Mellman: Do polls see backlash over order?

I’ll have more to say about November’s elections in the coming weeks as additional numbers are crunched. In the meantime, what we can learn from President Obama’s immigration announcement and the polling attendant thereto?

President Obama has certainly not been shy about deporting those in the U.S. illegally. A record 438,421 unauthorized immigrants were deported in 2013 and more than 2 million have been deported since he took office. Obama deported about as many immigrants in five years as George W. Bush did in eight.

The president’s new initiative offers three-year work permits and deportation relief to about 4 million unauthorized immigrants, primarily parents who have lived in the U.S. for at least five years and have children who are U.S. citizens or legal residents.

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In other words, the administration will focus on deporting felons, not families. 

What can we learn from Americans’ reactions?

1. While immigration is not necessarily the top priority of the Latino community, it is important. A Latino Decisions poll of 450 Latino voters for pro-immigration-reform groups found 89 percent supporting the president’s action and only 9 percent opposed. Even three-quarters of Republican Latinos favored Obama’s action.

More telling, the president’s approval rating among Latinos shot up by 10 points in the wake of his announcement, according to Gallup polling. And the jump may have been even higher — comparing Obama’s approval rating post-announcement to the average among Hispanics in the four weeks before the news began to leak suggests an even bigger, 16-point bounce.

Put differently, Latino approval of Obama after the announcement was 25 points higher than that of the general population, but it had been less than 13 points higher in the preceding weeks.

2. In the Latino community, deportation is central and personal. Nearly half of Hispanics in a Pew poll worried that either they, a family member or a close friend could be deported. 

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Thus, by a 21-point margin, Latinos prioritized allowing unauthorized immigrants to live and work in the U.S. without the threat of deportation over providing those immigrants with a pathway to citizenship.

3. Other Americans didn’t particularly like the president’s action, but didn’t care a lot. In response to a CNN/ORC poll question that alluded to the president’s action without describing it, voters opposed it by a narrow 4-point margin, and opposed the changes taking effect as a result of executive action by 15 points. 

Yet, negative intensity was low. When offered some specifics of the plan, just 26 percent said it went too far. Though negative reactions were more widespread than positive feelings, only 16 percent were angered by the president’s announcement and another 27 percent displeased. 

Where the rubber met the road, in the president’s approval rating, there was even less evidence of real concern. Approval of Obama among whites was completely unchanged. Among African-Americans, the impact appeared more pronounced, with the president’s approval declining by 10 points to one of the two lowest levels in the history of the Obama presidency. 

Is the effect likely to be long lasting? No. But there was some evidence of backlash. 

4. Partisans tend to follow their leaders on these issues too. As Aaron Blake pointed out in The Washington Post, Republicans have become increasingly anti-immigrant as their leadership has taken up the cudgels in this battle. Although Republicans supported a path to citizenship over deportation 43 percent to 38 percent in a November 2013 Quinnipiac poll, today they support deportation over citizenship 54 percent to 27 percent. Indeed, almost all the increase in anti-immigrant sentiment came among Republicans.

As a result, 2016 GOP presidential candidates will likely once again demagogue immigration as they campaign for their party’s nomination, further alienating the Latino community, continuing to drive these voters into the welcoming arms of Democrats. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.