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GOP's Mishandling of Immigration Could Hurt Party in November

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mitt romney wins arizonaMitt Romney may have won the Arizona primary yesterday, but the Republicans’ mishandling of the immigration issue during the primary season could have serious general election consequences for the GOP.  Romney’s embrace of the immigration policy he calls “self-deportation” and his endorsement of Arizona’s “papers, please” SB1070 as a “model” for the nation are among the most visible examples of the fact that the Republican presidential primary race has tacked to the extreme right on immigration, hurting their chances with Latino voters.  Now, exit polls and other information confirms the fact that it didn’t have to be this way.  Republican voters are actually far more moderate on the immigration issue than the party-line stance would indicate.    

According to exit polls from yesterday’s Arizona primary, a full 63% of Republican primary voters in Arizona disagreed with Romney’s “solution” to undocumented immigration.  Specifically, the Arizona exit polls asked Republican voters what they think would be the “best policy towards illegal immigrants,” finding that a plurality of 36% of Republican primary voters preferred the “apply for citizenship” option, 31% preferred “deport,” while an additional 27% preferred the “stay as temporary workers” option.  This means that over 6/10 Republican voters in Arizona, supposedly the epicenter of anti-immigrant activity, do not share the Party’s dominant and avowed deportation policy goal.  Additionally, only 14% of Republican primary voters in Arizona ranked “illegal immigration” as their top voting issue – well below other issues such as the economy (47% top issue) and the budget deficit (30%), though approximately 10 percentage points higher than in other recent Republican primary states.  

In contrast, Latino voters view immigration reform as a personal, defining issue.  They also support common sense immigration solutions, and Republicans’ positioning on the issue has put this important and growing demographic far out of reach.  In fact, Romney underperformed among the 8% of the Republican primary electorate who identified as Latino, winning support from 38% of these voters in comparison to his overall 47% support in Arizona’s primary.  Latino voters will likely comprise a significantly larger percentage of the Arizona general electorate, which means the GOP’s immigration stance could be the largest factor behind Arizona becoming a presidential battleground state this November.

Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, provided this perspective:

In the presidential contest and in down-ballot races throughout Arizona, the Republican Party’s hardline immigration stance could backfire this November. Keep in mind, the exit poll results are for Republican voters in Arizona – one of the hotbeds of anti-immigrant sentiment.  Yet even here, the deportation approach pushed by Romney and associated with the Republican Party runs straight into a strain of practicality that the GOP’s positioning and rhetoric doesn’t account for.  Come November and unless the GOP amends its ways, this hardline immigration stance will continue to be unpopular among the general public, while likely helping to mobilize Latino voters and drive them toward Democratic candidates.  This will put Arizona more into play than in past presidential cycles, aid down-ballot Democrats in the state, and narrow the Republican nominee’s path to victory in other key Latino-heavy battleground states like Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico.

The Arizona exit polls and a series of other recent studies confirm that Republican voters and the public as a whole have a more nuanced and practical approach to immigration than Romney and his fellow contenders apparently believe.  Additionally, the GOP’s anti-immigrant identity will continue to harm the Party when it comes to the one demographic group actually engaged and mobilized by immigration – Latino voters.  According to recent polling and analysis from Latino Decisions, “Latino voters overwhelmingly oppose SB1070, no matter their state of residence.  Distance from the state and immigrant experience have no bearing.  US and foreign-born Latino voters in Arizona are equally concerned about the potential impact on Latino Americans.”  Specifically, Latino Decisions polling found that 65% of Latino voters in eight states across the nation and 67% of Latino voters in Arizona “strongly oppose” SB1070, with overall opposition running even higher (74% opposition in the eight states vs. only 17% support among Latinos).  Additionally, 53% of Latino voters in the eight states and 60% in Arizona said that perceived anti-Latino sentiment was “the most” or “one of the most” important factors in informing these voters’ decisions to vote – as well as their candidate choices.

NBC’s political team assessed Arizona’s status as a general election battleground state, immigration is a major factor in the state’s newfound status as a presidential battleground:

From vows to veto the DREAM Act to heavy courtship of controversial endorsers like Arizona’s Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, GOP candidates’ language on immigration has prompted public worry from Republican Hispanic groups as well as from party leaders like former Gov. Jeb Bush.  In Arizona, which became ground zero for the immigration debate after its 2010 passage of legislation that would give police broad authority to detain suspected illegal residents, Democrats have a favorite noun to describe Republican rhetoric on the matter. ‘Overreach’…Those working to turn the state blue were thrilled to hear Mitt Romney call Arizona’s stringent SB 1070 immigration measure ‘a model’ for the nation’s policies during a Feb. 22 debate in Mesa. They believe that kind of language — underscored by Romney’s endorsement on Sunday by Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the bill into law — could further mobilize Arizona voters looking for more moderate solutions to the immigration issue.

For more on the politics of immigraiton in Arizona, check out Maribel Hasting’s latest column, Obama’s push to paint Arizona blue.