Opinion & Analysis

How immigration could shape the elections of 2024

This year will see multiple important elections, including European Parliament elections and a US presidential election. James Dennison and Alexander Kustov examine what role immigration might play in these contests.

Major elections in 2024 in the United States, United Kingdom, European Union and India have all already been framed, to some extent, in the language of migration and border crises. But what do these electorates think about immigration and how should we expect that to affect these elections?

Stable and psychologically embedded attitudes

First, there is little to suggest that public attitudes to immigration are becoming more negative. Several of our studies over the last decade have shown that, at least in Europe and the United States, attitudes to immigration – in terms of policy preferences and perceived effects – are largely stable at the national level. This reflects much of what we know about how such attitudes are formed. The most impactful causes of attitudes to immigration tend to be early-life socialisation, psychological predispositions and the individual’s broader political outlook. In short, things that do not change quickly or easily. Indeed, strategic and persuasive communication on immigration tends to be most effective when appealing to and working with its audience’s deeper predispositions – for example, in terms of personal values – rather than against them or by “preaching to the choir”.

Second, the modest changes we have seen over the last decade have been a move towards positivity. This runs contrary to the expectation that the greater success of far-right forces could prompt citizens to hold more anti-immigration beliefs. We find, instead, that the greater success of radical right parties has had a positive effect on immigration attitudes, reflecting negative partisanship, polarisation and a desire to reemphasise antiprejudice norms, which we call a “reverse backlash effect”. In short, immigration attitudes were modestly affected because deeper preexisting biases – societal stigma against the radical right and their key messages – were activated, rather than changed. Similarly, there is some evidence that the influx of Ukrainian refugees to Europe positively affected attitudes to other refugee groups, such as Somalis and Afghans. By contrast, we show elsewhere that the COVID-19 pandemic, which had been feared to be a potential cause of anti-foreigner feeling, had no consistent effect on public attitudes in the US or Europe.

Immigration salience: volatile, complex and normal

Third, while attitudes to immigration are stable, the perceived importance of immigration has and will continue to determine the success of the radical right. As a, typically shrinking, proportion of the population comes to see immigration as the most important issue affecting their country, they start to determine their political behaviour – including party choice – according to their immigration views. Notably, no other issues, such as crime or terrorism, affect the radical right vote share in this way. Just as importantly, those who see immigration as the most important issue are disproportionately likely to be anti-immigration. As such we do not see pro-immigration parties that are analogous to the radical right.

Fourth, the sources of immigration importance or “salience” are complex but politicians’ ability to affect it for their own benefit – even when in government – is tightly constrained. Vital to this is the ordinal wording – “most important issue” – of the question, which is designed to reflect the psychological observation that humans can only really prioritise a few issues at a time. This makes the issue importance of immigration highly volatile because it is affected both by immigration-related events, such as flows, “crises”, and politicking, and also the salience of other issues. Indeed, we have found that the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically lowered the public salience of immigration as voters refocused on health and the economy, temporarily hurting the radical right in the process. This is precisely what happened during the great recession and, in southern Europe, the Eurozone crisis. As these crises abated, the radical right was only then able to take advantage of various “border crises”, intermixing with national contexts as shown in Italyand Spain and earlier in the UK, though in each of these cases with dramatic, long-term political effects.

Fifth, often forgotten in studies of immigration attitudes and politics is the overwhelming similarity of these processes to those of other political issues. Indeed, radical left parties and Green parties have similarly benefitted from times of high unemployment and environment salience respectively, buoyed by real-world trends in joblessness and climate change at the expense of social democrat and liberal forces, akin to conservative loses to the far right. Moreover, attitudinal formation across issues is simultaneously dictated by early-life socialisation, psychological predispositions, and broader political outlooks. More consciously, attitudes – on immigration like other issues – are formed by an inseparable mix of cognitive and emotive processes, with the latter having involuntary physiological effects. Global transformations and crises, to issues including and beyond immigration, similarly excite threat.

The 2024 elections

Looking ahead, the extent to which immigration affects these elections is less contingent on public attitudes as a whole, but rather on the complex forces that dictate the importance of the issue relative to other issues. Importantly, it is not just about the media discourse or how people talk about immigration. Sudden changes in the political landscape, policy adjustments, and external events, including economic downturns or significant increases in refugee numbers, can all affect the profile of immigration issues. Ironically, radical right success is often the luxury of national-level economic well-being, as voters can afford to be preoccupied by non-economic issues like immigration, like north-western Europeans during 2015-16, often ultimately at their own eventual expense.

This is not to say that all is well with immigration attitudes. Indeed, whereas topline survey figures of more banal questions suggest national-level stability or even positivity, more intricate and even extreme narratives on immigration such as the so-called Great Replacement Theory, underscored by widespread fears of migration leading to social conflict, threaten to excite not only electoral behaviour but extra-parliamentary political behaviour, including violence. Immigration will increasingly at least make up the background noise of politics, even when it doesn’t enjoy the spotlight. This may make the issue of immigration at the 2024 elections begin to split, as more informed and exposed voters are able to cognitively and emotionally treat the topic as several distinct sub-issues in terms of, for example, regularity, mode of entry, and reason for entry. If so, politicians most able to reflect this in their rhetoric and policies will be best positioned to capitalise.

About the Authors

James Dennison is a Part-time Professor in the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute.

Alexander Kustov is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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