GOP Pollsters Defend Pro-Immigration Stance for Republicans

Republican pollsters say the GOP needs to soften its stance on immigration, but they have a hard time explaining what happened to Eric Cantor.

A group of military 'DREAMers', undocumented youth who aspire to serve the United States but are prohibited from doing so due to their immigration status, rally in front of the U.S. Captiol May 20, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
June 11, 2014, 8:17 a.m.

Re­pub­lic­an poll­sters have some ex­plain­ing to do on im­mig­ra­tion. They say that al­most three-fourths of Re­pub­lic­an voters are adam­ant that Con­gress should take “im­me­di­ate ac­tion to fix” im­mig­ra­tion, and that more than two-thirds of Re­pub­lic­ans think the cur­rent pop­u­la­tion of un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants should be giv­en some type of leg­al status.

So how do they ex­plain Eric Can­tor? Just last week, Can­tor sent a memo to House Re­pub­lic­ans out­lining the floor agenda for June. Im­mig­ra­tion wasn’t on the list, sup­posedly be­cause it was too con­tro­ver­sial for Re­pub­lic­an law­makers to handle. And des­pite his cau­tion on the top­ic, Can­tor is now a lame duck.

“I would cau­tion against draw­ing any easy short­hand con­clu­sions that im­mig­ra­tion was the thing that drove the elec­tion in Can­tor’s dis­trict yes­ter­day,” said Jon Lern­er, founder of Bass­wood Re­search, who has done polling for Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Tim Scott, R-S.C. “I don’t know that there’s much evid­ence to sup­port that no­tion.”

Lern­er ac­know­ledged that he has done no polling in Can­tor’s dis­trict. But, he ad­ded, “I’ve been in­volved in many years in many tea-party in­sur­gents against in­cum­bents. I don’t know of a single race in which the im­mig­ra­tion is­sue played a sig­ni­fic­ant part in those tea-party vic­tor­ies. I’m not be­ing en­tirely dis­missive, but it is prob­ably too pat an an­swer to say that im­mig­ra­tion prob­ably played a big role in it.”

Pivot­ing away from Can­tor, Whit Ayres, head of North­star Opin­ion Re­search, said Tues­day’s easy win for a Lind­sey Gra­ham — a pro-im­mig­ra­tion re­form sen­at­or from South Car­o­lina — is “a much bet­ter re­flec­tion” of im­mig­ra­tion as viewed by the whole of the GOP vot­ing bloc. Gra­ham, after all, cam­paigned on his sup­port for a Sen­ate bill that in­cludes a path to cit­izen­ship for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants. His nick­name among those who op­pose the Sen­ate bill is “Gra­ham­nesty.”

“Let’s not get caught up with just the news of yes­ter­day,” Ayres ad­ded, be­com­ing in­creas­ingly de­fens­ive as re­port­ers peppered him with ques­tions about why Re­pub­lic­ans aren’t act­ing on im­mig­ra­tion.

Ayres and Lern­er were part of an ar­ray of GOP poll­sters gathered at a Cap­it­ol Hill hotel Wed­nes­day, hours after the House ma­jor­ity lead­er from Vir­gin­ia suffered a stun­ning de­feat in his primary elec­tion. The event was sup­posed to be an op­por­tun­ity for op­er­at­ives with ser­i­ous con­ser­vat­ive street cred — folks who polled for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and worked for the likes of Reps. Michele Bach­mann of Min­nesota and Steve King of Iowa — to ex­plain to Re­pub­lic­an law­makers that it makes sense to sup­port some type of leg­al­iz­a­tion for people here il­leg­ally.

Um, right. Can­tor’s loss, rightly or wrongly, is con­sidered to be a dir­ect res­ult of his op­pon­ent Dave Brat’s as­ser­tions that he is a pro-am­nesty law­maker. That’s far from the truth, but nev­er you mind. The ar­gu­ment ob­vi­ously per­suaded more than a few voters to oust him.

