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Immigration: Not Really A Third Rail

By Reid Wilson

Groups who vehemently oppose illegal immigration enjoy something of a mythical status in American politics. Immigration, many have said, is the new third rail issue: A politician will tackle a comprehensive approach, including a guest worker program or anything that looks remotely sympathetic to illegal immigrants, at their own peril.

The issue is playing a big role in the 2008 Republican primary, as Mike Huckabee and John McCain are repeatedly criticized for their more liberal views on immigration. Even candidates who take a hard line on illegal immigration now, like Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, are finding their past positions scrutinized and criticized.

But outside of a Republican primary, how much does the issue really matter? A new poll from Zogby International suggests illegal immigration is unlikely to move a significant number of votes in the 2008 presidential race. But, say political strategists, the issue is fraught with danger for both parties.

Faced with a candidate with whom they agree on every other issue but disagree on immigration, 51% of likely voters said they would still support that candidate, while 32% said they would support a candidate with whom they agreed on immigration. That seems like a high percentage who would change their votes based on immigration policy. Instead, though, the rate is comparable to those who would change their votes based on health care policy (52% would still support the candidate while 29% would choose another) and federal tax policy (49% to 32%).

Republicans who have taken a hard line might stand to gain among the 43% of independents who might otherwise lean to Democrats who say they would switch their vote based on immigration policy. But in recent years, as the debate has shifted more toward anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric, those independents have not shown enough of a predilection to the GOP to tip any general election races. In fact, in 2006, many immigration advocates pointed out, not a single Congressional or Senate race can be said to have turned on immigration.

Strategists on both sides recognize immigration's lack of potency. "Immigration is not a vote-moving issue for most people, period," said Americans for Tax Reform chief Grover Norquist. Despite their focus on the issue, Republicans "have no scalps to show" for immigration, said Simon Rosenberg, founder and President of the New Democrat Network.

This year, Republicans look like they are pursuing the same strategy that served them so poorly last year. "The Republicans who are banking on immigration to be their ticket," said Cecilia Munoz, senior Vice President of the National Council of La Raza, "are really doing that in the face of widespread evidence that it doesn't work."

The lack of actual outcomes of races hinging on immigration is indicative of its power as an issue. "A number of candidates really tried to use this issue to mobilize the base, and it didn't happen for them," Munoz said. That's because those who feel strongly about the issue are virtually entirely within the GOP, according to Rosenberg. "This conversation about immigration really started in the Republican base, and it's continued in the Republican base," he added. While it can change the course of a Republican primary, as some Republican presidential candidates hope, "it just doesn't have great saliency with most voters."

Beyond a failure of the issue to move votes in a general election, any party that advocates a tougher line on immigration could in fact alienate Latino voters. For President Bush, who has always supported a more comprehensive approach to immigration reform instead of an enforcement-only approach, those voters proved critical. "This is a community, 40% of which supporter President Bush in his re-election campaign," said Cecilia Munoz, a senior vice president at the National Council of La Raza. If those voters had decided instead to back Senator John Kerry, the outcome of the entire election might have changed. "You can't win unless you get 40% of the Latino vote."

This year, Republicans "are pursuing a strategy for which there is no evidence that it will work, and for which there's a tremendous risk," National Immigration Forum Executive Director Frank Sherry. "It's more likely to be the wedge issue that backfires," costing the GOP a significant portion of those Latino votes. Indeed, after the Republican-led House passed an anti-immigration bill in 2005, sponsored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, Latinos chose Democrats by a 69%-29% margin in 2006. That was an eight-point decline in Republican performance from two years earlier, national exit polls showed.

Republican strategists also see a danger to their party on the issue, and are working to reframe the debate. "There's a difference between securing the border and deporting people who have been working here for ten or fifteen years," Norquist said. He pointed to Arizona's Fifth Congressional District, where Rep. J.D. Hayworth dedicated himself to aggressive enforcement of border laws. His opponent, former Tempe Mayor Harry Mitchell, pledged instead to secure the border. Today, Mitchell is a member of Congress. Hayworth is not. "If being the toughest guy on immigration is so good," Norquist asked, "how's [Rep. Tom] Tancredo doing in the polls?"

Constant attention to an issue that alienates Latinos, Sharry said, could do long-term damage to the GOP. In the 1880s, Republicans ran against Irish Catholic immigrants. No Republican until Ronald Reagan a hundred years later managed to win what became a key demographic.

But Democrats have little reason to celebrate just yet. "Give the immigration hawks their due. Their intensity is what brought down the Senate immigration bill" that focused on a comprehensive approach, Sharry said. "We never thought there was a huge pool of these voters, but they certainly make themselves visible and vocal."

As presidential candidates hit the trail, the issue is often brought up, and virtually never by those who stress anything but enforcement. "Whenever these candidates go out on the stump and go to these town hall meetings, they're just peppered with questions about immigration," said Ira Mehlman, of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that supports an enforcement-first approach. "The American public simply believes that the law needs to be enforced."

Immigration enforcement activists remain confident that theirs is an issue that moves voters. "I don't think there's any doubt about it," said Robert Goldsborough, president of Americans for Immigration Control. "Senator John McCain and Senator [Sam] Brownback found that out earlier in the year in Iowa," when voters criticized the two for what Goldsborough characterized as their "liberal" immigration stances.

Even Democrats get upset by the issue, he noted. "What happened to Hillary Clinton on the matter of illegal aliens getting drivers licenses in New York, she was caught in a whirlwind there," he said, referring to a controversial proposal from Gov. Eliot Spitzer. Spitzer came under such intense pressure because of the proposal that it was eventually scrapped. "Democrats and Republicans just both found it unacceptable." Goldsborough dismisses concerns that a hard line on immigration could hurt Republicans among Latinos, noting that, "historically, except for Cuban Americans, Hispanics have registered with the Democratic Party."

The issue is front and center for many important voters, said Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker. Pointing out that voters willing to change their votes over the issue tend to be older, and that older voters are more likely to actually go to the polls, Baker said there is still a risk to Democrats. "These are not anti-immigration people," he said. "These are people who I think at a very visceral level that the country they knew is changing in ways they did not have any hand in influencing."

"With immigration, it's an intensity issue," he continued. "These are people who are frustrated that the first instruction on the ATM screens is in Spanish."

That Democrats face trouble is one thing, at least, on which groups on both sides of the immigration debate agree. "There are some Democrats who have bought into the same logic that this is a wedge issue that can be used against them, so they should also sound like Republicans," Munoz, of La Raza, said. "Among Democrats, it's 'Oh my god, we're going to look soft, we're going to get attacked,'" Sharry added.

Democrats who hope to earn a larger percentage of the Latino vote simply because they are better than Republicans, Munoz said, will miss an opportunity to energize the fastest-growing voting bloc in the country.

But if Democrats actively engage Latino voters on immigration, the potential reward is huge. By attracting new voters in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Texas, as well as Florida, Democrats could dramatically improve their chances in presidential contests. "If those four Southwestern states and Florida ... go from purple to blue, we'll redraw the electoral map for a generation," Sharry said.

In 2008, both parties will face a stark choice. If Republicans take a hard line on immigration and drive away Latinos, they could feel the negative effects for a generation. If Democrats do not begin to embrace Latinos and rely only on being just a little better than the GOP, they will miss out on an opportunity to bring a large and growing voting bloc into a more permanent coalition.

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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