Immigration: A Litmus Test for the GOP?

By James R. Edwards, Jr. on September 8, 2011

Immigration has become a litmus test for Republican voters, the Washington Post has reported. This marks a significant development for the issue and for the GOP electorate, which leans more to the right on issues in general. It also has political ramifications for candidates. (Mark Krikorian commented on the article here.)

From the Post article:

Polls may not suggest it, and the candidates may not be catering to it, but immigration is an issue that voters won't let the GOP White House hopefuls escape.

Republican primary voters keep bringing immigration up as the candidates campaign in back yards, opera houses and recreation halls across Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. To a sizable chunk of those who will pick the GOP's presidential nominee, immigration is an urgent issue, even a litmus test.

"Immigration is not even close to the top issue for most Republicans today, but it is an issue that is heavy with symbolic importance to Republican voters," said GOP pollster Jon Lerner, who advised Tim Pawlenty until he dropped out of the race last month. "If a candidate is squishy on immigration, that symbolically suggests that he's probably unreliable on a whole host of other conservative issues."

First, most voters (including some independents) have long treated candidates' positions on certain key issues – for conservatives and GOP-leaning independents, a handful of issues such as gun rights, taxes, responsible fiscal policy, abortion – as shorthand for candidates' stances on a range of issues extending too long for most candidates to be able to develop fleshed-out positions on. For Democratic voters, issues like environmental preservation, labor unionism, pro-choice, and heavy taxation and generous government spending comprise a quick way to judge a candidate as acceptable or not.

That immigration has been elevated by the voting public to the few key issues on which to assess candidates indicates this issue has steeped deeply into the political landscape. When Professor Gimpel and I wrote our book, The Congressional Politics of Immigration Reform, few candidates for Congress raised the immigration issue in their campaigns. Increasingly over the past decade, candidates not only are prepared to state a strong position on immigration if asked, many now include immigration as one of several issues on which they run. And we're talking candidates from districts and states far from the Southwest border.

Second, the fact GOP primary voters keep raising the immigration issue to candidates, including presidential aspirants, means this issue has developed saliency and staying power. Immigration as a political issue, therefore, persists as a key voter concern, regardless of what other issues may appear to be hotter in typical polls ranking issues by importance. Thus, Republican candidates had better be right on the immigration issue, just as they had better be solid on the Second Amendment, taxes, etc., if they hope to pass muster with rank-and-file voters.

Now, Republican candidates can expect significant voting blocs to demand their immigration position. And those voters will expect credible candidates to be right on immigration – that is, for border security, against amnesty, and skeptical of overgenerous immigration policies. Being on the Bush-McCain squish side of the immigration issue could very well be hazardous to a Republican candidate's political health.

The prospects of Texas Gov. Rick Perry are a case in point. The initial attraction of Gov. Perry may subside as his positions on immigration issues come to light. He has quickly risen to take a plurality of the primary vote in national polls, costing candidates who've been running for longer to slip in such (imperfect) surveys.

But Gov. Perry tracks closer to former President George Bush's immigration stances – which cost him much support among his GOP base. For instance, Gov. Perry opposes a border fence. He told an audience in New Hampshire, "'No, I don't support a fence on the border,' he said, while referring to the long border in Texas alone. 'The fact is, it's 1,200 miles from Brownsville to El Paso. Two things: How long you think it would take to build that? And then if you build a 30-foot wall from El Paso to Brownsville, the 35-foot ladder business gets real good.'" Such flippancy may well offend primary voters who demand the most straightforward first step toward securing the border.

Gov. Perry also criticized Arizona's S.B. 1070 last year. He signed into law a bill giving in-state tuition to illegal aliens. Such squishy stances on immigration-related specifics may turn off voters, as they learn his pockmarked record.

Candidates who parrot Bushisms about the border, family values not stopping at the Rio Grande, and similar tripe are taking their political future onto thin ice. The new salience and resilience of immigration with key voters may well pare vital political support from those candidates. The last thing many GOP voters want is a repeat of so-called "compassionate conservatism" – a misnomer for a lot of misguided policies that cost taxpayers a lot of money and still leaves a bad taste in many people's mouths. And immigration is exactly the kind of issue on which to gauge a candidate's soundness – a litmus test.