House GOP lead­ers have put off deal­ing with im­mig­ra­tion all year, say­ing that they need to get past the primar­ies be­fore they can tackle a top­ic that could put their in­cum­bent mem­bers in jeop­ardy. House Speak­er Boehner has been open about say­ing he wants to act on the is­sue, but he knows that his mem­bers have noth­ing but grief to face from their core voters if they vote on any­thing that re­laxes the re­stric­tions on un­au­thor­ized im­mig­rants.

Can­tor’s de­feat won’t help, even if most of the primar­ies are over. Im­mig­ra­tion lob­by­ists say they have spent in­or­din­ate hours on Cap­it­ol Hill try­ing to con­vince on-the-fence Re­pub­lic­ans that they shouldn’t fear sup­port­ing an im­mig­ra­tion plan that might al­low some people without pa­pers to be­come leg­al. These lob­by­ists say about half of the GOP House mem­bers “don’t sup­port it, but aren’t against it either.”

In oth­er words, these law­makers might vote for an im­mig­ra­tion-re­form bill if all the polit­ic­al sig­nals are point­ing in the right dir­ec­tion and a bunch of their col­leagues vote for it, too. These aren’t brave souls. They aren’t go­ing to stick their necks out after watch­ing what happened to their ma­jor­ity lead­er.

The GOP poll­sters presen­ted data show­ing the op­pos­ite view point us­ing a series of pub­lic-opin­ion sur­veys at the be­hest of FWD.us, a pro-im­mig­ra­tion re­form group spear­headed by Face­book cofounder Mark Zuck­er­berg. Giv­en that Zuck­er­berg is sup­port­ive of im­mig­ra­tion re­form, a re­port­er asked them, “Why should we trust you on this?”

Dav­id Win­ston, pres­id­ent of The Win­ston Group, re­spon­ded curtly: “If I may, it’s be­cause that’s what the data says.”

“What I’m say­ing is simply the fact, is that we have a huge prob­lem win­ning na­tion­al elec­tions. It was the prob­lem yes­ter­day. It is still the prob­lem today,” said Rob Jes­mer, an es­tab­lished Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ive who now works for FWD.us.

The group’s res­ults show that with one-fourth of His­pan­ics already com­mit­ted as Re­pub­lic­ans, an­oth­er one-fourth of His­pan­ic voters are up for grabs if Re­pub­lic­ans take a more mod­er­ate stance on im­mig­ra­tion. They also say more than half of all Re­pub­lic­an voters don’t be­lieve that a 13-year path to cit­izen­ship along the lines of a Sen­ate-passed bill is “am­nesty.”

How to ex­plain Can­tor? “The dust is still set­tling,” said B.J. Mar­tino of The Tar­rance Group.

“This data is not about Eric Can­tor. It’s about the long-term fu­ture of the Re­pub­lic­an Party,” said Randy Guter­muth, chief op­er­at­ing of­ficer of Amer­ic­an View­point.

But GOP mem­bers look­ing at Can­tor’s de­feat may not be wor­ry­ing about their long-term fu­ture.

Here are the polling firms par­ti­cip­at­ing in the pro­ject:

Amer­ic­an View­point (cli­ents: the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee, the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee, and the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee);

Bass­wood Re­search (cli­ents: Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Tim Scott, R-S.C.);

GS Strategy Group (former ad­viser to Sen. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., and New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie);

Moore In­form­a­tion (cli­ents: Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Na­tion­al Pork Board, and Na­tion­al Biod­ies­el Board);

North­star Opin­ion Re­search (cli­ents: Sens. Marco Ru­bio, R-Fla., Lamar Al­ex­an­der, R-Tenn., and Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C.);

The Polling Com­pany (cli­ents: Freedom­Works, The Her­it­age Found­a­tion), Pub­lic Opin­ion Strategies (lead poll­ster for Mitt Rom­ney in 2012);

The Tar­rance Group (cli­ent: House Speak­er John Boehner);

Wilson Per­kins Al­len Opin­ion Re­search (cli­ent: Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas);

The Win­ston Group (former staffer for House Speak­er Newt Gin­grich and seni­or fel­low at the Her­it­age Found­a­tion).

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