Surprise! Massachusetts Democrats don’t want to abolish ICE.

Follow Twitter trends and cable news discussion, and you’d think the Democratic base was all-in on the idea of abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Indeed, even national polling seemed to show Democrats headed in that direction, with a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll finding Democrats support abolishing ICE (43 percent) over keeping it (34 percent). Trump himself tweeted “Democrats want Open Borders and they want to abolish ICE”, one of four tweets he has sent on the issue since late June.

But a pair of Massachusetts polls tell a very different story about the 15-year-old agency responsible for enforcing immigration laws, among other things.

Democratic primary polls in the Massachusetts 3rd and 7th Congressional Districts both find likely voters in these contests would prefer to reform ICE rather than abolishing it altogether, and by quite a wide margin. The reform option was not included in the POLITICO poll, which offered the options of either keeping ICE or getting rid of it. This helps explain why more Democrats favored abolishing it in that poll. By only offering respondents a choice between opposing or supporting the abolishment of ICE, the POLITICO/Morning Consult poll flattens the issue.

But these polls show the Democratic base, as in voters who show up for congressional primaries, in a different place. The 7th District, where incumbent Congressman Michael Capuano faces a challenge from Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, is the deepest blue district in a dark blue state. Indeed, it is one of the most Democratic districts in the nation in terms of voting patterns for President and other offices. Even here, our poll for WBUR found 64 percent of Democratic primary voters want to reform ICE, just 21 percent would prefer to see it abolished, and 8 percent would keep it as is.

A new poll of likely voters in the 3rd Congressional District Democratic primary shows a similar pattern. The UMass Lowell / Boston Globe poll found 71 percent would prefer reform, 9 percent say ICE should be abolished, and 13 percent think it’s fine the way it is. Among Latino voters in the poll, 19 percent say it should be abolished, while 71 percent opt for reform. And it’s not a pressing issue to voters overall - only 4 percent of respondents say immigration is the most important issue facing their district.

These results may seem surprising given the national furor over ICE after the agency was involved in separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border. Thousands of people turned out in June for a rally in Boston against migrant family separation, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey and Representative Joe Kennedy. A number of Massachusetts officials and candidates have called for an overhaul of ICE, although only Representative Jim McGovern has called for it to be abolished.

The rest of the delegation has issued statements that live somewhere between reform and abolishment, with some blurring of the lines. Senator Elizabeth Warren called for “replacing ICE with something that reflects our values,” while Senator Ed Markey said it should be “dismantled and reconstructed.”

Practically, there is significant overlap in reforming the agency, dismantling and reconstructing it, or abolishing it. Many of the functions of ICE would continue to exist whether they live under the same agency or placed somewhere else in the government. Even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most ardent proponents of abolishing ICE said that “doesn’t mean get rid of our immigration policy, but what it does mean is to get rid of the draconian enforcement that has happened since 2003 that routinely violates our civil rights.”

This is also an illustration of two key realities of polling. The first is that polling doesn’t always show what you expect. Issues making big waves on cable news don’t always do much for voters. The Twitter perpetual outrage machine was also pointing in the wrong direction as to how most Democrats feel.

Second, different question formats can produce different results. There is nothing wrong with the way the POLITICO poll asked the question. It shows that, just between those two options, Democrats would prefer abolishing ICE. But with a third option, a very different picture emerges. Looking at all of the polling on a given issue can offer more illumination than only looking at the one generating the biggest headlines.

It turns out not that many voters went from anger at ICE to calling for its dismantlement. This may change. The more strongly Donald Trump defends one position, the more Democrats may oppose it. We’ve certainly seen that pattern before. But for now, amidst polarizing commentary and late-night tweets, Massachusetts voters are opting for reform.

By Steve Koczela and Maeve Duggan


Join us at WeWork Beacon Hill (1 Beacon St) on September 5, 6-8 PM, the night after the primary, for a special live, Winner’s Circle Edition of the Horse Race! Your hosts, MPG’s Steve Koczela and Lauren Dezenski of POLITICO Massachusetts, will recap what just happened and look forward to the general election. Click here to RSVP!


This week on the Horse Race, Steve and Lauren welcome former Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray and bring you the latest on the Galvin-Zakim race as each campaign launches attack ads. Plus a call for transparency on Beacon Hill from state Senate-hopeful Becca Rausch and 14 other Democratic women.


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Shoutout to Wikipedia user Phoenix7777 and ACLU staffer Kate Oh for creating and bringing our attention to this mesmerizing graphic. It shows Trump’s tweets over time, plotted by time of day. Around Obama’s second inauguration, everything went haywire.