A couple of weeks ago Univision released a poll that should have sent a piercing shiver of dread through the heart of every Republican who cares about the party’s long-term electoral health. The Spanish-language media outlet asked Latino voters whom they’d support in hypothetical match-ups between the leading Republican presidential candidates and Hillary Clinton, and the GOP’s best-performing candidate – Jeb Bush – did no better among Latinos than Mitt Romney did in 2012. The poll was a grim reminder that the GOP’s fits-and-starts attempts at “rebranding” have not succeeded at measurably improving its standing among one of the fastest growing electoral demographics in the country.
The flip side to the GOP’s problem with appealing to Latino voters is the rather intractable hostility its base shows toward undocumented immigrants. As Greg Sargent and others have pointed out, a new poll from CNN finds a huge gap between Republicans and the rest of the country when it comes to immigration policy. By a wide margin, 56-42, Americans believe the “focus” of U.S. immigration policy should be finding a way to provide some form of legal status for undocumented immigrants in the country. Republicans, however, believe by a 63-34 margin that the lawmakers should be “developing a plan for stopping the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. and for deporting those already here.” It’s a bit of a dodgy question, given that it lumps together two different outcomes – reduced flow of immigrants and mass deportation – into one policy preference. But, as Sargent notes, other polling shows “a majority of Republicans does not think the undocumented should be allowed to live and work here even if they pay a fine and meet other requirements.”
Back in early 2014, CNN asked this same question and observed a similar result – Democrats and Independents strongly favored legalization, while Republicans backed decreased immigration and increased deportation 62-34. Several months later, at the height of the summer 2014 border crisis when the country’s attention was focused on the many thousands of unaccompanied Central American minors crossing over the southern border, CNN put another poll out in the field. Perhaps not surprisingly, it found that Republican opposition to immigration/support for deportation spiked – 76 percent of Republicans favored the hard-line position on immigration, compared to just 23 percent who favored legalization. So not only is the GOP’s baseline for opposition to immigration reform high, they also have a large number of voters who can be pushed into opposition when an immigration-related controversy is dominating the headlines.
That’s significant in that it will necessarily restrict what sort of legislation the party can propose and get passed. The nativists in Congress capitalized on anti-immigrant sentiment during the 2014 border crisis to completely hijack the GOP’s immigration policy and drive it hard to the right. If you’ll recall, the House GOP tried to pass legislation expediting the deportation of those unaccompanied minors, but the leadership was stymied by conservatives who also wanted to defund the president’s executive actions protecting undocumented kids brought into the country as minors. The leadership caved to the hard-liners, and the House passed a bill that would have exposed as many people as possible to deportation, in keeping with the overwhelming preference of the Republican base.
That same cadre of immigration hard-liners tipped the Republican-controlled Congress into a losing fight over Homeland Security funding earlier this year. Then they sabotaged another border security bill, arguing that it didn’t do enough to deport immigrants already in the country. The only legislation that would stand any chance of passage in the current environment is the most draconian “border security” measure you can think of, and even then there will be lawmakers complaining that “securing the border” is just a prelude to the dreaded “amnesty.”
This puts 2016 candidates in a difficult spot. The immigration agenda of Republicans in Congress – which is aggressively anti-immigrant and thoroughly unrealistic in its goals and implementation – lines up pretty well with the expectations of Republican base voters. 2016 GOP candidates will be under intense pressure to speak the language of the base on immigration, especially if something like last summer's border crisis causes immigration to flare up as an issue during the primaries. Doing so will help perpetuate the party’s decline with Latino voters and alienate the other large segments of the electorate that favor a more moderate approach to immigration. There is no good option, which explains why some candidates are trying – and failing – to play both sides.