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GOP Candidates Have Lurched Right on Immigration Reform; GOP Voters Haven’t

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Ron Brownstein on Republican Voters in Three Early 2016 Primary States: Support for Legal Status for Undocumented Immigrants Not Much of a Deal-Breaker

The narrative runs something like this: GOP presidential candidates are moving right on immigration reform because the GOP base has moved right; sure, there may be some support among Republican voters for a practical approach to the presence of 11 million undocumented immigrants in America, but anti-immigrant voters dominate and pro-reform voters are in the minority.

True or not?

Without question, the GOP field is moving right on immigration.  Scott Walker has staked out a position to Mitt Romney’s right.  Marco Rubio opposes an approach to reform he once championed.  Chris Christie sayscitizenship for immigrants is “extreme.”  Jeb Bush now says that comprehensive immigration reform, which he supports, can only come once we’ve secured the border first – an excuse for inaction and a concession to the far right that likely translates into ‘moving goalposts forever’ and ‘comprehensive immigration reform never.’

But have Republican voters caused this shift by moving right on immigration reform as well?  No, according to recent polling conducted by a firm headed by Katie Packer Gage, Mitt Romney’s 2012 Deputy Campaign Director.  Gage recently wrote a much-discussed piece entitled, “Don’t Repeat Mitt Romney’s Mistake on Immigration.”  The column noted that “GOP nominees chasing the relatively small group of anti-immigration primary voters – and giving opponents ammunition to portray them as anti-immigration – risk alienating 24 percent more voters in a general election than they attract.”  In fact, evidence of a more pragmatic view by GOP primary voters was evident in the 2012 cycle, as seen in a series of polls of likely Republican caucus-goers in Iowa in late 2011.

Yesterday, Ron Brownstein of National Journal dug into the numbers to assess early primary and caucus state Republicans’ views on immigration reform, especially on the key question: what should we do with 11 million undocumented immigrants settled in America?  The research finds that these GOP voters are more pragmatic, pro-immigrant, and open to permanent legal status or citizenship solutions for undocumented immigrants than conventional political wisdom suggests, and that the number of hardliners in the party is much smaller than many believe.

Here are excerpts from the Brownstein column:

“Most Republicans in the key early 2016 states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina support allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. and earn citizenship or permanent legal status, newly released surveys by a GOP polling firm for a pro-immigration group has found.

…The Burning Glass surveys found that when asked to choose among the three major options for dealing with the undocumented population, most Republicans across all three of the critical early states supported some form of legal status.

In Iowa, the poll found, 38 percent of Republicans said the undocumented ‘should be allowed to stay in the U.S., and, after meeting requirements like a background check, and paying fines, they should eventually be allowed to apply for citizenship.’ Similarly, 37 percent of New Hampshire Republicans, and 41 percent of those in South Carolina backed citizenship under those conditions.

Another 25 percent of Republicans in Iowa, 22 percent in New Hampshire and 16 percent in South Carolina said that undocumented immigrants, after meeting those conditions, ‘should eventually be allowed to stay in the U.S. legally, but not be eligible for citizenship.’

Only a minority of Republicans in each state–29 percent in Iowa, 34 percent in New Hampshire, and 37 percent in South Carolina–said the undocumented ‘should be required to leave the U.S.’

…The poll also suggests that support for legal status may not be as much of a ‘deal-breaker’ as widely assumed, even among voters who oppose it. The pollsters reported that only 17 percent of GOP voters in Iowa, 18 percent in South Carolina and 20 percent in New Hampshire indicated that they both opposed any legal status and could not support a candidate who did. And, Gage said, the poll indicated that most of those immigration hardliners are already locked into the most conservative candidates, particularly Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and not available to contenders with a more centrist message whatever their position on immigration. Supporting legalization ‘is not a deal breaker for the large majority of Republican primary voters and caucus goers,’ she said. ‘And number two, the voters for whom this is the most important issue are probably not available to you [anyway] so catering to them is not a sound strategy.’

Turning to the general election, the poll found that nearly three-fourths of adults surveyed across ten battleground states supported either citizenship or legal status for the undocumented, while only 22 percent would require them to leave the U.S. Support for legal status rose to 85 percent among adults younger than 34, 79 percent among college white men, 77 percent among college white women, and 75 percent among moderates. Even 67 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of self-identified conservatives in those states said they would back some legal status.

Given those attitudes, Gage argued, if the eventual GOP nominee adopts a hard-core position against legal status- especially if delivered with harsh rhetoric-the party will face a ‘very risky’ equation in the general election. ‘The fact is if that’s the direction that they should go to win the primary, we just won’t the general,’ she predicted flatly. ‘That’s the fact.’”

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “Even though a majority of Republican primary voters support the legalization of undocumented immigrants, a loud-but-not-large minority in the GOP – comprised of a sliver of GOP voters, a handful of far-right media outlets, and a relatively small group of Congressional extremists – now define the party as anti-immigrant and anti-Latino.  Even the nominally pro-reform candidates – with the exception of Lindsey Graham – are sliding right.  Simply put, the GOP brand has been severely damaged because its leaders and its leading presidential candidates have let the anti-immigrant tail wag the GOP dog.”