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Immigration in the 2016 Elections: Two Parties, Two States, One Big Takeaway

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As Democrats Lean Into Immigration and Energize Latino Voters, Republicans’ Hardline Immigration Stance Poses General Election Problems

Immigration continues to be a major issue in both parties’ presidential primary contests, with leading candidates of both parties tacking in the exact opposite direction. While the two presidential races are starkly different contests, it is already clear that the handling of immigration in both races is likely to harm the GOP and help Democrats in the general election.

In South Carolinanetwork exit polling of the state’s Republican primary voters found that immigration ranked a distant fourth of the four issues tested – just 10% of GOP voters in SC ranked immigration as the top issue, ranking the issue far behind “terrorism” (32%), “economy/jobs” (29%), and “government spending” (26%). This was the third consecutive Republican primary/caucus state in which immigration ranked far and away as the lowest priority issue tested (see similar results in Iowa and New Hampshire Republican entrance/exit polling). Additionally, the SC exit pollsfound that a majority of SC Republican primary voters preferred offering undocumented immigrants “a chance to apply for legal status” (53% of respondents) instead of deportation (44%). Republican exit polling in New Hampshire also asked this question (which was not asked in Iowa) and similarly found majority support for legalization among NH GOP voters (56%-41% support for legalization).

So how to reconcile these numbers with Donald Trump’s open nativism and runaway victories in both SC and NH? Clearly, Trump has been animating the vocal anti-immigrant contingent of the Republican primary audience – a population that is more likely to list immigration as their top voting issue compared to the pro-legalization Republican voters. But the volume of the anti-immigrant campaigning among Republican field masks the fact that a majority of the GOP primary electorate is not obsessed with this issue the way the candidates seem to be, and even on policy they demonstrate some diversity of opinion.  As well, the general electorate as a whole still strongly supports policiesallowing undocumented immigrants to stay legally over deportation-focused approaches. So while Trump and the other leading GOP contenders’ hardline immigration stances may not hurt them in the primary, they are wildly at odds with a general election audience, as Mitt Romney discovered in 2012.

In the Nevada Democratic caucuses, immigration and Latino voter engagement were huge topics in Hillary Clinton’s narrow victory over Bernie Sanders. While there is some debate and confusion about Latino voters’ level of support for each candidate based on weaknesses in the methodology of entrance polls, there is no doubt that immigration and other high-priority issues for Latino voters were front and center in the contest.  For example, Politico’s Mike Allen highlighted in his daily “Playbook” political tip-sheet that “a game-changer” for the Clinton campaign “was the 1-min. ad, ‘Brave,’ capturing a moment between Hillary and a little girl at a DREAMers event in Vegas last Sunday. The ad was in heavy rotation for final three days.”

The fact that both Democratic candidates “leaned in” on immigration helped to energize Latinos to participate in the caucuses and will benefit the eventual Democratic nominee in the general election. As Elise Foley recapped in HuffPost, regardless of the exact candidate preference breakdown among Latino voters, “the high Latino turnout in the state bodes well for a Democratic nominee come the general election. Latinos made up 19 percent of the caucus-goers, according to the polls — an even higher proportion than during the 2008 Democratic caucuses, when they made up about 15 percent. That figure could decide the general election in November, when either Clinton or Sanders would stand to benefit from a large turnout of Latino voters.”  Additionally, with the GOP’s anti-immigrant circus now moving to Nevada ahead of the state’s impending Republican caucuses, the two parties’ stark contrasts on immigration could pose trouble for the Republican brand in likely down-ballot battleground races in the state – such as the Senate contest to replace the retiring Harry Reid.

According to Frank Sharry, the Executive Director of America’s Voice, “The two parties’ contrasting stances on immigration, brought into sharp relief during this weekend’s contests in Nevada and South Carolina, capture a larger storyline that poses real trouble for the Republicans’ general election chances. The GOP field continues to fight for the small and shrinking segment of the general electorate that is anti-immigrant, while alienating immigrant and ethnic voters that are the fastest growing cohort of voters in America. Yes, the primary season is mesmerizing. But the general election is just around the corner and, while Democrats reach out to the changing American electorate, the Republicans find themselves in a political cul-de-sac fighting it out over a populist minority within their own party.”