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Warning to Both Parties: Misread the Public on Immigration, Continue to Face Backlash

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In-Depth Polling Shows that Voters Embrace Practical Solutions, Support Candidates Who Favor Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Washington, DC – New polling from Gallup shows that Republicans now have a sizable advantage over Democrats on a range of policy issues, including immigration.  When asked if congressional Republicans or congressional Democrats would handle the immigration issue better, Gallup found that the public favors Republicans by a 50% – 35% advantage. 

Some in the Republican Party might take comfort at these findings, believing that a hard line is working with voters.  But they adopt this view at their own peril.  Unless Republicans and Democrats alike scratch beneath the surface to understand the nuances of public opinion on immigration reform, they will continue to miss the mark with voters who want a real and lasting solution.  The fact is, voters want action.  Democrats haven’t been as clear as the public wants about their plans to enact comprehensive immigration reform.  And while Republicans might initially score points for sounding “tough,” once voters hear what they stand for they turn away from unrealistic sound bites and embrace a practical solution. 

According to Lynn Tramonte, Deputy Director of America’s Voice: “Public opinion on immigration reform is complex, and politicians clearly don’t get it.  Americans are frustrated with the status quo, and with politicians who treat illegal immigration like a political football instead of focusing on solutions.  Unless Democrats clearly articulate their comprehensive immigration reform agenda, voters will continue to wonder what they stand for.  And unless Republicans find a way to end their intra-party war on immigration and work responsibly on a practical solution, Latino voters will continue to write off the GOP, with big implications for 2010 House and Senate races as well as the 2012 presidential contest.”   

Survey after survey after survey has shown that the public strongly supports comprehensive immigration reform.  Research that scratches beyond the surface shows that while some voters initially choose the Republicans on immigration, they swing dramatically toward the Democrats after learning what the party stands for.   

For example:  

  • In May 2010 polling conducted by Hart Research Associates in the moderate-to-conservative states of Arkansas, Colorado, Missouri, and Ohio, voters were asked which party would “do a better job handling illegal immigration.”  At the beginning of the survey, 36% of voters chose the Republican Party and 24% the Democratic Party.  After hearing specifics about the two party’s views on the issue, as well as strong Republican attacks against the Democratic proposal for comprehensive reform, support swung 16 percentage points, giving the Democrats a four point advantage on the issue.  When asked why they supported the Democratic approach, 51% said it was because immigrants “would be required to get legal and pay their fair share of taxes,” versus 21% who said it was because the plan would crack down on employers who hire undocumented workers and 15% who focused on its border security elements.      
  • In a June 2009 survey by Benenson Strategy Group in three battleground House districts – Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District, California’s 3rd District, and Idaho’s 1st Congressional District – voters in the ID and AL surveys showed a preference toward Republicans when asked at the top of the survey whose approach to immigration reform most closely reflects their point of view.  In California’s 3rd District, voters broke evenly for the Democrats and the Republicans.  But as elements of the Democrats’ reform plan were explained, support for comprehensive immigration reform climbed to extremely high levels (88% in ID-1, 87% in AL-2, and 83% in CA-3), and respondents were more likely to support candidates who championed comprehensive reform than those who opposed it (85% to 8% in ID-1, 83% to 12% in AL-2, 79% to 16% in CA-3). 
  • The same was true in a series of surveys in nine congressional battleground districts, conducted right before the November 2008 elections by Benenson Strategy Group and Lake Research Partners.  According to the pollsters, “Candidates associated with support for comprehensive reform were perceived more favorably than candidates supporting enforcement only.  After we inform voters that one candidate supports comprehensive reform (who we label ‘Supporter’ in this memo) and another candidate favors enforcement and benefit cut-off (who we call ‘the Opponent’ in this memo), significantly more voters trust the Supporter to handle immigration reform and improving the economy and more voters believe the Supporter will stand up for the middle class.”

“Politicians’ failure to understand where the public is on immigration reform has led to paralysis instead of progress, and it’s time they pay attention.  Voters are frustrated with the broken immigration system and see it as an example of how Washington simply does not work.  They support comprehensive reform because it is a tough, fair, and practical solution, in contrast to the deportation-only fantasies of some on the far right.  Lawmakers who speak up frequently and forcefully about the need for comprehensive immigration reform will be rewarded, not punished, by constituents who want to resolve illegal immigration,” concluded Tramonte.        

For more on public opinion about immigration reform, see: http://americasvoiceonline.org/polling.

America’s Voice — Harnessing the power of American voices and American values to win common sense immigration reform.