How Many Republicans Really Want to Ban Muslims?

Don’t read too much (or too little) into new polls about Donald Trump’s proposed immigration ban.

Randall Hill / Reuters

Here’s the good news: In a poll released Thursday evening, NBC News found that 60 percent of Americans oppose Donald Trump’s patently unconstitutional proposal to ban Muslim immigration.

Now, the bad news: A small but real plurality of Republican respondents support the proposal—42 percent, with 36 opposing it. When limited to GOP primary voters, however, the tally is 38 percent for, 39 percent against.

That’s actually less than the results in some other polls. A Bloomberg poll found that among likely Republican primary voters, 65 percent agreed with Trump and 22 percent opposed the idea. Rasmussen found almost identical numbers. There are a couple good reasons to be skeptical on the specifics of the latter two polls. The Bloomberg poll was taken online, on a single day, and was opt-in. Rasmussen’s results are often somewhat unreliable too.

But there’s also a good reason to be wary of the overall message, too. How many Republicans really want to ban Muslims from coming into the country? Probably fewer than are saying so here. In an environment like this one, polling about this question tends to serve largely as a litmus test. These results are probably more an indication of what side the respondents are on, rather than what they truly believe about the issue.

A couple years ago, Huffington Post recreated a classic political-science experiment that found that respondents will answer confidently about things they have no real opinions or knowledge about. (This phenomenon will be familiar to fans of Jimmy Kimmel’s “Lie Witness” man-on-the-street interviews.) Huffington Post went one step further, asking respondents to share their feelings on the 1975 Public Affairs Act. When they told their respondents that President Obama wanted to repeal the act, Democrats said they agreed, while Republicans opposed repeal. When they told respondents, in turn, that Republicans favored repeal, Democrats wanted the act to stand and Republicans wanted it repealed. In other words: It’s all about tribal identification, not policy.

The danger is that reading too much into these polls could produce a vicious cycle, in which Republican candidates become convinced that their primary voters really do want to ban Muslim immigration, and as a result take stands similar to Trump’s.

Yet antipathy to Muslims is also very real. Other, less news-tethered surveys have shown that a minority of Republicans would be willing to vote for a Muslim candidate for president. My colleague Peter Beinart and I have each written about the corrosive influence of Islamophobia on the American populace, and the danger of it becoming enshrined within the GOP.

So even if this batch of polls primarily reflects partisan allegiance—Republicans siding with a candidate against the media—that’s no reason to dismiss the broader concern about the spread of Islamophobia.

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