Democrats are winning on the short-term politics of the government shutdown, for now. But to ultimately win the border wall fight and begin neutralizing President Trump’s most galvanizing issue, they’ll need to undermine support for Trump from some of his key constituencies.
To do that, they’ll need to frame their proposals perfectly in the days and weeks ahead. Fortunately, advances in public opinion research that combine deep human expertise with the scale of artificial intelligence (AI) point toward a solution.
In the final months of the 2018 election, we conducted deep listening surveys with key swing segments of the electorate, diving into open-ended analysis on key issues for partners and clients. Representative samples of respondents were engaged through online panels and given specialized prompts to evoke detailed explanations of what issues were most important to them and why.
Using a combination of human expertise and AI, we closely analyzed the specific language respondents used to reveal what values, attitudes, and emotions are driving their reasoning. Our process combines the deep human expertise required to identify the nuanced elements of language associated with values, attitudes, and emotions, with the power of AI to rigorously identify these same elements across tens of thousands of responses. By combining the greatest strengths of both humans and machines, we’re able to provide deep audience insight at mass scale.
In the fall of 2018, we heard from tens of thousands of Americans from all walks of life—and time and again we found the issue of immigration stood out as more polarizing and more emotionally evocative than any other. In addition to a general belief that immigration harms Americans, those in favor of stricter border controls frequently use three particular values to explain and justify their views: Authority, Fairness, and Loyalty.
We see a similar pattern of values used across demographic segments as varied as conservative Christian women, Union members, and Veterans.
While it isn’t surprising that respondents in favor of stricter border controls believe immigration is harmful, the frequent usage of Authority, Fairness, and Loyalty values show us why they believe this.
Americans who relate to immigration through a strong Authority lens want stricter enforcement of immigration laws, not because of a desire to limit immigration, but rather to ensure America is a land of laws that bind citizens who were born here and immigrants alike.
Even among first and second generation immigrants—a segment of the American electorate we might expect to skew sympathetic to immigration—there’s a significant portion of voters who express a belief that they followed the rules in order to be a part of this country, and others should too.
Americans who relate to immigration through a Fairness lens are very concerned about people getting what they deserve based on their actions. This “reap what you sow” version of fairness is a significant aspect of the moral reasoning that drives support for stricter enforcement of immigration laws.
In our research, this value was very clearly tied to a belief that immigrants are receiving a great amount of taxpayer support, while ordinary Americans are left to struggle on their own. We saw this in particular among union members and soft conservative suburban woman, who may express high levels of care and concern for the struggles of immigrants, but feel a strong sense of unfairness about their perception that immigrants receive greater benefits, support and opportunity than their own families receive.
Finally, the Loyalty value is associated with support for a social identity or in-group, often in tension with an out-group. This is where explicit and implied references of national, racial, and ethnic identities come to the fore.
The most frequent narrative, in this case, relates to a sense of the respondent’s group losing relative to immigrant groups. Critically, this isn’t about personal experience as in, “I lost my job to an immigrant” so much as perceived experience of the social group as in, “ordinary Americans like me are losing jobs to immigrants.”
Whether we agree with them or not, viewing the current standoff through the lens of these values and narratives explains why the border wall is such a powerful symbol for Trump’s base. For many of them, the wall is a physical manifestation of a deep and emotional attachment to the need to respect authority and to feel fairly treated compared to other groups.
By understanding the deep why behind the border wall, Democrats can frame their communications to ameliorate and even attract elements of that base.
Michiah Prull is the co-founder and CEO of Avalanche Strategy, a technology company that uses AI-enabled language analysis to reveal the values, attitudes, and emotions of the public on the most pressing issues. Follow him on Twitter @michiahprull