Poll after poll has shown more Americans oppose than support President Obama's executive action on immigration. In sum:
- A CNN/Opinion Research poll showed Americans opposed it 56-41.
- The Pew Research Center showed 50 percent opposed and 46 percent in favor.
- Gallup showed Americans disapproved 51-41.
This week, though, came the new Washington Post-ABC News poll. It shows a significantly different picture: 52 percent of Americans support the executive action, while 44 percent oppose it -- an eight-point margin in favor of the action.
The reason? The policy is explained, in detail. The politics, though, are a different question -- both in the poll and in reality.
Here's the question the WaPo-ABC poll asked:
Obama has taken an executive action under which as many as four million of the country’s undocumented immigrants will not face deportation over the next three years if they pass a background check and meet other requirements. Most will need to show that they have been in the United States for at least five years and have children who were born here. Do you support or oppose this immigration program?
As we've written before, the more you explain the policies contained in immigration reform, the more support it will generally have. This question lists a series of the policy's finer points, each of which a strong majority of Americans probably support -- i.e. not deporting illegal immigrants, background checks, demonstrating five years of residence and having a U.S.-born child. That's a lot of hoops to jump through, and they make it more palatable.
The question makes brief mention that these policies are being implemented by "executive action," but doesn't dwell on it or explain that aspect.
When questions do emphasize the sausage-making process, though, is when support drops.
CNN's poll asked two separate questions. First, it asked about whether people supported the policies Obama outlined. In that case, people were split, with 42 percent in favor and 46 percent opposed.
Then CNN asked about Obama doing this without the consent of Congress. Quickly, opposition grew from 46 percent to the aforementioned 56 percent. That's telling.
The initial CNN question, we would stress, doesn't detail the actual policies, and neither did the question Gallup asked. Pew mentions only that it's an "executive action" that "expands the number of undocumented immigrants who are allowed to stay and work in the country." That's a big reason why support in these polls is lower than in the WaPo-ABC poll.
So basically, if you emphasize the policies, it's more popular; if you emphasize the executive action, it's less popular.
Immigration reform supporters will look at this and say, 'See, what Obama did is what the American people want!' This is true, policy-wise. But these polls also demonstrate that there are significant reservations about him having done so without Congress. And both the policy and the methods/politics matter.
Our new poll reinforces that. It shows Americans say 49-47 that Obama exceeded his authority in taking this action. It also mentioned that Obama said he had to take the action because Congress wasn't acting. A slight majority -- 51 percent -- said that's not a good enough reason, while 46 percent said it was.
The White House often seems to believe that good policy will take care of the politics. That has been the case on health-care reform too, and polls do indicate that many policies contained in Obamacare are much more popular than the law as a whole.
That approach hasn't always worked (as Obama's approval rating shows). But that's clearly the gamble here ... again.
Update 10:47 a.m.: The estimable Scott Clement, with a little prodding from E.J. Dionne, tells us more about the folks who like the action but say it wasn't warranted.