With a few notable exceptions, the 2016 GOP field has lurched right on immigration. Scott Walker talks about 11 million people having to go back to their countries of origin. Chris Christie calls granting citizenship to immigrants “extreme.” Marco Rubio speaks out of both sides of his mouth, trying to cover up his betrayal of a cause he once fought for. All of the leading contenders – including Jeb Bush – repeat the vacuous mantra “secure the border first” as a way of pandering to the base and signaling comprehensive immigration reform never while pretending to be open to a reform approach favored by the vast majority of Americans. And yesterday, the newest GOP candidate, Donald Trump, made racist remarks about Mexicans – and not one GOP competitor denounced him for it. In short, the GOP seems hell-bent on cementing its reputation as anti-Latino and anti-immigrant.
It is against this backdrop that an important piece by a leading Republican campaign operative is a must read. In Politico Magazine, Mitt Romney’s 2012 Deputy Campaign Manager Katie Packer Gage writes a piece titled, “Don’t Repeat Mitt Romney’s Mistake on Immigration,”which we excerpt below:
“As deputy campaign manager of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid, I saw first-hand how the rhetoric on immigration during the GOP primary, from all of the candidates, painted our party in a negative light and came back to bite us in the general election. Sunday on ‘Meet the Press,’” Gov. Romney acknowledged that it was a mistake to not focus ‘early on minority voters.’ Due in part to that, the unfortunate outcome was that Romney won just 27 percent of the Latino vote.
New research from my firm, Burning Glass Consulting, proves that a taking hard-line position on immigration loses a Republican candidate more votes in the general election than it wins him or her in the GOP primaries.
We recently conducted extensive opinion research, surveying likely Republican voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and likely general election voters in 10 swing states, like Colorado and Florida. We also conducted focus groups with both groups of voters.
What we found is 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.
Using harsh rhetoric that defines anything short of deportation as ‘amnesty’ — without any plan for real immigration reform — may receive applause at a town hall meeting in Concord, New Hampshire, or a house party in Cedar Rapids. Iowa. And it may be popular with a small number of GOP primary voters and conservative talking heads, but it doesn’t win the hearts of the majority of primary voters and it alienates critical general election constituencies
… It is true that there is a group of strident, anti-immigrant voters in early GOP primary states, but this group is not nearly as large as portrayed. Just 17 percent of Republicans in Iowa, 18 percent in South Carolina and 20 percent in New Hampshire are hard-line voters who want mass deportations and consider anything less than that to be a deal-breaker.
In contrast, at least six out of 10 Republicans in these early states want immigration reform with a pathway to legal status for the undocumented population.
Furthermore, 53 percent of general election voters from key swing states would be less likely to vote for a candidate they viewed as anti-immigration. That dwarfs the 29 percent of likely general election voters who would be more likely to vote for an anti-immigration candidate.
We explored the issue further with focus groups, and while early-state GOP voters want to see real criminals who enter this country illegally sent home, most want hardworking immigrants who are here illegally to have a chance to come clean, get straight with the law and become productive taxpayers like the rest of us. As one participant noted, if someone can prove a decade of gainful employment and their “criminal background is clean, you know you have a skill or a trade, you speak English, I have no problem with them being citizens because, to me, we need more citizens that are productive.”
…Voters under age 35 and college-educated white women are most turned off by the hottest anti-immigrant rhetoric. Since Hillary Clinton has the clearest path to the Democratic nomination, Republicans can’t afford to surrender a single vote in these groups, which President Barack Obama won handily, without a fight. They will be pivotal to winning the White House next year.
The numbers don’t lie. To grow our party — and win the White House in November 2016 and beyond — Republican candidates need to resist the temptation to characterize one another as soft on immigration.
Instead, they should stake out specific, realistic, pro-immigration reform plans that demonstrate to all voters the Republican Party’s commitment to making the American Dream a reality for all.”