The GOP is moving on immigration. Are its voters?

April 14, 2013

Every day brings a new piece of news about immigration reform, whether it is the latest from the negotiations in the Senate or Wednesday's D.C. rally for immigration reform. The 2012 election did not change party control of the White House, the Senate, or the House. But it seems to have produced a sea change in the politics of immigration in Washington, especially on the Republican side of the aisle. Talk of self-deportation has cooled down; talk of comprehensive immigration reform has heated up. Have those changes influenced voters?

One answer comes from recent Washington Post polling, which has shown majorities of 55-57 percent of American adults supporting a pathway to citizenship in each of three post-election polls. From the toplines, the story seems to be one of stable attitudes from November 2012 to March 2013. But those numbers hide an important fact: not everyone has responded to the changing GOP stance in quite the same way. It turns out to be well-educated Republicans whose attitudes have shifted most dramatically.

To get a sense of the movement among different groups of Americans, let's turn to data from the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics 2012 Panel Survey. Conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown University, this panel provides us with an opportunity that is rare in polling: we can observe the same individuals before and after the election. The first wave took place in October of 2012, while the second wave took place from mid-November 2012 to late January 2013.

The crux of the current immigration reform effort is a pathway to citizenship, and the question of what to do with unauthorized immigrants who are already here. Specifically, we told our respondents: "On immigration, some people argue that U.S. policy should focus on returning illegal immigrants to their native countries.  Other people argue that U.S. policy should focus on creating a pathway to U.S. citizenship for illegal immigrants. Still others are somewhere in between." We then asked them to place themselves on a 7-point scale. Here, 7 represents strong support for a pathway to citizenship.

The figure just above illustrates the results. There is some post-election movement in support of a pathway to citizenship, with the average survey taker moving upwards from 3.5 to 3.7 after the election. We see a decline in the share of people opting for "1"--the most anti-pathway position--and an uptick in people opting for "6." Even so, 24 percent of respondents were a “1” after the election, indicating that hostility to a pathway to citizenship has certainly not evaporated.

Who's moving? To get at that question, for the 513 people who responded both before and after the election, I analyzed the post-election change. Take a look at the figure below, which breaks out that change based on respondents’ preferred 2012 candidate and whether or not they have more than a high school degree. The outcome here is whether someone gives a response of at least 4 on the 7-point scale, meaning that they favor a pathway to citizenship or are neutral.

Among President Obama’s supporters, there does appear to be a pro-pathway shift, irrespective of education levels. For Mitt Romney's supporters, though, the story is more nuanced. While Romney supporters with a high school education become 3 percentage points less likely to give a pro-pathway response after the election, those with more schooling show the largest pro-pathway shift of the four groups, at over 8 percentage points. Slicing the data in other ways produces the same conclusion.

What's going on? People with more education are known favor less restrictive immigration policies in general. But in this case, the answer is likely to stem in part from the changing positions of GOP leaders as well. Democrats and Republicans alike look to their party leaders for cues on the issues of the day. And when those leaders' views are shifting, past work in political science has shown repeatedly that it tends to be partisans with more education and more political information who first pick up on the shift and follow suit.

In the wake of the 2012 election, the prominent messages from the GOP leadership on immigration shifted quickly, in part because the most prominent voices among the GOP leadership have shifted. Sen. Marco Rubio and former governor Jeb Bush are making very different arguments about immigration than Romney did a year ago. And it is clear that at least some GOP voters are changing their own views on immigration in response.

Dan Hopkins is an Associate Professor of Government at Georgetown University. His research and teaching focus on American politics, with special attention to public opinion, urban politics, racial and ethnic politics, and quantitative methods. More on his research is available at www.danhopkins.org.
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Sarah Kliff · April 14, 2013