It is oh-so-tempting to blame House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat on immigration reform. Certainly, voters have multiple reasons for voting for or against a candidate, and undoubtedly some were swayed by the falsehoods put out by talk-radio show entertainers that Cantor wanted to open the borders and grant amnesty to everyone who is here illegally. You really can fool all of the people, some of the time.
But if immigration was even a partial rationale for some voters, it was based on an entirely false picture of Cantor’s position, which was decidedly to the right of the Senate Gang of Eight. Facts are stubborn things, despite the power of a microphone to distort and whip up a crowd. To begin with, as conservative columnist Salena Zito pointed out, “Though some pundits quickly jumped on [David] Brat’s accusation that Cantor dragged his feet on immigration reform as a main reason for his downfall . . . others believe Cantor simply became an unpopular leader. He has voted to increase border security and opposed immigration reform measures like the DREAM Act.” So yes, if you let your position be caricatured falsely, it probably is going to hurt you.
There, however, is little reason for the party as a whole to dump reasonable immigration reform that includes border security and stiff requirements for legalization or citizenship. The respected GOP pollster team of Whit Ayres, Jon McHenry and Dan Judy has released a new poll showing that “nearly 4 in 5 GOP primary voters (78 percent) support a step-by-step approach to immigration reform that emphasizes several key elements, including: border enforcement, E-verify, and earned legal status with significant conditions including paying a fine and back taxes, learning English and proof of employment. That plan includes majority support among frequent talk radio listeners (72-23) and strong Tea Party supporters (70-28).” There is a reason anti-immigration reform advocates have to call every reform plan “amnesty”; if they correctly identified the proposals, they would be overwhelmingly popular — with their own listeners and members. The poll also shows:
Earned legal status is supported by a 56 to 36 percent margin while earned citizenship is narrowly opposed, 48-44.
Creating a temporary worker plan with a return home is supported by a 78 to 20 percent margin.
Earned legal status for young undocumented immigrants after serving in the U.S. military is supported by a 77 to 19 percent margin
Primary voters say they would vote for a candidate with whom they disagree on immigration by a 55-29 percent margin.
Some commentators have speculated that even if immigration wasn’t a major reason for Cantor’s fall, in 2016 pro-reform candidates might run from their views. Sigh. No, candidates who actually believe immigration reform is good pro-growth conservative policy aren’t likely to turn tail, and if they did, they would rightly be bashed for caving in to public pressure. Moreover, smart candidates with capable staffs can read polls like the one above and understand how to make their case to the voters. What pro-immigration activists must do is articulate the specifics of their reform proposals and make a case why reform benefits all Americans. If they do that, a wide array of polling suggests that there will be a receptive electorate.