August 7, 2013

Conservatives are cheerfully citing a new poll that has Marco Rubio dropping in New Hampshire a bit since the spring, which is supposed to show that any Republican lawmaker who embraces immigration reform is putting himself in grave danger with conservatives.

Ignore this. It would be a big mistake to assume anything about Rubio’s embrace of reform from early presidential horse race polls.

Here’s how this works. Well in advance of any actual campaigning, nomination polls at this point tell us very little about anything. Mainly, they’re exercises in name recognition (so it’s no wonder Hillary Clinton is far ahead of the field on the Democratic side).

Given that the Republican field features no Hillarys but several candidates who are more or less equally (not very well) known, what’s going to affect the ranking of Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, and the rest of them from month to month is almost certainly going to be the tone of coverage in the GOP-aligned press.

But there’s no particular reason to believe that recent coverage of these candidates on Fox News and on Rush Limbaugh’s show predicts anything at all about coverage two or three months down the road — let alone two or three years down the road.

When we get close to the election, and the “invisible primary” yields a consensus about the various contenders, then we might expect that consensus to be transmitted to voters in the primaries and caucuses via coverage in the partisan press. But for now, early presidential coverage is basically just pass-the-time entertainment. And it also intersects with the partisan press’s issue coverage So, for example, it’s certainly possible that coverage of the immigration bill this spring and summer has meant that the tone of coverage of Rubio’s coverage has slipped in Republican-aligned media, which then has produced a bit of a drop in the polls.

But if Republican party actors choose Rubio, he’ll get plenty of positive coverage when it counts. In other words: even if Republican primary voters hate Rubio’s position on immigration, don’t expect that to sink his presidential campaign. Just as Romney’s health care record didn’t sink his nomination. Besides, as GOP pollster Whit Ayres explained to this blog, there’s good reason to believe Republican rank-and-file voters have a more nuanced view of immigration reform anyway. And remember that important organized groups within the GOP are split on this issue, and are not monolithically against a bill.

In other words: Ignore those polls! And until there’s much stronger evidence, I wouldn’t assume that immigration reform will be a deal breaker for any candidate for the Republican nomination in 2016.