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Conventional Wisdom Wrong Again: Immigration Is Not “Third Rail” Issue for GOP Voters

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gingrichDespite many pundits and commentators saying that Newt Gingrich would face a primary campaign backlash over his immigration comments, several new polls show that likely Republican caucus-goers in Iowa are less uniformly hard-line and less animated by the issue of illegal immigration than conventional wisdom would suggest – just like Republicans throughout the nation.  

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:

These polls show that much of the conventional wisdom about how immigration plays with conservative voters in states like Iowa is simply wrong.  Many in the political class seem to think that conservatives are uniformly in favor of mass deportation, and that the slightly more humane views of Newt Gingrich will disqualify him in much the same way, they claim, as Rick Perry’s position undocumented immigrants attending state schools in Texas seemed to doom him.  Well, while Newt’s candidacy may still go off the rails, it won’t be because of his immigration position.  In fact, his numbers seem to keep going up.  Regarding Rick Perry, I think it’s safe to say his fall had less to do with his immigration position than it had to do with his failure to meet basic standards of competency in the eyes of many voters.

Among the key findings in recent polls:

Washington-Post/ABC News: Iowa Caucus-Goers Largely Support Gingrich on Immigration:  A new Washington Post-ABC News poll of likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers finds that likely participants trust Gingrich the MOST on immigration, that the candidate’s recent immigration discussion has not harmed him and may have actually helped his candidacy in Iowa.  The poll finds, “On immigration — where Gingrich and Romney squared off in a recent debate — 27 percent trust Gingrich the most to Romney’s 8 percent, with Perry and Paul in between, at 18 and 13 percent, respectively.”  The poll also asked likely caucus-goers their specific reaction to “Newt Gingrich’s position on illegal immigration,” finding that for 38 percent it was a “major reason to support” Gingrich compared to only 15 percent for whom it was a “major reason to oppose.” Immigration also ranked low among the most important issues for caucus-goers, as only 3% of likely participants ranked immigration as their top issue.  By comparison, 38 percent of likely caucus-goers named “economy and jobs,” 28 percent named “federal budget deficit,” and 15% named “social issues like abortion and gay marriage.” 

Public Policy Polling: Gingrich’s Limited Immigration Stance Fairly Popular and Not a Top ConcernPublic Policy Polling (PPP) released their own new poll of Iowa Republican caucus-goers and found, that there was “not much evidence that Gingrich’s immigration stance will prove to be an issue.  Only 29% of caucus voters think illegal immigrants who have been in the country for 25 years and paid their taxes and obeyed the law should be deported, to 44% who think they should not be.  Something may sink Newt’s campaign in the next month, but it’s not likely to be that issue.”  Like the Post/ABC poll, PPP also found that immigration was far from a driving force for Republican caucus-goers, as only 3 percent ranked “illegal immigration” as their most important issue when deciding their vote.  In comparison, 43 percent named “government spending, reducing the debt,” 27 percent “jobs/economy,” 9 percent “social issues,” and 4 percent “taxes.”

Selzer and Company Iowa Caucus Polling: Immigration Lower on Caucus-Goers’ Critical Issues Scale:  New polling conducted for the Partnership for a New American Economy by Iowa-based pollsters Selzer & Co. found that “likely caucus-goers in Iowa support legal immigration reform and rank illegal immigration as a lower priority than most other issues polled.”  Though the poll showed concern among Iowans about the issue of illegal immigration and support for a variety of enforcement measures, it did not specifically explore support for a path to legalization or citizenship or ask about voters’ support for the specific candidates’ immigration platforms.  Like the other two polls, the Selzer & Co. poll also showed that immigration isn’t the driving force for Republican voters that some portray it as: 46% labeled “Halting Illegal Immigration” as “critical,” 27% as “important,” and 16% as “somewhat important.”  Comparatively, immigration ranked much lower on the “critical” scale than such issues as “Reforming government spending and debt” (85% labeled as “critical”), “Creating jobs in the U.S.” (70% “critical”), “Encouraging the creation of new businesses in the U.S.” (64% “critical”), and “Reforming taxes” (52% “critical”).  The remainder of the poll showed broad support for a range of proposals designed to increase legal immigration.

Another poll of “Likely Republican Caucus goers” in Iowa released today by The New York Times and CBS “found that [Gingrich] is winning support from 31 percent of likely caucusgoers, who rate him as the most empathetic, the strongest commander in chief and best prepared for the job by a 2-to-1 ratio. Mr. Romney had the support of 17 percent and Mr. Paul 16 percent.” 

According to Sharry:

Immigration just isn’t the defining, third rail issue for Republican voters that many have claimed.  As a result, it’s hard to see the political benefit of tacking to the extreme right on the issue in the primary season, in the manner of Mitt Romney.  Not only does that fly in the face of what these new polls suggest for Republican voters’ preference and concerns, but it also ensures a general election stance that alienates Latino and immigrant voters while not resounding with the vast majority of Americans.  While the issue isn’t a mobilizing one for conservative primary voters, it remains a defining issue for Latino voters poised to impact the 2012 race in a number of battleground states.

Washington columnist for the Los Angeles Times Doyle McManus recently captured the illogical immigration stance of many in the Republican field, writing of their primary season tack to the right, “there’s a flaw in this approach.  To begin with, it’s not what American voters are asking for, not even the bulk of Republican voters….this is an issue on which most Republican voters are more sensible than their candidates.”