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Where Do Republican Voters Stand On Immigration?

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Array of Polls Show Republican Candidates Pandering to Noisy Minority of GOP Voters

Donald Trump calls Mexicans rapists and criminals, and he leads the GOP race.  Republicans in Congress trash talk comprehensive immigration reform and take up measures embraced by hardliners Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Rep. Steve King (R-IA).  Candidates on the campaign trail, with few exceptions, talk about border security, “sanctuary city” crackdowns and rescinding protections for Dreamers and the parents of American citizen children.  This must mean the vast majority of GOP voters are strongly opposed to anything that puts undocumented immigrants on a path to legal status, right?

Wrong.  It seems the anti-immigrant tail is wagging the GOP dog.

Based on recent polling (see below), it’s clear that a solid majority of Republican voters support a path to legal status or a path to citizenship.  A minority support a deportation-focused approach.  No question that the GOP is more hostile to immigrants and more skeptical about immigration reform than independents and Democrats.  But when it comes to the question of what to do with the 11 million undocumented immigrants settled in America, a majority of Republican voters are pragmatic.

Which raises a question: why is the GOP field so intent on pandering to the minority?  Because the base decides elections?  Because of the Trump Effect?  Because it worked so well for Mitt Romney?

Perhaps presidential candidates just can’t help themselves when confronted with a town hall that includes loud and angry white voters.  Perhaps the 2016 field is intent on repeating what Ron Brownstein called Romney’s original sin defined as lurching to the right during the primary and destroying your general election viability in the process.  Perhaps the GOP’s mining of white resistance to demographic and cultural change over a period of decades (AKA the Southern Strategy) is coming back to haunt a party in desperate need of broadening its appeal.

Whatever the causes, the reality is more complex than the caricature.  Below are some recent and relevant snapshots of Republican public opinion on immigration.

Republican Voters and Immigration: GOP Voter Support for Path to Citizenship or Legal Status vs Deportation/Removal of Undocumented Immigrants 

NBC News/Wall Street Journal, 53-43%: August 3, 2015 polling from NBC News/Wall Street Journal findsasked respondents about three options for policies for undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. – a pathway to citizenship, legal status short of citizenship, or finding and deporting undocumented immigrants.  Among Republicans surveyed, a combined 53% supported either citizenship (36%) or legalization (17%), while 43% supported the deportation-focused option (among all adults, 64% supported either a path to citizenship (47%) or a path to legal status (17%), while 32% favored deportation).

CBS News, 55-41%: Released on August 4, 2015, a CBS poll findsthat Republican voters favor legalization of undocumented immigrants by a 55-41% margin (46% for a path to citizenship; 9% for a path to legal status; 41% they should be required to leave).  Democrats support legal status over removal by 86-13% (78% citizenship; 8% legal status) as do Independents by 68-25% (59% citizenship; 9% legal status).  In addition, 59% of all voters think most immigrants to the U.S. contribute to society rather than cause problems; most Democrats (71-19%) and independents (59-26%) hold this view, but Republicans are split, 43-42%.  Reflecting the more complex nature of Republican public opinion on immigration reform, CBS points out: “Trump leads among Republican primary voters on both sides of the illegal immigration debate – those who support legal status for illegal immigrants in the U.S and those who think those immigrants should be required to leave the country.”  In addition, the poll finds that 69% of primary voters are confident in Trump’s ability to make decisions on illegal immigration (40% very confident), while 62% have confidence in Jeb Bush on illegal immigration (only 13% very confident.  CBS also notes, “Most Americans think illegal immigrants are just as likely to commit crimes as U.S. citizens.  Republicans, however, are somewhat more inclined to say illegal immigrants are more likely to commit crimes (33 percent) than U.S. citizens (11 percent).

