Are Republicans in Three Key 2016 States Softening on Immigration?

Bush logoBy Ronald Brownstein, National Journal

A new poll says Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina Republicans support citizenship with conditions.

bloomberg_immigrant_flag_white_house_800pxMost Republicans in the key early 2016 states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina support allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. and earn citizenship or permanent legal status, newly released surveys by a GOP polling firm for a pro-immigration group has found.

But the polls also underscored the issue’s potential to sharpen the ideological and class divides already emerging in the crowded GOP race. In each state, requiring all undocumented immigrants to leave the country drew more support among men than women, conservatives than moderates, those without a college degree than those who held advanced education, and Tea Party supporters than those who did not identify with that movement.

Still, in each state only two-fifths or less of all Republicans said that undocumented immigrants “should be required to leave the U.S.,” according to the three surveys conducted by Burning Glass Consulting for The Partnership for a New American Economy.

Burning Glass is a GOP firm founded by Katie Packer Gage, the deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney in 2012 and two other women with a long pedigree in Republican politics, Ashley O’Connor and Christine Matthews. The Partnership for a New American Economy is a pro-immigration group founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other business and political leaders including Rupert Murdoch, the chairman and CEO of 21st Century Fox.

Both legal and undocumented immigration have emerged as key dividing points among the Republican field. Jeb Bush and long-shot Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have most vocally defended providing the undocumented with some legal status (though Bush has wavered on whether he would back full-scale citizenship). Most of the other GOP candidates have rejected any legal status. Meanwhile, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has opened a new front by proposing a reduction in legal immigration–a position Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has also praised in more general terms.

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.”

“If you just ask a question on a phone, ‘do you support amnesty?’ it would be overwhelming opposition to that [among Republicans],” said Gage in an interview. “But what they do support is some kind of process where [the undocumented] have to earn it: workplace verification and be self-supporting and learn the language and pay a fine….A majority of voters do not see that as amnesty; they see that as reasonable steps toward a legal status.”

The results in these three state polls tracked with the findings in the 2012 GOP presidential primary exit polls in Florida and Arizona. In each case, only about one-thirdof Republican primary voters said that the undocumented should be required to leave the country. In a May national survey, the Pew Research Center found that 58 percent of Republicans and independents who lean toward the party supported some form of legal status, while 40 percent said the undocumented should be denied it.

The Burning Glass surveys sampled 400 Republican voters by land line and cell phone in each of the three states between April 9 and April 15, 2015; the polls have a margin of error of plus or minus five percentage points.

The new surveys’ overall tilt toward support for legal status masked some deep and consistent fissures. Those divisions showed the potential of the immigration issue to reinforce the contrasting patterns of support already emerging in the GOP field, with Bush relying on more moderate and white-collar voters, and candidates such as Walker, Santorum, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee targeting the overlapping circles of blue-collar, evangelical, and pro-Tea Party Republicans.

Generally, Republican men were less supportive of legal status than women, and those with less education were likewise more skeptical than those with advanced degrees.

The combined effect of education and gender produced sharp divergence across the three states. In South Carolina, for instance, just 35 percent of college-educated white men and 22 percent of college-educated white women said the undocumented should be denied any legal status. But 45 percent of non-college white men and 48 percent of non-college white women opposed any legal status for them. In New Hampshire, just 19 percent of the college-plus women and 30 percent of the college men would deny any legal status to the undocumented-compared to 37 percent of the non-college white women and fully 55 percent of the non-college white men.

The ideological contrasts were vivid too. In each state about two-fifths or more of Republicans who described themselves as “very conservative” opposed any legal status. But among those who describe themselves as moderate or liberal, only one-in-seven in Iowa, one-in-five in New Hampshire, and just under one-in-three in South Carolina opposed any legal status. Voters who described themselves as “strong” supporters of the Tea Party were especially hostile to legalization, with about two-fifths of them in both Iowa and South Carolina, and a majority of them in New Hampshire opposing any legal status.

Evangelicals, who comprised about three-fifths of Iowa GOP caucus voters in both 2008 and 2012, were more likely than non-evangelicals there to oppose any legal status. But evangelicals showed no meaningful differences from other voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina. In all, the poll found, 60 percent of evangelicals in Iowa, 54 percent of them in New Hampshire, and 57 percent in South Carolina backed some legal status.

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. And, Gage said, the poll indicated that most of those immigration hardliners are already locked into the most conservative candidates, particularly Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and not available to contenders with a more centrist message whatever their position on immigration. Supporting legalization “is not a deal breaker for the large majority of Republican primary voters and caucus goers,” she said. “And number two, the voters for whom this is the most important issue are probably not available to you [anyway] so catering to them is not a sound strategy.”

Turning to the general election, the poll found that nearly three-fourths of adults surveyed across ten battleground states supported either citizenship or legal status for the undocumented, while only 22 percent would require them to leave the U.S. Support for legal status rose to 85 percent among adults younger than 34, 79 percent among college white men, 77 percent among college white women, and 75 percent among moderates. Even 67 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of self-identified conservatives in those states said they would back some legal status.

Given those attitudes, Gage argued, if the eventual GOP nominee adopts a hard-core position against legal status- especially if delivered with harsh rhetoric-the party will face a “very risky” equation in the general election. “The fact is if that’s the direction that they should go to win the primary, we just won’t the general,” she predicted flatly. “That’s the fact.”

In a more worrying sign for immigration advocates, the survey found that in those ten swing states (a list that ranges from Florida and Ohio to Colorado and Virginia), a 48 percent to 39 percent plurality said they would support putting “new restrictions on legal immigration to this country.” Exactly three-fifths of Republicans, compared to 45 percent of independents and 38 percent of Democrats, backed new restrictions on legal migration, the poll found.


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