With Congress expected to debate immigration reform back at home over the recess, it’s widely accepted on faith that Republican voters will unleash a fearsome backlash in the direction of any GOP lawmaker who dares even hint at support for reform. But what if this assumption has not been subjected to any real scrutiny? What do Republican pollsters who get paid to look seriously at the issue actually think?
Whit Ayres is a respected veteran Republican pollster who has done extensive research and polling on immigration reform and what GOP primary voters really think of it. He tells me in an interview that much of the conventional wisdom is wrong: Republican voters do support immigration reform — including a path to citizenship — albeit with the proper conditions attached. Indeed they want to see something done.
“Our research has shown that roughly one third of Republican primary voters will never support a path to citizenship no matter what the conditions,” says Ayres, a supporter of reform. “But two thirds will support a path to citizenship as long as the conditions are strict and rigorous.”
In the interview, Ayres got at a key point that keeps getting lost in the discussion. While some polls do show Republicans oppose a path to citizenship, other polls — ones that present the range of policy options in a more accurate manner — find they support it. For instance, if polls ask respondents to make a straight choice — do they favor favor citizenship, Yes or No (as the Post poll does) — a majority of Republicans say No. But when polls tell respondents that citizenship comes packaged with increased border security and/or conditions attached, a majority of Republicans supports it. This is true in polling from Quinnipiac and National Journal, both of which find at least six in 10 Republicans supportive.
Ayres says his research bears this out. It demonstrates that Republican primary voters are hostile up front to citizenship, but they recognize a need to fix the system and accept citizenship as part of a broader package of reforms that includes a border security buildup, back taxes, fines, and learning English.
“Our research has shown that Republican primary voters do not like having to deal with the issue of the presence of illegal immigrants in this country,” Ayres tells me. “But they recognize that the status quo is not good for the country, and that we need to try to craft something better. Once they wrestle with the issue, they end up supporting a range of options, such as increased border security, increased internal security, and a path to citizenship with strict conditions.”
“Virtually all Republicans oppose a blanket amnesty,” Ayres continued, in a reference to how they react when asked just about citizenship. “But they make a distinction between blanket amnesty and a lengthy path to citizenship that requires illegal immigrants to jump through numerous hoops and wait many years.”
This is an absolutely central point. The reaction of GOP primary voters just to the idea of citizenship — rather than the full range of what immigration reform would actually do — is skewing this whole debate.
Again countering the conventional wisdom, Ayres added his research shows opinion among GOP primary voters is being influenced by personal experience. “Some Republicans’ views have softened as they have gotten to know families that contain undocumented immigrants whom they respect for their hard work and devotion to family,” he says. In this sense, shifting opinions have something in common with the gay marriage debate.
Separately, in a fascinating interview with Alex Roarty, Ayres also noted that the failure to address immigration could impair GOP efforts to win over white voters in the numbers that will be necessary to make up for losses among Latinos, particularly white suburban women, because they want to associate with a party that’s diverse and tolerant.
All of which is to say that the assumptions shaping this whole debate are overly simplistic and have not been subjected to widespread enough scrutiny. Yes, it may be very hard to sell GOP voters on immigration reform, as we keep hearing (particularly from those disposed against it in the first place, and those who are looking for a way to kill reform blamelessly). But it can be done. If Ayres’ research — and some of the public polling — is right, killing reform represents the will of only a minority of those supposedly fearsome GOP primary voters.
Getting immigration reform passed in the face of hostility from the right is not an insurmountable challenge. This can get done if Republican leaders and lawmakers want it to.