Lesson: immigration is a dud issue

Many Republican pollsters and strategists have a blind spot on immigration. Yes, immigration often shows up as a top concern when we ask the “most important issue” question.

But is it really salient to voters? Or are they just paying lip service to an issue they feel obligated to salute because of conservative media attention? After all, Rush talks about it. Hannity obsesses over it. Fox News is on top of it constantly. So a lot of conservatives and even independents feel obligated to affirm the issue’s importance. But does it control their votes like fiscal or moral issues might? I say not.

The anecdotal evidence pours in daily that immigration is a dud as an electoral issue, even in a Republican primary. And even the empirical results of exit polls are starting to demonstrate the same point.

You’d think that someone would notice that the first candidate to drop from the GOP field, Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.), was also the candidate who built his campaign almost entirely around the immigration issue. You might also think it worth mentioning that the only significant candidates to still be competing on the Republican side — John McCain and Mike Huckabee — have the least strident views on immigration. Immigration baiters, like Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani went to the showers early. Someone should ask: If the immigration issue is such a “killer” issue, why are its staunchest advocates such losers?

Looking at exit polls from Super Tuesday, I focused on mid-America’s Missouri to try and understand how this issue has fizzled. Missouri’s heterogeneous electorate provides an interesting cross-section that includes urban, suburban and rural voters. It’s not an immigration hot spot like some border or Sun Belt states, but it is being touched by immigration, just as most parts of the nation are. Estimates of the number of illegal aliens residing in Missouri range from 35,000 to 65,000.

The exit poll predictably found that a majority of Missouri primary Republicans took the harshest position on immigration.
Fifty-five (55) percent say the answer to illegal immigrants is to deport them. Only 22 percent favor a guestworker program and 21 percent support a path to citizenship. While most Americans and even most Republican identifiers would not be so callous — majorities seldom champion mass deportation — it is not surprising that primary Republicans would talk tough.

But tough talk wasn’t followed by any meaningful action. Just ask the Mitt Romney campaign. Of the Missouri Republicans who favored deportation, just 34 percent voted for Mitt Romney. He was tied by Mike Huckabee, the guy with the soft heart that anti-immigration zealots fear would give away the store to illegals. Even John McCain, architect of the Senate’s guest-worker program that some call amnesty, received the votes of 25 percent of the deportation crowd. Add up Huckabee’s and McCain’s votes and you get almost 60 percent, crushing Romney’s 34 percent.

The issue works a little better the other way. If you look at the most permissive Republicans, those who want a path to citizenship, a near-majority of them (46 percent) voted for McCain and another 24 percent for Huckabee. But what is surprising is that Romney was chosen by 26 percent of the path-to-citizenship crowd, only 8 percentage points less than he received from the tough-talking deportation advocates. If that single-digit boost is all that Romney’s focus on immigration garnered him, I am sure he’s wondering if he could get back some of the money his campaign squandered on this issue.

Our polling on these issues provides some insight into why positions like deportation don’t drive voting. Simply ask one more question: Would a mass deportation of millions of illegal aliens succeed? Virtually no one believes it would, so why support a candidate advocating the impossible?

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.