Why Does Immigration Divide the GOP Along Lines of Education and Age?

In the internal GOP debate over immigration, a persistent trend has emerged: Republicans without college degrees stand farther to the right than most candidates.

The Homeland Security Department headquarters in northwest Washington. (National Journal)

Across the key issues related to both legal and undocumented immigration, significantly more Republicans without a college degree expressed conservative views than Republicans who have completed at least four years of higher education, according to detailed results provided to Next America from a Pew Research Center national survey. Likewise, older Republicans embraced conservative views more often than the party's younger members, the survey found.

These consistent contrasts may help explain why several of the likely 2016 GOP candidates jostling for blue-collar support have camped out positions not only opposing any path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but also urging reductions in the level of legal immigration—a view rarely heard in recent presidential elections. That list includes Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and in a more limited way, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Santorum has called for reducing legal immigration by 25 percent, while Walker has spoken more generally of reducing legal immigration levels to protect American workers, especially during slow economic times. Huckabee has sharply criticized the H1-B visa program favored by technology companies to bring in high-skilled immigrants. Among the other candidates, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has most forcefully rejected the calls for reducing legal immigration levels.

(RELATED: Here's What All the Republican Presidential Contenders Think About Immigration)

The challenge for the GOP field is that the immigration positions preferred by their growing blue-collar faction generally land well to the right of the country overall, including independents. If one of the candidates holding these hardline positions wins the nomination—or succeeds in substantially pulling the eventual nominee toward their views—that could leave the party crosswise with majority opinion in next year's general election.

The education and generational splits among Republicans on immigration are mirrored to varying degrees on other cultural issues such as gay marriage, notes veteran GOP pollster Glen Bolger. "The Democrats went through this back when they had blue-collar whites vote for them, but they left and came to our party," said Bolger, who is working in 2016 for the super PAC supporting former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. "Our party has changed from a kind of suburban middle manager party to a party that is more diverse, not racially, but socioeconomically. Now some of the strains that used to affect Democrats between hippies and union members are affecting Republicans on our side of the spectrum."

"Our party has changed from a kind of suburban middle manager party to a party that is more diverse, not racially, but socioeconomically. Now some of the strains that used to affect Democrats between hippies and union members are affecting Republicans on our side of the spectrum." —GOP pollster Glen Bolger

After years of class and generational realignment in American politics, the GOP primary electorate increasingly reflects the influence of older and working-class voters. Voters older than 50 cast at least 55 percent of the ballots in all 20 states with an exit poll in the 2012 Republican race, and at least 60 percent of the vote in all but four them. Non-college Republicans represented a majority of voters in 13 of those 20 states, and at least 45 percent in four more. While hardline positions on immigration could complicate Republican outreach to minorities in the general election, that potential conflict is unlikely to matter much in the primaries: Whites cast at least 90 percent of the vote in 18 of the 20 the 2012 GOP primaries with exit polls last time.

(RELATED: The Bush Family Throughout the Decades)

The distance between blue-collar and older Republicans and other voters are clear on the central choices relating both to legal and undocumented immigrants, according to the figures provided to Next America by Pew from its national survey released last week. Fully 45 percent of non-college Republican partisans (including independents who lean toward the party) said that undocumented immigrants in the U.S. should not be provided legal status. Only 28 percent of college-educated Republicans agreed. Most college-educated Republicans believe the estimated 11-million plus undocumented immigrants should be allowed to apply for permanent residency (35 percent) or citizenship (31 percent). Among non-college Republicans, a combined 51 percent said the undocumented should be allowed to apply for citizenship (30 percent) or legal status short of citizenship (21 percent).

Similarly, 45 percent of Republicans over 50, compared to only 36 percent of younger GOP partisans, think that the undocumented should not be provided any legal status. Just 25 percent of older Republicans, as opposed to 37 percent of the younger, say that the undocumented should be allowed to apply for citizenship. (About one-fourth of each group supports a pathway to legal status short of citizenship.)

Non-college Republicans represented a majority of voters in 13 of those 20 states with an exit poll, and at least 45 percent in four more.

These views place older-and blue-collar Republicans well to the right of the country overall. In the Pew survey, just 27 percent of all adults say the undocumented should be denied any legal status, while 42 percent said they should be able to apply for citizenship and 26 percent backed permanent residency.

On legal immigration, older and blue-collar Republicans express the most conservative views too. Nationally, just 31 percent of those that Pew surveyed said that legal immigration should be reduced. Republican partisans who are either college-educated (at 30 percent supporting a reduction) and or younger than 50 (at 35 percent) largely tracked those views. But 42 percent of both Republicans without college degrees and those older than 50 want to reduce the legal immigration level.

(RELATED: Immigration Activists Won't 'Coronate' Hillary Clinton As Their Candidate)

The remaining non-college Republicans preferred to either maintain the current level of immigration (35 percent) or increase it (20 percent). By contrast, nearly two-thirds of college-educated Republicans would either maintain (42 percent) or increase (23 percent) current levels. Nationally, 24 percent of adults would increase legal immigration, while 39 percent would maintain the current level, Pew found.

On both of these issues, non-college Democrats took positions that were more conservative than the party's college-educated voters, but much less conservative than the blue-collar Republicans. Among the non-college Democrats, 29 percent supported reducing the current level of legal immigration and only 19 percent opposed any legal status for the undocumented. (Among college educated Democrats just one-in-six would reduce legal immigration and only one-in-eleven deny the undocumented any legal status.)

Looking across the entire adult population, the share calling for reductions in legal immigration has declined from 51 percent in 2000 to the 31 percent today, Pew reported.

Republican partisans also positioned themselves well to the right of other voters on another measure of broader views about immigrants' role in American society.

(RELATED: Still No Clear Path to Boost High-Skilled Immigration)

Asked to assess immigrants' overall impact on American society, a 51 percent of all adults in the Pew poll agreed that "immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents." By contrast, 41 percent endorsed the competing statement that "immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care." College-educated Republicans landed noticeably to the right of that, with 38 percent endorsing the favorable statement and 49 percent endorsing the negative one. Republicans under 50 divided along similar lines: 41 percent positive, and 51 percent negative.

But non-college and older Republicans were much more negative than either group. Among non-college Republicans, 29 percent said immigrants are strengthening American society, while 62 percent viewed them mostly as a "burden." The balance was even more lopsided among Republicans older than 50: 67 percent of them viewed immigrants mostly as a "burden" while just 23 percent said they mostly strengthened America.

In comparison, across the entire population almost four-fifths of Latinos, nearly two-thirds of millennials, just over three-fifths of all college graduates, and 55 percent of African-Americans say immigrants mostly benefit American society.

That visceral recoil to immigrants from large portions of the GOP base underscores the challenge that the party faces in trying to appeal to a diversifying electorate while also holding support from the older, working-class and rural elements of American society most unsettled by demographic change.