Are Rank-and-File GOP Voters Pro-Tax and Anti-Immigration?

by Reihan Salam

Back in January, Gallup released a survey which found that 60 percent of Americans were dissatisfied with current immigration levels. Of course, this could mean almost anything. Were they dissatisfied because immigration levels were too high or because they weren’t high enough? Well, it turns out that 39 percent of all Americans are dissatisfied because immigration levels are too high while only 7 percent were dissatisfied because immigration levels are too low. A large majority (84 percent) of Republicans are dissatisfied, which isn’t too surprising, yet large numbers of independents (54 percent) and Democrats (44 percent) are dissatisfied as well. These findings came to mind in light of another recent survey, from the Washington Post and ABC News, which finds that only 21 percent of Americans would favor a candidate who pledges never to raise taxes while 74 percent would favor a candidate who did not sign such a pledge, as Aaron Blake of the Post reports. Among Republicans, interestingly, only 26 percent favor a candidate who’d make an anti-tax pledge while 69 percent would favor a candidate who did not. To my mind, the fact that self-identified Republicans are overwhelmingly inclined to restrict immigration levels while they’re also overwhelmingly inclined to back candidates who are open to tax increases tells us something interesting and important about the state of GOP politics. Can you think of a Republican lawmaker or presidential candidate who both opposes President Obama’s comprehensive immigration reform effort yet who is also open to, say, capping itemized deduction for high-income households to reduce future deficits? Whether this is a wise or coherent set of positions or not, it does seem to reflect what many rank-and-file Republican voters actually believe. Yet I can’t think of anyone who falls in this category. Republicans who are soft on taxes also tend to favor increasing immigration levels while immigration hawks are by and large firmly committed to holding the line on taxes. Why might this be the case?

One crude theory is that the most prolific Republican donors are disproportionately likely to be both anti-tax and pro-immigration, and they have a great deal of influence over a given party’s agenda. But this is a gross oversimplification. Many donors take what I think of as the David Koch view, and which is shared by many Fortune 500 CEOs. That is, they are open to higher taxes as part of a larger effort to balance the budget while also being strongly pro-immigration, both on narrowly economic grounds (immigration can help suppress wage growth, particularly when it is employer-driven) and on sentimental or ideological grounds (favoring increased immigration signals tolerance and openness). My guess is that donors aren’t literally calling the shots but rather that there is some temperamental connection at work. And I find that surprising, as it makes intuitive sense to me to link a soft-on-taxes work-ethic conservatism that calls for increasing in-work benefits like the EITC with support for restricting less-skilled immigration, on the grounds that we want to encourage work and that we want the labor market for less-skilled Americans to be tighter than it is at present. Regardless of what I think, these two poll results suggest that the Republican base is less straightforwardly libertarian than we tend to think. 

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