The Corner

Immigration Politics, Part II

Our own Mark Krikorian writes on immigration and politics. I wanted to share some thoughts on the matter and analyze some of the numbers.

Mark writes:

McCain’s move to the right on immigration (at least rhetorically) since the failure of his amnesty bill provides further evidence of the sustained significance of immigration, a move that is manifested by his pledge to secure the borders “first” (though the corollary is that he would then have an amnesty, something people often don’t hear). As John O’Sullivan notes, “one of the endearing things about McCain is his inability to pander in a convincing way,” so many people don’t believe his claims to have “seen the light” on immigration. On the other hand, many do. For instance, the California exit polls showed that 29 percent of those who favored mass deportation of illegals as the solution to illegal immigration voted for McCain.

I feel that there is an unwarranted assumption about the numbers here: namely, that Californians who say they support mass deportation of illegal immigrants are being fooled. What if they just don’t make it a priority when they vote? While down in Florida, I found many voters who said that they don’t like McCain’s views on immigration, but they still planned to support him for other reasons. I can’t buy the idea that anyone is confused about his position.

The more relevant number in the California exit polls — which Mark examines in the following paragraph — is where voters went if they named immigration as their top priority.

[I]llegal immigration was the most important issue for 29 percent of the state’s Republican primary voters (second only to the economy at 33 percent) and Romney clobbered McCain 45-25.

The immigration issue, then, broke 3 to 1 against McCain (75 percent versus 25 percent). So about 7.3 percent of all California Republican primary voters supported McCain because of his stand on immigration, while 21.7 percent voted against him because of it. (This assumes, of course, that all immigration-focused Huckabee voters perceived him as more of an immigration hawk than McCain.) McCain had roughly a 14-point deficit over the immigration issue among California Republicans.

Using the same calculation for other states, let’s measure McCain’s “maximum immigration deficit” in the GOP primaries in swing states:

New Hampshire: -14 percent

Michigan: -8 percent

Arizona: -10 percent

Florida: -8 percent

Is the immigration issue relevant in Republican primaries? Certainly. The numbers show that an outspoken position like McCain’s hurts at the margin. But how much would it hurt a Republican who just voted for his bill and wasn’t a leader on the issue?

What about general elections? Immigration is probably still relevant, but with smaller margins. Mark predicts McCain’s demise this November, in part because of the immigration issue. I cannot agree. For better or worse, I think that the odds now favor GOP retention of the White House (that’s something I never thought I’d see myself write this year). I don’t know what role — if any — immigration will have in suppressing conservative turnout for McCain, but an awful lot of conservatives showed up in 2004 to support President Bush, already a longtime supporter of a (still ill-defined) guest-worker program.

Mark also notes that Rahm Emanuel encourages his caucus to move right on immigration. But I wonder how much of the public’s concern about illegal immigration dissipates immediately in the face of any Democrat’s empty words about border security? How many times did this happen in 2006, to the detriment of the Jim Ryuns, Randy Grafs and J.D. Hayworths of the world?

Just a few thoughts to kick around on a Friday afternoon.

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