When Trump took office, Republicans’ most important issue was the economy. Now, it’s immigration.

Linley SandersData Journalist
August 27, 2019, 4:00 PM GMT+0

President Donald Trump has seemingly changed the top priority of the Republican party.

At the time Trump was getting ready to move into the White House and Barack Obama was getting ready to leave, the economy ranked as the most important political issue to Republicans. Nearly a quarter (23%) chose it as their top issue from a list of 15 categories measured by The Economist/YouGov that includes abortion, taxes, terrorism, the war in Afghanistan, and the budget deficit.

Now, Republicans appear to care most about immigration, but that didn’t happen overnight.

The Rise of Republicans Focusing on Immigration

The economy remained a top issue for Republicans during much of Trump’s first two years in office. Terrorism briefly eclipsed the economy around May 2017 around the same time as attacks in France and England, including a suicide bomber targetting an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester. Concern for terrorism subsided, however, and the economy regained its standing as Republicans’ top issue and it remained the focus of 2018—until the Midterm elections.

Trump emphasized hardline immigration rhetoric during his successful presidential run, but it was around the lead-up to the Midterm elections that it became a stronger talking point among Republican candidates. Immigration began to rise as a “top issue” for Republicans in January 2018 (14%), and that it became the second most-important-issue in March 2018 (16%) and finally topped the list in July 2018 (21%).

Headed toward a Midterm battle, Trump set the narrative that immigration was the issue of his presidency. In early November he made it clear: “If you don’t want America to be overrun by masses of illegal immigrants and massive caravans, you better vote Republican.” A quarter (26%) of Republicans agreed—going into the 2018 elections, it was their top issue, too.

Now in August 2019, more than a quarter of Republicans (28%) say immigration is their most pressing issue, and it overshadows the economy (16%), social security (10%), terrorism (9%), and health care (8%).

Click to Enlarge

Republicans stand alone on naming immigration their top political issue. Among Democrats, Independents and politically unaffiliated Americans, the top issues are health care (21%), the environment (17%), and social security (12%). In this group, immigration is the top concern of just 7% of people.

Healthcare remains the issue of Democrats

The issue of healthcare has only grown in importance to Democrats throughout the Trump presidency—though, it's been number one nearly the entire time. When Obama handed the reins to Trump, 21% of Democrats named healthcare as their most important issue. It was closely followed by social security (19%), the economy (13%), and the environment (13%).

More than a quarter (27%) of Democrats listed healthcare as their top issue in October 2017, around the same time Trump signed an executive order to end subsidies to health insurance companies that help pay out-of-pocket medical costs for low-income Americans. Right around the Midterm elections, the emphasis on healthcare hit 29 percent among Democrats as their candidates made it a focal point of their campaigns—sharply contrasting Republican emphasis on immigration.

This year, as the Trump administration continued to roll back environmental regulations, the environment also increased in issue importance to Democrats. It has moved from the number four spot to the number two spot among Democrats, surpassing the economy and social security.

To date, a quarter of Democrats (25%) say health care is their top political issue, and it overshadows the environment (20%), social security (10%), and the economy (10%). And while Democrats prioritize health care more than other key groups, it’s the declared top issue of Black Americans (22%), women (19%), and registered voters (18%).

Click to Enlarge

Independents care about healthcare, but immigration is surging

One in five Independents (20%) cared most about social security when Trump took office. Now, the top issue is healthcare (15%)—though, the number who consider it the most important issue has remained relatively stable. For the purposes of this analysis, Independents are those who purely consider themselves Independents, not lean Republicans or lean Democrats.

Healthcare narrow beats out immigration (14%) as these Independents’ top issue, but immigration has surged in importance during the Trump presidency. Immigration was viewed as a top priority for just 3% of Independents when Trump was elected, and it’s reached 14% during his tenure.

Click to Enlarge

There are a few other subgroups that are torn between healthcare and immigration, like Hispanic Americans. Healthcare was the top issue for nearly one-fourth (24%) of Hispanics in January 2017, but it plummeted to 14 percent by July 2019 and is tied with immigration (14%) and the economy (14%).

Related: Do Americans like when Trump tweets Fake News?

Methodology: Total unweighted sample size was 225,650 US adults, which contained 86,672 Democrats and adults who lean Democratic, 64,739 Republicans and adults who lean Republican, and 74,239 Independents. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all US adults (ages 18+). Interviews were conducted online between January 2017 through August 2019. Respondents were asked the question: “Which of these is the most important issue for you?” The answer choices were: the economy, immigration, the environment, terrorism, gay rights, education, health care, social security, the budget deficit, the war in Afghanistan, taxes, medicare, abortion, foreign policy, and gun control.

Sign up to be a member of the YouGov panel and see more from our Economist/YouGov data.

Image: Getty