Poll: Most back ‘path to citizenship,’ setting up tough choice for GOP lawmakers

May 23, 2013

Comprehensive immigration reform will move to the Senate floor in June with solid overall support from the public. But a bare majority of Republican voters oppose a path to legal status for illegal immigrants. Most of those who are against the idea say they won’t back congressional candidates who support the plan, highlighting conflicting pressure on GOP lawmakers as they consider the politics of their votes.

In a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, 58 percent of all Americans support a so-called path to citizenship that would offer those currently living in the United States illegally a way to achieve legal status if they paid a fine and met other requirements. The Senate bill under consideration includes a 13-year pathway to citizenship after payment of a fine and any back taxes owed.

The overall support for the bill’s most controversial provision, however, masks partisan divisions that have colored the congressional debate. Majorities of Democrats and independents favor the path-to-citizenship proposal, but 52 percent of Republicans say they oppose it. Among Republicans who dislike the idea, most — 67 percent — say they could not support a congressional candidate who backs a citizenship path.

The new poll also registers potential fallout from the Senate’s recent vote to reject what had been a heavily popular measure to expand background checks of gun buyers to include gun shows and online purchases.

Two-thirds of all Americans say the Senate did the wrong thing in blocking the proposal, with majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents in agreement. Those who say the chamber did the wrong thing blame Republicans rather than President Obama by more than 3 to 1.

Electoral dealbreakers

But it’s immigration reform that presents GOP lawmakers with a potentially difficult choice. Some prominent Republicans have said the party should get behind comprehensive reform of the nation’s immigration laws to help overcome opposition to GOP candidates among Hispanic voters.

In last year’s presidential election, just 27 percent of Hispanic voters supported Republican Mitt Romney. Unless the party’s next nominees can significantly improve their support among Hispanics, winning back the White House will be difficult.

But with a narrow majority of the Republican rank-and-file opposed to a path to citizenship, Republican lawmakers know that a vote in favor of immigration reform might carry electoral consequences. That reality was reflected in Tuesday’s vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The panel approved the immigration bill, 13 to 5. But only three of eight Republicans on the committee joined the 10 Democrats to support it.

The bill will need 60 votes to clear the Senate. Supporters are hoping for a much bigger majority to give the legislation momentum as it heads to the House, where Republican opposition is expected to be even stronger.

A vote against a path to legal status carries less obvious risk for Republican lawmakers than a vote for it. In the poll, most Republicans who favor such a provision, 62 percent, say they could support a candidate who opposes it.

In terms of priorities, enacting a path to legal status first is less popular than dealing with border security now and waiting on legalization. About 34 percent say they prefer acting to toughen border security before addressing the status of those here illegally. About half as many, 18 percent, say they would favor dealing with legal status now and delaying border enforcement. An additional 33 percent say both efforts should be included in a bill now.

Obama favors the new legislation but has generally remained in the background as the measure moves through the legislative process. A plurality of Americans, 46 percent, give him positive marks for his handling of the issue, while 41 percent give him a negative review. Asked whom they trust more on immigration, Obama or congressional Republicans, the president has an eight-point advantage, 45 percent to 37 percent.

A typical divide underlies the top-line numbers: 68 percent of Democrats give Obama positive ratings, while 69 percent of Republicans give him negative ratings. Independents are split about evenly in their assessment of his leadership, and are divided fairly evenly between the president and congressional Republicans on the issue.

Although most Americans dislike what the Senate did on background checks for gun buyers, they are divided on the question of whether they trust Obama or congressional Republicans on the issue of gun control. Democrats and Republicans are predictable in their assessments, while independents favor Republicans, 44 percent to 36 percent.

Obama receives a net negative rating on his handling of gun issues, with 44 percent approving and 49 percent disapproving. A majority of independents, 54 percent, give him negative ratings, and even a fifth of Democrats say they disapprove of the way he is handling the issue.

Only 29 percent of Americans say the Senate did the right thing in rejecting expanded background checks. Of those who oppose the action, 42 percent blame Republicans for the bill’s demise, while 11 percent point to Obama.

A majority of those who oppose the Senate action, 55 percent, say they could not support a congressional candidate who voted against background checks. But most Republicans who support expanded checks say they could vote for a candidate who didn’t.

Compared with a Post-ABC poll taken in January, the percentage of Americans who think the National Rifle Association has too much power over the country’s gun laws has risen by six points. In the new survey, 44 percent say the organization has too much power, compared with 18 percent who say it has too little. About a third said the advocacy group has the right amount of influence.

The biggest change in perceptions that the NRA has too much sway came among Democrats, including a 13 percentage-point increase among Democrats in households with guns.

Looking ahead to the 2014 midterm elections, Democrats hold an advantage in public opinion, according to the poll. About 48 percent of all registered voters say they would vote for a Democratic candidate for the House if the election were held today; 40 percent would back a Republican. That does not necessarily mean more Democrats would be elected: Democrats won the popular vote for the House in November even as Republicans maintained their majority.

The poll was conducted May 16 to 19 among a random national sample of 1,001 adults. The results from the full survey have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Cohen is polling director for Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media. Capital Insight pollsters Peyton M. Craighill, Scott Clement and Kimberly Hines contributed to this report.

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Politics