GOP Candidates Are to Voters' Right on Immigration and Auto Bailouts

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Conventional wisdom says the primary is pushing the candidates to the right, but on some issues they're more hawkish than the base.

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Largely overlooked in the Arizona and Michigan showdowns between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum were signs of resistance from GOP primary voters in each state to key positions held by both men.

Both Santorum and Romney have opposed any pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., with Romney embracing a policy of toughened workplace enforcement that would encourage "self-deportation."

But according to the CNN exit poll from Tuesday's Arizona primary, just 31 percent of Republican voters said that the U.S. should seek to deport all illegal immigrants. A 36 percent plurality instead they should be allowed to apply for citizenship; another 27 percent said they should be allowed to stay as temporary workers.

That was virtually identical to the results among GOP voters in last month's Florida primary. In that exit poll, 30 percent of Republican voters said they supported deportation; a 38 percent plurality said illegal immigrants should be allowed to apply for citizenship; and the remaining 27 percent said they should be allowed to stay as temporary workers.

In both states, then, nearly two-thirds of Republican voters said they supported mechanisms that would allow illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. and work legally, rather than face deportation. (Among the major candidates only Newt Gingrich supports anything like that policy, and even he does not go nearly that far.) That result is even more striking in Arizona, where illegal immigration has been a powerfully divisive issue, than in Florida, where the issue has been much more muted, in part because it is not relevant to Cuban-Americans and Puerto Ricans, the state's two largest Hispanic groups.

Frank Sharry is executive director of America's Voice, a group that advocates for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. As he noted in a release Wednesday highlighting the Arizona exit poll results, the state has been "one of the hotbeds of anti-immigrant sentiment." But, he argued, the results suggest that "even here, the deportation approach pushed by Romney and associated with the Republican Party runs straight into a strain of practicality...."

In Michigan, the GOP candidates collided as well with a significant number of Republican voters on the auto industry bailout (or rescue, depending on your point of view.) All of the GOP contenders opposed it, Romney most vociferously. But in the exit poll from Tuesday's Michigan primary, fully 44 percent of GOP voters said they supported the deal, compared to 50 percent who opposed it. Those numbers partly reflect the attitudes among Democrats who crossed over to participate in the GOP primary. But even 37 percent of self-identified Michigan Republicans who voted in the primary backed the bailout, according to figures provided by CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.

That's consistent with the findings from an NBC/Marist Institute Michigan survey in late February. That poll found the auto-industry intervention drew support from 41 percent of Michigan Republicans, 61 percent of Michigan independents, and 80 percent of Michigan Democrats -- 63 percent of voters overall. The bail-out's local popularity is one reason why some analysts in both parties have concluded that any of the GOP contenders are unlikely to return in the general election to seriously contest Michigan, which has now voted Democratic in each presidential race since 1992.

Image: Rebecca Cook / Reuters

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Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is National Journal Group's editorial director, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for both National Journal and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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