborhood preferences may differ from individual preferences. It’s possible that the particular individuals who donate, even in a donor-rich locale, don’t share the liberal immigration attitudes of their neighborhoods as a whole. Finally, it could be that the views uncovered by Bramlett and her co-authors are those of an even more elite echelon of donors (say, those who give more than $10,000), which can’t be analyzed with the data available to us.

Caveats aside, our findings provide fresh insight on the political strategy surrounding advocacy of harsh immigration measures. The conventional narrative — that the general population and donors are deeply divided on the issue, with donors favoring more progressive measures — doesn’t square with the data.

Our analysis does not provide direct proof that mega-donors embrace the Republican Party’s draconian immigration measures. But it does indicate that many top contributors are especially supportive of stringent policies to secure American borders and interrogate individuals suspected of entering the country illegally. Rather than a divide between the donor class and the general public, the donor class is itself deeply divided on the issue of punitive immigration policies. A substantial portion of the donor class is as angry about immigration as the working-class white men who get so much attention when cable news focuses on the issue.

Sean McElwee is a policy analyst at Demos Action; Jesse H. Rhodes is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and Brian F. Schaffner is a professor of political science at UMass-Amherst. They can be reached on Twitter at @SeanMcElwee, @JesseRhodesPS, and @b_schaffner.

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