PRRI Polling, 72-25%: Detailed immigration polling from the non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) captures the dynamic that Republicans hold more negative views of immigrants and more pragmatic views about solutions.  PRRI notes, According to the June 2015 PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey, fully six in ten (60 percent) Republicans overall say that immigrants currently living in the U.S. illegally should be allowed a way to become citizens, provided they meet certain requirements; 12 percent say they should be allowed to become permanent legal residents but not citizens, and only one-quarter (25 percent) say they should be identified and deported.” But, as PRRI writes, “The June American Values Atlas survey finds that nearly half (48 percent) of Republicans say that newcomers from other countries threaten traditional American customs and values, compared to 36 percent who say they strengthen American society.”  Nonetheless, Republican voters still support path to legal status/citizenship in PRRI polling: “While Trump’s negative sentiments about recent immigrants are much more likely to be shared by older Republicans and Republicans with lower levels of education, the data also suggests that his appeal may lose some of its strength as he moves from rhetoric to policy solutions. Among Republicans, for example, negative sentiments about immigrants do not translate directly into opposition to immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship.”

Burning Glass/GOP Operative Katie Packer Gage, Iowa 63-29%; New Hampshire 59-34%; South Carolina 57-37%: Based on polling and focus groups conducted by her firm, Burning Glass, Katie Packer Gage, Mitt Romney’s 2012 Deputy Campaign Director, wrotea widely-noticed piece published in mid-June by Politico 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.”  Ron Brownstein of National Journal dug into research and wrote, “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.”

Pew Research, 56-43%: A June 2015 Pew Research Center pollfound that by a 56%-43% margin Republican voters agree with the notion that “undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements should be allowed to stay legally” vs. 43% who say they should not be allowed to stay legally.  Additionally, the Pew polling recap notes, “Just 34% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say the GOP is doing a good job in representing their views on illegal immigration, while 59% say it is not doing a good job.”

CNN/ORC, 33-64%:A July 27th poll released by CNN asked respondents the following question: “What should be the main focus of the U.S. government in dealing with the issue of illegal immigration – developing a plan that would allow illegal immigrants who have jobs to become legal U.S. residents, or developing a plan for stopping the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. and for deporting those already here?” By a 2-1 margin, Republicans favored the enforcement/deportation option (Democrats favored residency by 69-29%, Independents by 56-42%).  Given that these results for all groups of voters are so different from other recent polls, it suggests the wording of the question skewed the responses.  In particular, the conflating of “stopping the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S.” and “deporting those already here” is the likely culprit.  For example, the first is a goal of comprehensive immigration reform while the second is the precise opposite of comprehensive reform.

Notes of Interest on Republican Voters and Immigration

Details matter: explaining the requirements of earned legalization and citizenship drives up support among Republican voters. As the pollsters at the Public Religion Research Institute recently assessed, “survey questions that make no mention of requirements immigrants living in the country illegally must meet produce lower support for a path to citizenship than questions that do mention requirements,” particularly among Republican respondents.  Similarly, GOP pollster Whit Ayres has noted, “Our research has shown that roughly one third of Republican primary voters will never support a path to citizenship no matter what the conditions…But two thirds will support a path to citizenship as long as the conditions are strict and rigorous.”

Focus groups of GOP voters in early primary and caucus states indicates openness to earned process of citizenship: Four focus groups conducted by GOP firm Resurgent Republic in 2013 of Republican voters in the early 2016 caucus/primary states of Iowa and South Carolina foundthat “[a] pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is acceptable to Republican primary voters if it is an earned process and fair to those who are already legally in the system.”

Likely Iowa GOP caucus-goers from the 2012 cycle more pro-reform than Mitt Romney believed: Evidence of a more pragmatic view by GOP primary voters was evident in the 2012 cycle, as seen in a series of pollsof likely Republican caucus-goers in Iowa in late 2011 (see link for range of polling from November and December 2011 ahead of 2012 Iowa caucuses). For example, a December 2011 Washington Post/ABC News poll asked about “Newt Gingrich’s position on illegal immigration,” which included a path to legal status for some longtime undocumented immigrants, 34% of potential caucus-goers and 38% of likely caucus-goers said it was a major reason to support Gingrich, while only 16% of potential caucus-goers and 15% of likely caucus-goers said it was a major reason to oppose him.