Whose Side Are You On?

By Mark Krikorian on September 2, 2011

A front-page piece in today's Washington Post reports:

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.

Here's the main takeaway of the article:

"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."

The gap between voters and elites is large on immigration, perhaps larger than on any other issue (for more on this, see here, here, here, here, and here). So a candidate's immigration statements become a populist diagnostic tool, serving as a way to determine whether a candidate is one of Them (the elite) or one of Us (the people). And certain words and phrases are flashing lights that you're one of Them: "comprehensive," "undocumented," "jobs Americans won't do," "virtual fence," "we can't deport 11 million people," and so on.

This isn't true only on the right, but also among independents and Reagan Democrats (remember Hillary's seemingly hawkish immigration comments early in her campaign?). But obviously the right is where this will matter most over the next year, presenting maybe the greatest threat to Perry, since his squishiness on immigration is so much in contrast with his swaggering persona.