The Republican Divide on Immigration
There are over a dozen Republican candidates in the running for their party's nomination, whether or not they've formally announced. On most topics, they present a unified front, attacking the Obama administration's foreign and domestic policies.
But immigration has proven to be a far more divisive topic. The three leading Republican hopefuls for the White House—Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio—are putting far-flung stakes in the ground on immigration, each expecting that his distinctive position will be key to the GOP nomination.
Why has immigration divided the Republican field? The answer lies in the different immigration factions within the Republican Party.
The 2014 Chicago Council Survey covered both the public (fielded May 6-29, 2014) as well as a wide swath of what would be considered 'elites' (fielded May 16-August 1, 2014). The latter surveyed 668 opinion leaders, both policy experts (those working in Congress or Executive-branch agencies, think-tank fellows, academics) and interest groups (business, religious organizations, NGOs). The results show that the Republican Party has split into three distinct groups on immigration.
Jeb Bush's approach to the nomination has been to win the 'invisible primary' by gaining the backing of Republican elites. While other Republican candidates have moved to the right on immigration, his long-moderate immigration stance has remained so. Rather than appealing to the GOP base, he hopes to persuade it, and said just that in a recent interview with Megyn Kelly. That matches the survey evidence: among Republican opinion leaders, only 20 percent identify controlling and reducing illegal immigration as a very important goal, and only 16 percent say that the prospect of large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the United States represents a critical threat.
Scott Walker stands at the other end. Not only has the Wisconsin governor repudiated past statements in support of immigration reform, he’s also suggested decreasing legal immigration into the United States. While that stance won’t fly in a general election, Walker's newer, more nativist stance on immigration is tailor-made for the Tea Party portion of the Republican base. The data agree: 80 percent of those who identify themselves as Tea Party Republicans say controlling and reducing illegal immigration is a very important goal. Tea Party Republicans are also more threatened by the prospect of large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the United States: 82 percent labeled it a critical threat. For this faction of the Republican Party, immigration looms as a larger threat than more mainstream concerns such as Iran’s nuclear program, nuclear proliferation, and international terrorism. And while Tea Party Republicans are a minority within their party, making up only 21 percent of Republicans overall, they are a vocal and influential minority.
In between Bush and Walker stands Marco Rubio. Rubio, once part of the Group of Eight in the Senate working towards comprehensive immigration reform, has retreated from his past reformism but has not embraced a Walker-esque nativism. His target is in the middle, appealing to immigration-skeptical (but not immigration-hostile) Republicans. Their views fall neatly in between the views of opinion leaders and the Tea Party. Roughly half (49%) of non-Tea Party Republicans see immigration as a critical threat, and while a majority (56%) says controlling and reducing illegal immigration is a very important goal, they do not rate it as highly as their Tea Party copartisans.
It's worth noting that these divisions on immigration don’t appear among Democrats. Among both Democratic opinion leaders as well as the public, immigration does not rank as a serious threat, nor does controlling immigration rate as a very important priority.
Their field reflects that consensus. Hillary Clinton, running as the predominant candidate in a far smaller field, has resolutely backed President Obama's executive action policies on immigration. This move, reflecting mainstream Democratic thought rather than a hard turn to the left, has largely boxed out other Democratic candidates. Consequently, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley’s attempt to use immigration as an intra-party wedge issue is unlikely to work.
Democrats’ unified front on immigration also cuts back on the amount of backtracking candidates will need to do for the general election, making their stances more credible with the Latino electorate.
In contrast, just as Republicans now are maneuvering to target their base, whoever emerges from the primary’s battle royale will have to repeat the process in reverse, tacking back to the middle to appeal to the broader American public.
The one candidate who wouldn’t? Jeb Bush. As the candidate aiming to change his party’s mind on immigration, rather than changing his own, he’ll have an easier and more consistent route to appeal to Latino voters, especially in his home state of Florida. But first, he’ll have to win over his party.
The Republican Divide on Immigration
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