GOP Primary Voters Conflicted on Immigration, Raising Questions for Trump’s Stance

The New York businessman’s immigration message has three parts: deport illegal immigrants in the country, build a wall along the Mexican border to keep them out, and temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S. With Republicans who support those positions, exit polls show, Mr. Trump is the clear winner.

But the trouble for Mr. Trump is only about 10% of primary voters in the five states that held elections Tuesday identified immigration as the top issue in the campaign. Of that minority of voters in Florida, Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina and Missouri, he was the first choice by at least a two-to-one margin

Even in Florida, with its large population of Cubans and other Hispanic immigrants, only 12% of GOP voters said immigration was the top issue. Mr. Trump was the favorite of 60% of those voters, compared with 16% garnered by the second choice, Sen. Marco Rubio.

On the issue of whether illegal immigrants working in the U.S. should be deported—a position Mr. Trump repeats nearly daily—a majority of the voters in all five states disagreed, choosing instead to offer illegal immigrants legal status. The margin favoring legal status ranged from 11 percentage points in Missouri to 18 points in Ohio.

Again, of those who favored Mr. Trump’s deportation policy, the businessman was the top choice by a solid margin over the number two.

Among those who favored legal status, Mr. Trump trailed, generally by less than 10 percentage points. In Florida, he was number one, edging out Mr. Rubio 36% to 35%—a far narrower margin than his overall 46% to 27% margin over Mr. Rubio.

“Trump is talking to his chunk of voters,” said Micah Roberts, a vice president at Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican pollster. “He’s got a very targeted message that’s connecting to 30% to 40% of Republican primary voters.”

It is unclear, though, if he can scale up that support in a general election. According to a February Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, voters nationally say immigration helps the U.S. more than it hurts by a 53% to 38% margin. The margin favoring immigration has widened every time the question has been asked in the poll since 2010.

Republicans and Democrats sharply disagree on the issue, with GOP voters surveyed saying immigration hurts more than helps by a 63% to 30% margin, while Democrats say the opposite by a 70% to 22% split. Independent split 42%-42% on the question.

Jeff Horwitt, a senior vice president at Hart Research Associates, a Democratic pollster that puts together the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll with Public Opinion Strategies, said Mr. Trump’s stance is bound to alienate Latino voters. According to the poll, those voters say immigration helps the U.S. by a 71% to 20% split.

“Hispanics are a really important group in a general election,” Mr. Horwitt said. “There are other issues [apart from immigration] that can resonate with Hispanics. But if your nominee is out there saying, ‘You’ll build a wall and deport people who are here,’ it’s hard for [Hispanic voters] to hear anything else.”

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton hit hard on immigration in her Tuesday victory speech. “When we hear a candidate for president call for rounding up 12 million immigrants and banning all Muslims from entering the United States…that doesn’t make him strong, it makes him wrong.”

Mr. Trump, speaking Wednesday on CNN, said he would be able to unify the country: “There is a natural healing process once the battle is over, once the war is over. I think it will happen again.”

Still, a part of Mr. Trump’s immigration message matches well with GOP voters. By about two to one, voters in the five states said they support banning Muslims temporarily from entering the U.S. Among those, Mr. Trump was first choice by between 9 and 41 points.

Exit polls in the five states didn’t quiz Democrats on immigration, or ask about Mr. Trump’s wall plan on the Mexican border.

In the Texas primary on March 1, won by Sen. Ted Cruz, GOP voters were quizzed on the wall and backed it by a 2-to-1 margin—though Mr. Trump trailed Mr. Cruz as choice for president among those who wanted the wall. But those same voters said they backed legal status for illegal immigrants over deportation 47%-43%.

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