The center-right polling and research group Resurgent Republic released the results of focus groups of GOP primary voters in Iowa and South Carolina. Contrary to the impression you would get from right-wing immigration opponents these voters are not unalterably opposed to comprehensive immigration reform or even a “pathway to citizenship.”

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush-AP Photo/El Nuevo Herald, Hector Gabino Former Florida governor Jeb Bush-AP Photo/El Nuevo Herald, Hector Gabino

The pollsters found that these voters strongly favor legal immigration, although immigration is not high on their list of concerns.  In addition: “Participants agree that mass deportation of undocumented immigrants would create more problems than it solves and they cite logistical, economic, moral, and social concerns with doing so.” That leads them to cautious approval for reform, provided border security is assured and such people don’t then qualify for public assistance. As for citizenship, these primary voters want to see illegal immigrants pass a criminal background check; “pay a fine, back taxes, and continue to pay taxes”; show knowledge of English and of U.S. history; and not get preference over those “in line” legally.

The good news is that this lines up closely with such Republican reformers as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) (although Paul is not enamored of fines and back taxes). What is clear is that these voters are more sensitive than many Beltway right-wing talking heads about the need for the GOP to expand its appeal and to find the best of poor options when it comes to immigration reform. The pollsters note, “Several participants made the case for Republican candidates to do a better job appealing to the Hispanic community.”

We have seen in polling both with regard to gay marriage and immigration (and even revenue increases) that Republicans are more flexible and less dogmatically conservative than many elected officials and certainly the professional conservative punditocracy. The focus groups suggest that even on illegal immigration, about which some elected officials, talk show hosts and bloggers on the right have worked themselves into a frenzy, it seems that reasoned arguments and compromise are acceptable. Politicians may be needlessly catering to the lowest common denominator among the GOP base; others are more than willing to hear serious arguments and hard truths.

It is also evident from the focus groups how much leadership matters:

The groups in Iowa and South Carolina are know that Bush and Rubio are leading figures on this issue, and both are viewed favorably. It’s clear that Rubio’s presence in this debate creates a significant amount of goodwill among the Republican base. As one Des Moines woman said when commenting on a potential pathway to citizenship: “I’d like to see what Marco Rubio comes up with. I trust him.”

It never ceases to amaze mainstream media and liberal pundits when evidence turns up that Republicans are reasonable and thoughtful people. But they can be excused; so many pundits and pols who offer themselves as exemplars of conservatism are in fact off the scale on the right. It’s easy to get the impression, especially if mainstream media and pundits don’t regularly interact with conservatives outside the Beltway, that immigration is a nonstarter with the base. Many organizations, pundits and pol have made careers betting that is the case and whipping up anti-immigration sentiment.

However, the real leaders of the party are ready and willing to make rational arguments to and find a new consensus on the right. Rubio, Bush, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Paul are doing just that. As a result, an immigration deal is conceivable and so is a future for the GOP that includes  a significant portion of non-white voters.