On immigration, polling defies assumptions

This post originally appeared in TribTalk.

The issue of immigration and border security has taken another turn in the Texas spotlight in recent weeks. Yet the surprisingly complex patterns of public opinion on the issue call into question many of the assumptions that seem to be informing media coverage — and even political strategy.

Among conservative Republicans, immigration, of course, has long been a salient issue, making the tried-and-true strategy of candidates moderating their position as they proceed out of the primary and into the general election a difficult course for the state’s GOP ticket. On the other side, Texas Democrats increasingly see in militant Republican rhetoric — and even calmly stated concerns about immigration — the opportunity to defend their existing advantage among Latino voters as well as to mobilize the state’s significant number of non-voting Hispanics. But even this conventional wisdom about Texas’ Hispanic population oversimplifies what is a rather complicated set of attitudes.

Last month, state Sen. Dan Patrick’s runoff victory in a campaign notable for its heated immigration rhetoric seemed to mark the apex of Texas’ most recent debate on the issue. By the time of his victory speech, Patrick seemed to be signaling (at least as much as he could manage) a change in tone, saying that he intended “to go into Hispanic communities ... all across the state.” Part of this pivot likely meant that Republican candidates — with the primaries behind them — would talk less about immigration, and in less strident terms.

But the expectation of a shift toward a less incendiary, center-right position on immigration was then complicated by a surge of media stories that have kept immigration and border security in the news — from the platform fight at the state Republican Party convention to the current uptick of Central American children crossing the border in South Texas.

To beat a dead horse, immigration and border security regularly rank at the top of Texans’ list of the biggest problems facing the state, but mostly for Republicans, and especially for conservative Republicans. While 51 percent of Republicans rank immigration and border security as the state’s most important problem, that number soars to 64 percent among Tea Party Republicans. Further complicating any attempts at moderation, the solution to the problem, according to Republicans, does not appear to involve in-state tuition, a path to citizenship or a guest-worker program (if the party platform tells us anything). Vast majorities of Republicans (89 percent) and conservatives (87 percent), in addition to almost every Tea Party Republican (96 percent), think that we should be doing more than we are now to restrict people coming into the U.S. And for those already here, 74 percent of Republicans and self-identified conservatives think we should deport them immediately, along with 85 percent of Tea Party Republicans. In short, there is little wiggle room for a GOP elite looking to moderate when it comes to immigration.

While this hard-line approach may seem like a problem for the long-term success of the state’s dominant party, attitudes among Hispanics call into question Democrats’ optimism that Republicans are handing them a gift.

Hispanic voters in Texas are not a unified bloc of support for undeterred immigration or unfettered access to governmental largesse. Complicating Democrats’ fantasy of Hispanics flocking to their party is the fact that 67 percent of Hispanic registered voters also think we should be doing more to restrict people coming into the country. Maybe more surprising to some, 38 percent think that we should immediately deport undocumented immigrants currently living here. And when it comes to one of the lip-service issues of the Republican primary campaign, in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants, it turns out that less than half of Hispanics (48 percent) support that policy.

That’s not to say that Hispanics aren’t closer to Democrats than they are to Republicans. On a generic Texas Legislature trial ballot, 43 percent of Hispanics aligned with the Democratic candidate, while only 32 percent chose the Republican candidate. (A quarter were undecided.) This makes Hispanics a slightly Democratic group, but by no means a reliable voting bloc like, say, blacks (84 percent of whom chose the Democrat on the trial ballot).

If the perceived route to that kind of Democratic reliability is through the GOP’s rhetoric on immigration, the evidence indicates that the path is no straight shot. Yes, the dynamic and changing nature of the Hispanic electorate is one important caveat that could bolster Democrats’ optimism. The Latinos who are already registered (and, thus, those whom we survey) are likely more conservative than the Hispanics whom Battleground Texas, a Democratic mobilization group, and the rest of the Democratic Party are currently trying to register and engage. Should these voters come into the electorate because of a major Democratic registration effort premised on perceived Republican hostility, it’s possible that overall Hispanic attitudes will coalesce in a way that is favorable to Democrats in the short and long term.

These steps toward Democratic success seem plausible on paper, but in the near term, yet another election-season turn to border security by Republicans seems a reasonably safe bet for keeping conservatives in the fold without triggering a backlash from Latinos. The debate will keep turning and turning, with little chance that any true center will hold. This will likely become apparent in January 2015, when, with the elections behind them, the victors return to the Capitol, keeping their campaign promises on issues like in-state tuition — and, of course, border security.