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What Do White Voters Want (On Immigration)?

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To listen to Republicans and Republican-watchers talk about immigration, one would think the debate is about balancing Latinos and whites in a zero sum game of electoral politics. Work too closely with the president and risk a primary challenge in Republicans' increasingly white Congressional Districts. Kill the legislation and risk Republican chances to take back the White House in 2016.

There is nothing in the polling to back this up.

First, Latinos don't just care about immigration. In the runup to the 2012 election, Gallup showed Latino voters prioritized immigration higher than did white voters, but still lower than health care or unemployment. But it may be the toxic language stirred up by an immigration debate (some outlined here), as much as the policy debate itself, that is alienating Latinos. To assume "Immigration reform" is some sort of on-switch for the Latino vote is a mistake for either party to make.

Second, just like immigration doesn't automatically move all Latinos, reforming immigration doesn't immediately alienate "everyone else." In the 2012 exit polls, about two-thirds of voters said they supported a pathway to citizenship. Pew/USA Today recently found half of conservative Republicans feel undocumented workers should have a way to stay legally. Pew also showed 70 percent of Republicans feel our economy would be improved by granting undocumented workers legal status. Most other recent national polls show clear majority support for a pathway to citizenship.

And it doesn't seem Republican voters are buying into the belief that immigration hurts their party. Pew /USA Today showed Republicans to be divided as to whether immigration reform "helps" their party in national elections or simply "doesn't make a difference." Fewer say it would hurt their party. And Pew also found Republicans and Democrats equally likely to say passing immigration reform to be "extremely" or "very" important (50 percent and 53 percent, respectively), while Gallup showed whites and Latinos equally likely to find reform extremely or very important (72 percent and 73 percent, respectively).

So it's no surprise voters nationwide are rejecting Republican tactics on this issue. In Gallup's just-released poll, about half of voters overall -- including a plurality of whites under 50, and 40 percent of whites over 50 -- say they agree with Democrats' policies on immigration, even when no specifics are given.

Some Republicans (notably not Karl Rove) may be debating renewing their commitment to their white base, and so scuttle immigration reform. But this would not reflect what white voters want. And more inaction on any legislation may be why Congress overall (and Republicans in particular) continue to receive record low approval ratings.