Donald Trump floated the proposal two-and-a-half months ago with all the careful deliberation of a Fox News comment section troll: Maybe, in the wake of husband-and-wife jihadists shooting up a holiday party in San Bernardino, California, the United States should just ban Muslims.
The suggestion was so unapologetically xenophobic and so absurdly contrary to the melting-pot, huddled-masses spirit of America that it seemed destined, once the headlines died down, to echo feebly through the small, dank corners of American politics. The first four contests in the Republican presidential primary, three of which have gone to Trump, provided evidence that the fringe occupied by the real estate mogul-cum-reality TV star might not be so fringe after all.
In South Carolina, where Trump skated to victory with a third of the vote, nearly three in four Republican primary voters supported a Trump-style ban on Muslims, albeit with pollsters adding the caveat that the ban would apply only to non-citizens. And, it seems, what's true in South Carolina is also true in Texas. According to a Texas Tribune/University of Texas poll published Thursday, a plurality (46 percent) of all registered voters in Texas — not just those likely to vote in the Republican primary — support a ban on foreign Muslims. Forty-one percent of voters oppose such a ban. The remaining 13 percent somehow have no opinion.
It's hard to gauge whether the number of Texans who favor banning Muslims has spiked because it wasn't a question that pollsters really thought to ask until Trump floated the idea in December. But Emily Farris, a political scientist at TCU, thinks that the underlying sentiment is the same that motivates a majority of Texans (53 percent according to the UT/Tribune poll) to favor rounding up and deporting undocumented immigrants, as Trump rival Ted Cruz has recently taken to suggesting.
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Public opinion on "sanctuary cities" that don't actively enforce federal immigration laws hasn't really budged since the Legislature tackled the issue in 2011; Farris expects the same to be true of Texans' feelings toward Muslims. "It's probably a pretty consistent pattern," she says.
If there is a difference between then and now, it's that Trump is much less circumspect than any candidate in memory in his appeals to the electorate's baser instincts. "I think one of the things we are seeing with Donald Trump is he is reinvigorating what we would call explicit appeals to ethnocentricim," Farris says. In the past, candidates have tapped into anxieties about race and immigration with coded language: the dog whistles. So Ronald Reagan could rile voters by referencing the extravagance of the "Welfare Queen" without explicitly mentioning race. Trump doesn't bother with such niceties.
It's curious, then, given Trump's unmatched success tapping into these sentiments, that he's consistently trailed Cruz in polls in Texas. There are signs, however, that Cruz's edge won't last. "The latest polls I've seen show Cruz and Trump within the margin of error," Farris says, though "Trump's supporters have been a little bit hard to predict in terms of turnout."
Everything will become much clearer on Tuesday.