You might be forgiven for thinking that the 2016 presidential race, or at least the Republican presidential primary, will hinge on the issue of immigration. From the reformation of the nation’s immigration system to the very fact that the country has an immigration system; the Republican primary electorate seems fixated on the matter. Prior to the radical Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the subjects of legal and illegal immigration seemed to have overshadowed every other salient policy issue. The outsize urgency of the immigration debate has, however, dominated the race in a manner disproportionate to its resonance with the GOP electorate. Is this an immigration election? Will the race be decided on this issue? It’s highly unlikely.

If conservative primary voters’ attraction to Donald Trump is based in anything other than his personality, it is in his efforts to position himself as the immigration hawk in the race. Those conservative voters who are willing to forgive his heterodoxy on so many issues central to what any shared conception of conservatism is have made the calculation that his throat-clearing semi-rational pronouncements on immigration are worth the tradeoff. Trump promises a triumph of the will that will eliminate most if not all illegal immigration, and will shred due process rights in the push to deport 11 million plus people with all possible alacrity. The myopia of the Trump voter on this issue and his or her willingness to suspend disbelief or subordinate their understanding of the American system of checks and balances to this fantasy renders them, by definition, a low information voter. This is one reason why Ted Cruz’s conspicuous efforts to appeal to this crowd may be misguided.

The premise of Cruz’s pitch to voters is that he is the most conservative candidate of the slate of Republicans; the most principled and the most willing to take the slings of the elusive “establishment” in defense of center-right values. Up until this week, he has made a compelling case against Marco Rubio – increasingly, his chief rival for primacy among the pool of traditional (non-Trump) GOP primary voters. Cruz’s pitch rested on the simple proposition that the Florida senator backed and voted for the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill while he voted against it. This is a conception anyone can understand. Now, however, Cruz’s case is no longer so simple. Stung by Rubio’s  accurate contention on the debate stage that Cruz had at one point delivered a full-throated defense of an amendment he offered to that reviled bill that would have extended legal status to millions of illegal immigrants, the Texas senator finds himself fighting an uphill battle to educate the nation on Byzantine Senate amendment procedure.

“I have never supported legalization, and I do not intend to support legalization,” Cruz declared on Tuesday in a manner as definitive as any lawyerly evasion could possibly be. Whether or not voters believe Cruz intends at some later date to support legal status is a matter of trust, and that trust should be undermined by his claim that he never supported legal status. In 2013, Cruz repeatedly asserted that he backed Lawful Permanent Resident status for illegal immigrants in his amendment to the Gang of Eight bill. He claimed his chief desire was to get the nation’s illegal residents to “come out of the shadows.”

“I don’t want immigration reform to fail. I want immigration reform to pass,” the Texas senator said at the time, calling the goal of a compressive reform bill “common sense.” Now, Ted Cruz wants you to know that he didn’t mean a word of it.

Despite telling journalists at the time that he did not want a “poison pill” amendment that would have killed the deal, he is essentially now claiming that he was lying the whole time. Of course, Cruz was pursuing a strategy designed to tie up the legislation and force his colleagues to take an uncomfortable vote, but the Texas senator’s struggle to explain himself has grown more and more convoluted. That was evident last night when Cruz endured a thorough grilling from Fox News Channel host Bret Baier on the matter. When you misuse the word “amnesty” twice in one sentence and invoke Senator Jeff Sessions and Representative Steve King in lieu of a cogent argument, you’re not winning.

That said, those voters who defect from the Trump camp and rally to Cruz over the issue of immigration are likely to forgive his obfuscation. That will not be because they thoroughly understand arcane Senate procedure, but because they want a champion on the issue of immigration who can win the White House. But just how big a cohort of voters are we talking about? To judge from the primary polls gauging support for the GOP’s insurgent candidates, it would seem like a large one. That might be a bit of a misleading impression of the Republican electorate.

As of August, with the Trump spectacle in full bloom, a majority of Republicans – 50 percent – said they supported a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s illegal population, according to Gallup polling. Another 18 percent backed temporary legal residency and work status while 31 percent favored total deportation. A Pew Research Center survey from the same period found that 56 percent of Republican’s believe illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the country if they meet certain legal requirements. “Should there be a ‘national law enforcement effort to deport’ all immigrants here illegally?” Pew asked as a follow-up. Only 27 percent of self-described Republicans said yes.

What about voter priorities? Of the last three national polls to ask American voters what they want to see the government focus on addressing most (ABC News/Washington Post, CBS News/New York Times, and Quinnipiac University), immigration consistently ranked only in the single digits behind matters like the economy, terrorism, and health care. The only one of these surveys to break these results down by party identification — Quinnipiac — found that just 13 percent of self-descried Republicans say immigration will be the “most important issue” determining how they will vote. Quinnipiac’s findings are over five months old, and more data would be clarifying. The fact, however, that more than one recent survey has found that only a small minority of general election voters rank immigration as their primary concern suggests the issue’s resonance hasn’t changed radically in the intervening period.

On the matter of immigration, Ted Cruz seems to be making a complicated and contradictory case in order to appeal to a very small pool of voters. That might be enough to secure some early victories in states with conservative electorates where the vote is spread out across a large field of candidates, but it’s a far more questionable strategy later on in the race. When the field begins to winnow, and bluer states with more moderate electorates or open primaries hold their nominating contests, it’s not at all clear that immigration will be the dominant issue. Though it seems to occupy the minds of conservative talk show hosts and pundits today to the exclusion of so much else, it’s a risky bet to assume that preoccupation is shared by even a plurality of Republican primary voters.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link