A new statistical analysis of past GOP primaries shows that candidates do better if they oppose amnesty and guest workers.
“In GOP primaries, a Republican’s willingness to compromise on immigration probably appears to do them more harm than good,” concluded Harry Enten, an analyst at FiveThirtyEight.com, after he compared candidates’ tallies to their ratings by NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for reforms that reduce the inflow of immigrants and guest-workers.
That conclusion matches the stated reaction from several GOP legislators after the stunning defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. His challenger, Dave Brat, tied Cantor’s support for more immigration to the voters’ growing anger about “crony capitalism.”
Support for more immigration, said Brat, was “the most symbolic issue that captures the difference between myself and Eric Cantor.”
But business groups and progressives are working hard to reverse that judgment.
For example, business and progressive groups argue that immigration couldn’t have been important, because their polls shows that GOP primary voters support the idea of immigration reform.
The left-of-center Public Policy Polling Group found 72 percent “strongly” or “somewhat” support an immigration law.
But in those polls, the respondents were giving their reaction to a skewed description of the immigration bills.
PPP’s description of the bill described it as “bipartisan immigration reform [that] … would secure our borders, block employers from hiring undocumented immigrants, and make sure that undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. with no criminal record register for legal status. If a long list of requirements is met over more than a decade, it provides eligibility for a path to citizenship.”
A poll by a group titled Americans for a Conservative Direction, won 73 percent approval for a bill which wold “secure the border with significantly more border patrol agents and fences, crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, and allow the 11 million illegal immigrants who are currently in America to have a pathway to becoming U.S. citizens, only after they meet certain requirements, including passing a criminal background check, paying a fine, learning English, and waiting a period of years?”
That 73 percent approval to that script prompted the pollster, Basswood Research, to declare that “the immigration issue was, therefore, a factor in [Brat's] election, but it was a relatively small one.” That poll was funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who is backing the Senate immigration bill.
Another poll funded by Zuckerberg’s FWD.US group also found high support by asking respondents for their reaction to a carefully worded description of the bill. But Zuckerberg’s pollsters didn’t explore Americans’ nuanced and sometimes conflicting attitudes toward immigrants and guest workers, or what alternative messages GOP candidates could use to boost their support among Hispanics and blue-collar workers.
Instead, they simply measured the respondents’ reaction to the script, admitted Dave Winston, president of The Winston Group.
“Given the information in the proposal we had to take a look at, this is the response we got from the American people,” he said at a meeting with reporters on Capitol Hill.
GOP politicians “should not trust these pols,” said Roy Beck, director of NumbersUSA, which advocates for reforms that would reduce immigration.
“These polls are not designed to find out what voters think or want — they’re designed to find out how you can fool voters into support an amnesty and worker increases,” he said.
After the Cantor defeat, he said, his aides “are not finding any Republican representatives who are being misled by these polls.”
The impact of the script used to describe the immigration proposals was highlighted by North Star Opinion Research, in a poll for the American Action Forum.
When initially asked for their views by North Star, only 15 percent of Republican primary voters supported the Senate’s immigration bill. Forty-four percent opposed it and 44 percent said they don’t know about the bill, according to a statement from North Star.
But “when the bill is described, including four key components — strengthening border security, employer verification, an earned approach to legal status including paying fines and taxes, learning English, and waiting at the back of the line, and tying legal immigration to the economy — primary voters support the bill by a 75 to 21 percent margin,” said North Star in its summary of the poll.
That’s a huge 80-point swing.
North Star Opinion Research was one of the 10 polling firms working for Zuckerberg’s FWD.US.
But candidates don’t get to define the debate unless their rival has no money or media outlets.
In Virginia, Brat used his $200,000 in funding to define Cantor’s support for various immigration-related measures as “crony capitalism.”
Cantor “is running on the Chamber of Commerce growth plan,” Brat said April 15. “If you’re in big business, he’s good for you. But if you’re in any other group, it’s not good for you,” he said.
In his victory speech, Brat declared that “I will fight to end crony capitalist programs that benefit the rich and powerful,” and criticized amnesty as “big business gets the cheap labor and the American people pay the tab.”
The FiveThirtyEight study suggested three reasons why anti-amnesty candidates score better than others in GOP primaries.
“Republicans do worse when embracing immigration reform. … Maybe voters aren’t overly concerned about immigration but use it to divide candidates they like from those they don’t … [or] immigration reform may be a proxy for ideology,” said Enten, the FiveThirtyEight analyst who discovered the link between success in GOP primaries and an anti-amnesty stance.
In practice, GOP candidates who want reduced immigration are aided by opponents of the business-backed immigration bill. Thee groups, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, try to highlight the most unpopular sections of the bill. In Virginia, Brat was aided by the Americans for Legal Immigration group, which made automated calls into the district.
Perhaps the most unpopular sections of the Senate bill would allow companies to hire up to two million foreign workers each year, instead of American workers. A Washington Post poll in 2011 showed two to one opposition to extra guest workers.
An August 2013 poll by Public Opinion Research showed that 60 percent of respondents said they believe strongly that American companies “should try harder to recruit and train … [Black, Latino, young and disabled] unemployed Americans before seeking new foreign workers.” Only two percent strongly disagreed, said the poll, which was funded by NumbersUSA, which is pushing for reduced immigration.
A 2014 Rasmussen poll showed that 68 percent of swing-voting moderates oppose a law that would allow companies to annually bring in 500,000 guest-workers to work for the food industry, according to an unpublished January poll of likely voters by Rasmussen. Only 25 percent of swing voters supported the measure.