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Chris Christie Busts a Move on Immigration

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What it Means for the 2016 Presidential Campaign, Immigration Reform and the Politics of Immigration 

Potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate and current New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed his state’s version of the DREAM Act into law yesterday.  Already, some observers are trying to assess the political implications for Christie’s potential presidential run, including how a pro-reform stance might play in early primary and caucus states.  Here are three key reminders about the politics of immigration in regards to Chris Christie and 2016 speculation:

1.      Republican primary voters are more pro-reform and practical and on immigration than often assumed.  Poll after poll of likely Republican caucus-goers in Iowa during the 2012 cycle found that the state’s Republican electorate was more pro-reform than conventional wisdom suggested – in fact, they preferred the Newt Gingrich “let undocumented immigrants apply for legal status” approach over Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” approach.  Even in the congressional district of anti-immigrant extremist Rep. Steve King (R-IA), a strong majority of voters, including Republicans, back immigration reform with an “earned pathway to citizenship” per polling released last year from the conservative American Action Network.  In addition to Iowa, immigration consistently ranked lowest on the list of 2012 Republican primary and caucus-goers’ voting issues in nearly every Republican primary exit poll.

2.      Lessons from Mitt Romney – hardline primary stances destroy Republicans’ general election chances. In large part due to the hardline immigration stances he adopted during the primary season, Mitt Romney lost Latino voters to President Obama by an historic 75%-23% margin during the 2012 general election.  In a post-election forum held by the Harvard University Institute of Politics after the 2012 cycle, former Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades admitted that the candidate’s hard-right tack on immigration during the primary was a mistake.  This past November, even Mitt Romney acknowledged his campaign’s failings with Latino voters and endorsed some variety of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.  Read America’s Voice’s post-election memo for more on immigration and the 2012 cycle.

3.      A GOP candidate’s pro-reform stance won’t be enough to overcome the party’s damaged brand if the House GOP ends up blocking immigration reform: Republicans’ future White House prospects may hinge on a matter entirely outside the control of Chris Christie and other potential 2016 contenders – namely, whether House Republicans decide to block immigration reform this Congress.  As Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said last year on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “if we don’t pass immigration reform, if we don’t get it off the table in a reasonable, practical way, it doesn’t matter who you run in 2016.  We’re in a demographic death spiral as a party and the only way we can get back in good graces with the Hispanic community in my view is pass comprehensive immigration reform.  If you don’t do that, it really doesn’t matter who we run.”  Similarly, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) said to National Journal’s Fawn Johnson, “My theory is that we can win in 2014 without resolving it.  We can’t win in 2016 without resolving it.”

According to Frank Sharry of America’s Voice:

Governor Christie has made a bold move.  He is betting that GOP primary voters will see him as a general election candidate who can attract Latino votes, and that, should he become the nominee, Latino voters in key swing states will see him as a different kind of Republican.  But as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) learned the hard way, a GOP nominee with a pro-reform stance can be overwhelmed by the ‘R’ next to their name.  If the GOP blocks immigration reform in the run up to 2016, it will further tarnish the GOP’s brand, and its reputation as an anti-immigrant and anti-Latino party will put even the strongest of nominees in a deep hole with the fastest growing groups of voters the country.