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GOP’s Mixed Signals on Immigration

Earlier this week, John Stanton wrote a detailed piece on why Republicans in the House who vote for comprehensive immigration reform are not actually putting themselves at high risk of getting challenged in a Republican primary. Then National Journal released the results of its latest poll, which showed that Republicans support passing immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship as long as it toughens border security, backing up Stanton’s reporting.

But then Politico published a story on Marco Rubio’s immigration “stumbles,” arguing that even though the bill passed the Senate, conservative anger over the bill means that “this isn’t where Rubio wanted to be.” They, too, can point to new polling to back them up: the latest Washington Post/ABC poll finds a majority of Republicans oppose a path to citizenship for those here illegally. I sympathize with the Post’s Greg Sargent when he writes today of the conventional wisdom that conservative voters oppose a path to citizenship and asks, “Can’t some crack polling guru type get to the bottom of whether it’s even true or not?”

If we work backwards, however, it’s a bit easier to get to the bottom of this. The general sense of momentum is currently against the immigration bill, at least as passed by the Senate. But Stanton’s reporting is heavily documented, and the National Journal poll gives respondents enough choices to get a reasonably accurate read on where they’d like the bill to go from here. So what we’re looking for is an explanation for why there can be broad support for the aims of the bill that still puts Rubio in a difficult spot and which supports the idea that the bill is in trouble.

The answer, I think, has a lot to do with the 2012 Republican primary election and the downfall of Rick Perry. Though Perry’s debate performances obviously had much to do with his freefall in the polls, the issue that hurt him the most was immigration. I think it goes too far to credit Perry’s pro-immigration stance solely or even mostly for his primary woes—Newt Gingrich, after all, took an almost identical position on immigration and it didn’t slow him down—but there’s no question it was a major factor. The pushback Perry got for telling voters to “have a heart” when dealing with illegal immigrants and their children inspired Mitt Romney to bolt to his right on the issue and make his infamous suggestion that illegal immigrants “self-deport.”

Most Republicans learned a lesson from that incident—but they didn’t all learn the same lesson. Republicans who were inclined to support immigration reform believed Romney’s self-deportation idea was the inevitable result of trying to square a circle: the status quo on immigration policy in America is a wreck, but if you want to pander to border hawks without ludicrously advocating for the deportation of 11 million immigrants, your policy essentially amounts to wishing the problem away. And expressing the sentiment that you want those immigrants to somehow disappear while also not offering a realistic solution to the immigration impasse is a surefire way to get clobbered in a national election among immigrant groups, which Romney did.

But those more inclined to believe a bipartisan immigration reform plan would simply amount to a mass amnesty without alleviating the conditions that brought the crisis about in the first place learned a very different lesson. They saw Perry’s collapse in the polls following his immigration remarks as proof that Republican voters by and large had rejected the McCain-led reform effort a few years earlier and were plain fed-up with the fact that they were now being called heartless for simply not changing their minds.

The message they heard was: What part of “No” don’t you understand? And though early-state Republican primary voters are not usually thought to be representative of all right-of-center Americans (it’s become more of a tradition to complain about the Iowa straw poll and caucuses than to treat them as a bellwether), the presidential candidates drive the news more than other politicians, and they drive the perception of the party as well.

That’s why it was so significant for Rubio to lead the reform effort, and why he tried to get Rand Paul to sign on. The current zeitgeist of the party’s grass roots is not going to be divined by listening to where Lindsey Graham or Steve King stands on an issue. The public is always going to pay more attention to the politicians who may be their next president—or at least a major party nominee. Rubio may support this bill, but Ted Cruz voted against it, as did Rand Paul. Bobby Jindal may be sympathetic to the cause of immigration reform, but he came out against the Senate bill too. Both Scott Walker and Chris Christie seemed reluctant to specifically endorse the Senate bill.

What you have, then, is Marco Rubio supporting his own bill—and pretty much everyone else on the 2016 slate, on both sides of the immigration debate, treating Rubio’s bill as if it were radioactive. It’s not surprising that different polls received conflicting answers depending on the wording of the poll question, but neither is it surprising that when it comes to prominent prospective GOP presidential candidates, Rubio has essentially been left to stand alone, and the public has noticed.