From a Distance: Geographic Proximity, Partisanship, and Public Attitudes toward the U.S.–Mexico Border Wall

Date01 September 2020
Published date01 September 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2020, Vol. 73(3) 740 –754
© 2019 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919854135
The wall between the United States and Mexico is not
new. The first piece of the fence between these two coun-
tries came to life a year after the Gadsden Purchase of
1853 (Ganster and Lorey 2008), and today, the wall is a
reality across more than a third of the continental border
between the United States and Mexico. What is different,
however, is that the potential new construction of the wall
has become one of today’s most contentious political
issues. Despite the wall’s prominent place in recent dis-
course, a unique study of the determinants of public opin-
ion toward it, a study taking into account individuals’
partisanship and geographic proximity to the border
itself, has yet to emerge.
Indeed, an abundance of literature deals with the link
between the border wall and public opinion, but it does so
only indirectly through topics such as national security,
border policing, or illegal immigration as a component of
the “war on terror” (Adamson 2006; Andreas 2009;
Gravelle 2018; Lebowitz and Podheiser 2002; Spencer
2008). At first glance, this gap is surprising. After all,
immigration-related issues are highly partisan and, in
case of the wall, have clear, geographically bounded
impacts. Whereas the vast majority of studies includes
party identification as a control variable, it has “not been
a central feature in research on immigration attitudes”
(Hainmueller and Hopkins 2014, 237), although there are
some notable exceptions (Branton et al. 2007; Gravelle
2016; Hawley 2011; Hopkins 2018). It is also surprising
that given the definite location and impact(s) that the wall
has on the lives of border residents, the treatment of geo-
graphic distance remains atheoretical (Enos 2017;
Hopkins 2018). It is of central importance, therefore, to
ask whether partisanship, geographic distance, and their
interaction condition public attitudes toward the border
wall, even in an era of social media and the 24/7 news
Using geocoded data from a 2017 national representa-
tive survey, I show that self-identified Republicans
(including partisan leaners) far away from the border
(i.e., those who do not live at the border, more than 100
miles away) are more likely to support building the wall
with Mexico than Republicans living in closer proximity
to it, even after controlling for traditional predictors of
attitudes toward immigration-related issues, such as
income, education, race/ethnicity, place of birth, age, sex,
Mexican-descent percentage of the county population,
levels of crime to control for contextual effects associated
854135PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919854135Political Research QuarterlyCortina
1University of Houston, TX, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jeronimo Cortina, Department of Political Science, Center for
Mexican American Studies, University of Houston, 3553 Cullen
Boulevard Room 323, Houston, TX 77204-3001, USA.
From a Distance: Geographic Proximity,
Partisanship, and Public Attitudes
toward the U.S.–Mexico Border Wall
Jeronimo Cortina1
The wall along the U.S.–Mexico border has become one of the most controversial issues in the immigration debate.
Although the American public is often aligned with partisan predispositions, often ignored is the role that geographic
distance to the border plays in forming attitudes. This paper explores the role of proximity, partisanship, and their
interaction as determinants of public attitudes toward the border wall. This paper argues that geographic distance has
two effects on public attitudes: as a catalyst for direct contact and as a dynamic filter that shapes how people process
information and understand a particular place or policy. Using geocoded survey data from 2017, this paper shows that
as the distance to the U.S.–Mexico border increases, Republicans are more likely to support building a wall along the
entire border with Mexico due to a lack of direct contact, supplanting direct information with partisan beliefs.
border wall, geographic distance, public opinion

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