Why immigration reform is not a cure-all for the GOP

January 29, 2013

Since faring poorly among Latino voters at the polls in November, the GOP has embraced the issue of immigration reform with a new urgency.

In reality, though, the Republican disconnect with Hispanics is about much more than immigration.

For starters, while immigration is an oft-covered topic, it's not the top issue on Latino voters' priority list. In a pre-election Pew Hispanic Center survey released last fall, a majority of Hispanic voters said education, health care and jobs/the economy were "extremely important" to them. But only 34 percent said the same about immigration.

Now, this doesn't mean that from a political standpoint, Republicans should not focus their energy on immigration reform (more on that in a moment). What it does mean is that if they want to improve their standing among Latino voters, they also need to address other fiscal and social issues in a way that the growing Hispanic share of the electorate can agree with.

That's easier said than done. Why? Because there is a significant gap between some pillars of the Republican platform and the over-arching worldview of Hispanics.

Take the call for limited government, a cornerstone of the GOP's political message. In a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey taken last summer, 67 percent of Hispanics said they favor a "larger federal government with many services" over a "smaller federal government with fewer services." Republicans expressed a dramatically different viewpoint in the poll, with 80 percent saying they prefer a "smaller federal government with fewer services."

What about another familiar GOP talking point: lowering federal spending and the deficit? In the same poll, 68 percent of Hispanics said it is more important to "increase federal spending to try to create jobs and improve the economy" than to avoid "a big increase in the federal deficit." Seventy-three percent of Republicans said the latter is more important.

Indeed, these are philosophical disagreements the GOP must confront. But none of this is to say Republicans shouldn't also help spearhead an immigration reform effort. If they want to revamp their image among Hispanics, Republicans can't afford to stand on the sidelines.

According to 2012 exit poll data, nearly eight in 10 Hispanic voters said they support a path to legal status for for most illegal immigrants working in the country, something a bipartisan Senate working group proposed on Monday. And it's not just Hispanic voters Republicans risk further alienating; the exit polls also show a majority of all voters (65 percent) said they support a path to legal status.

In 2012, the Hispanic share of the electorate went up, while the GOP presidential nominee's share of their vote dropped, compared to 2008. That should come as troubling news to a party that is licking multiple wounds after a disappointing cycle.

But even as the GOP turns over a new leaf on immigration reform, it is still playing catch-up with Democrats. Already, President Obama has used the power of executive fiat to prevent the deportation of certain young illegal immigrants. By comparison, Romney, the GOP's 2012 standard-bearer, adopted a hard-line posture on immigration and border security in the primary that cost him dearly in the general election.

Embracing immigration reform is one step the GOP can take toward improving its performance among Latino voters in future elections. But it's not even close to a cure-all.

Poll finds only one-quarter want to deport illegal immigrants: A new poll from CBS News shows just 24 percent of Americans think illegal immigrants should be forced to leave the country.

Fifty-one percent say they should be allowed to apply for citizenship, while another 20 percent say they should be able to stay but only as guest workers.

The poll is a reminder that relatively few Americans are in favor of deportation, even as that remains a popular position in the Republican Party. GOP members of Congress will again be torn between the activist base of their party -- which feels strongly that illegal immigrants shouldn't be granted amnesty -- and the overwhelming number of people in the country who support allowing them to stay in one form or another.

Fixbits:

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) will not be supporting the bipartisan immigration deal. Lee recently walked away from the group of senators negotiating the deal.

The State Department has shut down an office that was devoted to closing down Guantanamo Bay.

Foster Friess, the top donor to Rick Santorum's super PAC, wants the former Pennsylvania senator to run again in 2016.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) leaders former DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe in a new poll of the Virginia governor's race from Roanoke College

Former congresswoman Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.) may seek a third-straight matchup with Rep. Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.).

Former congressman Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) will not challenge Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) in 2014.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee is set to announce its senior staff today. They are: Political director Ward Baker, finance director Shelly Carson, communications director Brad Dayspring, senior advisor Kevin McLaughlin, research director Mark McLaughlin and general counsel Megan Sowards.

Must-reads:

"GOP Group Urges ‘Tonally Sensitive’ Immigration Messaging" -- David M. Drucker, Roll Call

"Bipartisan group of senators unveils immigration reform plan" -- Felicia Sonmez, David Nakamura and Rosalind S. Helderman, Washington Post

"Have House Republicans turned the corner on messaging?" -- Stuart Rothenberg, Roll Call

Scott Clement, a polling analyst with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media, contributed to this report. 

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