Matt Graham contributed to this post.
An article in POLITICO yesterday about its recent battleground polling is headlined “Poll: GOP has edge on immigration in midterms.” However, there is much more to the story than the headline. The poll showed deep ambivalence toward all parties on the issue of immigration.
It turns out that the 917 likely voters polled in 17 states with competitive Senate elections and over 60 competitive House districts are pretty much evenly divided. When asked whom they trust more on “immigration” (not defined), 34 percent said Republicans, 31 percent said Democrats, and 35 percent were not sure whom to trust. Americans want something done on immigration, but at any given time may think one party or the other has the best chance of doing it, or, given that nothing has been done, don’t trust either. With a margin of error of 3.7 percent for this poll, one could easily argue that the public really is evenly split.
The poll also showed that after a whiplash summer of speculation about the president taking executive action on immigration and children arriving at the Texas border, 64 percent no longer approve of the president’s handling of the issue. In general, it seems like the public blames everyone for nothing happening.
Despite these recent controversies, the same poll confirmed that a majority of these likely voters in competitive elections want immigration reform. Two-thirds polled said they supported “comprehensive immigration reform.” And three out of four voters said the issue was an important factor in choosing whom they’d support. As a general question, that is not surprising. There has been broad agreement for several years now that the system we have now does not work, whether your perspective is one of enforcement and security, fixing the legal immigration system, or legalization for the undocumented.
POLITICO reported only one specific substantive question on immigration in this latest poll. Respondents were asked whether they supported a “pathway to citizenship.” The results were more evenly split, with 51 percent in favor and 49 percent opposed. But long-term Gallup Time series polling asking which should be emphasized in immigration reform–stopping illegal immigration or developing a plan to deal with the undocumented–has shown that the public has remained in the same range on this issue since 2006. In fact, in 2006 the poll showed 52 percent saw stopping illegal immigration as the priority while 43 percent prioritized dealing with the undocumented. By June 2014, those percentages had just about reversed, with 41 percent prioritizing enforcement and 53 percent dealing with the undocumented.
It serves to reason that after the arrival of the unaccompanied children at the border, the public’s view on border security would shift again. However, the close margins on these polls over time strongly indicate the public wants both done, while the relative importance of one over the other shifts with the news of the day. The Pew Research Center’s polling between June 2012 and August 2014 showed slight shifts between whether enforcement or creating a path to citizenship should be a higher priority, with between 23 and 33 percent supporting one or the other. But in all three years, a plurality of at least 40 percent favored doing both. Further, recent polling has shown that the importance of doing something this year is very high. In a CBS News poll at the end of July, over 80 percent of respondents said it was either very important or somewhat important for “Congress and Barack Obama to pass legislation addressing illegal immigration by the end of this year.”
In a midterm election year, with many trying to see how the immigration issue will affect the outcomes of the races, there will be temptation to interpret poll results for or against the parties’ candidates. But there is a larger story, and one that has been consistent over the last few years: the public wants something done on immigration. Which party does it is less important than that it gets done. As for what to do, there is also fairly broad agreement on the components – border security, legal immigration changes and some status for the undocumented. The debate continues over which comes first, how far to go, and what the process should be, but the polls seem clear that doing nothing is the least favorable option.
What these polls should tell leaders in Washington is that regardless of the outcome of the midterm elections, immigration is not an issue that will be going away soon, and the public will expect something to be done sooner rather than later.