Are Democrats Still Winning on Immigration?

Polling shows the public is divided on immigration reform, while divisions within the Democratic party are worsening.
Noah Berger/Reuters

Polling the public on policy preferences is an inherently tricky issue. Changing the precise wording and framing of questions can elicit dramatically different results. Even the same poll can yield contradictory sentiments from the same people. Voters can say they support entitlement cuts, yet cherish their Social Security and Medicare benefits at the same time. Or support more-limited American engagement overseas, while being dissatisfied with President Obama's passive leadership on foreign policy.

The list goes on. It's remarkably easy for any interest group to cherry-pick findings that match its policy preferences, or worse, tailor poll questions designed to elicit a certain response. And truth be told, most "average" voters don't have time to pay close attention to the specific policy debates taking place on Capitol Hill, and their opinions on hot-button issues are awfully malleable.

Which brings me to the issue of immigration reform. You'd think, based on the Republican hand-wringing on the subject, that significant majorities back a comprehensive package along the lines of what the Senate passed in June. But the reality, like with many other issues, is that public opinion is mixed. A CBS News poll in May found a significant 56 percent majority said securing the border was a higher priority than dealing with illegal immigrants, but more than half also said that illegal immigrants should stay in the country, and eventually apply for citizenship. Nearly two-thirds of respondents told Gallup in June that "immigration was a good thing," but a 41 percent plurality said immigration to this country should be decreased. Only 33 percent of voters said they approve of President Obama's handling of the current border crisis, according to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, but a 53 percent majority support his spending plan to deal with the crisis.

Meanwhile, immigration, which routinely lagged as a secondary priority for most voters despite the increased attention from Congress and the media, is now the top issue for voters, according to a new Gallup survey. The surge in interest is in reaction to the flood of unaccompanied Central American minors to the border—an issue that animates Republican voters, in particular.

The conventional wisdom has long held that immigration is the equivalent of Kryptonite for Republicans: If they don't pass comprehensive reform, their party is writing its own extinction. Indeed, GOP officials have been publicly telegraphing their own vulnerabilities on the subject for years, highlighted by a 2013 RNC-commissioned report where immigration was the only policy area where the authors recommended the party moderate its positioning.

But what if that isn't the case? A look at the current politics surrounding immigration suggest that Democrats are facing as much conflicting internal pressures from the current border crisis as Republicans face from their own base when it comes to "amnesty," or legalizing illegal immigrants. President Obama is caught between his base, which has been pushing him to treat the migrants as refugees and settle them in the country, and the majority of voters, who believe that most should be returned to their home countries.

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Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal.

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