In Donald Trump, the Republican Party seems on track to nominate a candidate running the most explicitly nativist and anti-immigrant campaign in recent American history. Simultaneously, Republican primary exit polling in state after state is demonstrating that, despite the front-runner’s obsession with this issue, among the electorate it ranks last in a list of four top priorities and in most states GOP primary voters tend to favor legalization of undocumented immigrants over mass deportation.
See below for a rundown of immigration in the Republican primary entrance and exit polls, followed by our take on how to reconcile these results in the face of Trump’s success.
Republican Primary Voters Consistently Support Legalization for Undocumented Immigrants Instead of Deportation: In 8 of the 9 states where Republican primary exit polls asked the question, GOP primary voters supported offering undocumented immigrants “a chance to apply for legal status” instead of mass deportation:
- In Virginia, GOP primary voters supported legalization over deportation by a 59%-36% margin
- In New Hampshire, GOP primary voters supported legalization over deportation by a 56%-41% margin
- In Georgia, GOP primary voters supported legalization over deportation by a 53%-39% margin
- In South Carolina, GOP primary voters supported legalization over deportation by a 53%-44% margin
- In Oklahoma, GOP primary voters supported legalization over deportation by a 50%-47%margin
- In Tennessee, GOP primary voters supported legalization over deportation by a 49%-45%margin
- In Texas, GOP primary voters supported legalization over deportation by a 47%-43% margin
- In Arkansas, GOP primary voters supported legalization over deportation by a 47% – 44% margin
- Alabamawas the lone state where GOP primary voters supported deportation over legalization, by a 50% -45% margin
Republican Primary Voters Consistently Rank Immigration Last Among Top-Priority Issues Tested: In 12 of the 13 states with Republican primary or caucus entrance/exit polls, immigration ranked last in the “what is your most important issue priority” test (behind jobs/economy; government spending; and terrorism).
- In Nevada, immigration ranked 3rdat 20% (terrorism ranked last at 19%)
- In Massachusetts, immigration ranked last at 16%
- In New Hampshire, immigration ranked last at 15%
- In Iowa,immigration ranked last at 13%
- In Alabamaand Vermont, immigration ranked last at 12%
- In South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas, immigration ranked last at 10%
- In Arkansasand Georgia, immigration ranked last at 9%
- In Oklahomaand Virginia, immigration ranked last at 8%
So How To Reconcile Trump’s Success Alongside The Pro-Legalization Exit Poll Findings? The volume of the anti-immigrant campaigning among Republican field masks the fact that the GOP primary electorate is not uniformly anti-legalization, nor are they obsessed with the issue. Clearly, Donald 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 there’s no evidence that Trump’s focus on immigration is changing the minds of formerly pro-reform Republicans.
And, of course, the general electorate as a whole still strongly supports policies allowing 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 season (and may be a core component of their appeal among some subsets of the electorate), such positions are still on track to be a massive general election problem, as Mitt Romney discovered in 2012. Given the increase in the number and share of Latino voters expected to vote in the 2016 general electorate, Latino Decisions estimates that the Republican nominee will need to win between 42-47% of Latinos to win the 2016 presidential popular vote. It’s clear that the 2016 primary season has moved the Republican Party in the opposite direction from that target percentage.