President Obama and Republicans are slated for a major showdown over Obama’s plans to potentially grant legal status to nearly 6 million undocumented immigrants.
And despite Obama’s low approval ratings (especially on immigration) and Democrats’ “(butt-)whuppin'” in the midterm elections, he has something on his side: Public support for allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the country.
The 2014 national exit poll found 57 percent of midterm voters say most illegal immigrants working in the United States should be offered a chance to apply for legal status. Just less than four in 10 support deportation instead. And majority support on this issue isn't all that surprising given national polling in recent years.
The exit poll found an identical 57 percent of midterm voters thought that climate change is a serious problem —another issue riling Republicans — and indirect evidence that a newly announced agreement with China to limit greenhouse gases may also align with voters’ wishes.
But immigration is the biggest political hot potato, and support for a path to legal status makes Republican efforts to challenge Obama more difficult. Their appeals will likely be focused not on the policy itself but on grounds that Obama is overstepping his authority or neglecting other immigration policies the public supports, such as border security.
And indeed, support for Obama acting unilaterally — despite the potential popularity of that action — is lower than support for the likely outcome.
In September, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found a smaller number, 52 percent, supported Obama taking action on immigration if Congress does not. Among registered voters, that shrunk to 49 percent.
Fewer than three in 10 approved of Obama’s handling of immigration in October, and a Pew Research post-election survey found more voters saying Republicans in Congress have a better approach to immigration than Obama, by 34 percent to 28 percent. The rest saw no difference.
It was pretty apparent that a big part of the reason the White House delayed its executive action until after the election was because of the impact it might have on the 2014 election. It risked inflaming the right, and there were relatively few Latino voters in key states to offset that potential conservative momentum. And immigration was something of a non-factor.
But even today, with the next election 23 and a half months away, there's no guarantee that Obama’s immigration policy push will be politically beneficial or even practical. The gun debate showed how even extraordinarily popular policies – nine in 10 people supported universal background checks for gun purchases – don’t ensure political victory, especially if supporters of the change care much less than opponents.
With a divided government for his final two years, Obama faces little promise of any major policy moving through typical legislative channels. He might pick and choose his battles – weighing public opinion – to see where he can move things using executive action.
But support for the ends isn't the same as support for the means.