When Romney ran again in 2012, he moved still further right on immigration. He denounced Texas Gov. Rick Perry for backing in-state tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants and pledged to tighten enforcement to a level that encouraged immigrants here illegally to pursue "self-deportation." Though former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, one of Romney's chief rivals, insisted that the country would not deport millions of families, no major candidate made the case for providing citizenship to those here illegally.
Though George W. Bush won the GOP nomination in 2000 while broadly supporting immigration reform, the past two races have hardened the assumption among many Republican operatives that support for legalizing the undocumented—which conservatives deride as "amnesty"—is an unsustainable position in the GOP primary.
But the polling evidence isn't so clear-cut. While surveys show that citizenship faces an impassioned streak of resistance among likely Republican voters, the polls offer mixed signals on whether enough voters remain open to a candidate holding that position to build a winning coalition.
The most ominous result for Bush came in the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll. In that survey, 62 percent of Republican primary voters said they would be less favorable toward a candidate "who supports a pathway to citizenship for foreigners who are currently staying illegally in the United States," while only 22 percent indicated they would be more favorable. The share of GOP voters who said they would be less favorable toward a candidate supporting citizenship exceeded the portion who indicated resistance to a candidate favoring Common Core curriculum reform (52 percent), raising taxes on the wealthy (51 percent), or same-sex marriage (50 percent).
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, McCain's issue director in 2008 and now president of the American Action Forum, a center-right think tank, says that because of its phrasing, that result overstates GOP voter opposition to citizenship. "It's too simple, because when you just ask it that way, people skip over the pathway [language] and they just think 'citizenship-amnesty-bad,'" he said. "That's the trap."
A series of surveys in recent years have found that most Republicans reject deportation and are willing to accept some legal status for the undocumented—but only a minority of them endorse full citizenship.
Polling conducted by longtime GOP pollster Whit Ayres for AAF last year found that a 56 percent to 36 percent majority of likely GOP primary voters would accept a legal status "that does not provide full citizenship." But by a 48 percent to 44 percent plurality, GOP primary voters rejected citizenship, the survey found. Polls by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center during the 2013 immigration debate likewise found that, while a solid majority of about three-fifths of Republicans believed the undocumented should be allowed to legally remain in the United States, only about one-third of GOP partisans endorsed citizenship.