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Gingrich, Immigration and ‘What Would Reagan Do?’

Newt Gingrich was having what seemed to be a pretty strong debate on Tuesday night before being asked a question about immigration policy. He suggested that illegal immigrants should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and that some who have been in the United States for a long time should be allowed to stay, while others should be deported.

Following the exchange, Mr. Gingrich’s stock at Intrade, the political betting market that we frequently track, declined to about 14 percent from 16 percent, erasing gains he had made earlier in the day.

It was not the “flash crash” that proceeded Rick Perry’s “oops” moment during the Nov. 9 debate, but my view is that the markets probably overreacted in this case and that Mr. Gingrich’s answer will not be all that harmful to him.

One reason is simply that Mr. Gingrich’s views on immigration are not all that far out of step with those of Republican voters. Although I can’t find a survey that catalogs Republican responses to Mr. Gingrich’s proposal exactly, a New York Times/CBS News poll from May 2010 on a broad range of immigration-related issues provides some evidence about an analogous proposal.

In that survey, voters were given a choice of three options for handling illegal immigrants who currently hold jobs in the United States:

Which comes closest to your view about illegal immigrants who are currently working in the U.S.? They should be allowed to stay in their jobs and to eventually apply for U.S. citizenship. OR, They should be allowed to stay in their jobs only as guest workers, but not to apply for U.S. citizenship. OR, They should be required to leave their jobs and leave the U.S.

Among Republican respondents to the survey, 42 percent said the immigrants should be required to leave. But 31 percent said they should be able to stay and apply for citizenship. An additional 23 percent picked the middle option: the immigrants should be allowed to stay, but as guest workers rather than citizens.

One lesson from this is that no stance on immigration will make everyone happy. The partisan divides on immigration policy are not as stark as they are on issues like the welfare state. But the intraparty disagreement can be pretty bad, as George W. Bush discovered when he tried to push a moderate bill on immigration.

Still, Mr. Gingrich’s position — which would allow some illegal immigrants to stay but not grant them citizenship — seems to come as close as anything to a middle ground. Yes, he might be a little further away from that middle ground in Iowa and South Carolina and candidates like Michele Bachmann are smart to search for any way to exploit that. But Republican views on immigration are not monolithic and should not be portrayed as such.

The other thing is that Mr. Gingrich defended his answer pretty well during the debate, managing to place it within the tradition of Ronald Reagan conservatism. (In a 1984 debate with Walter Mondale, Reagan said he believed in “amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.”)

I suspect that commentators take too literal-minded an approach when predicting how a candidate’s position on the issues will play with primary voters. Yes, there are a few issues like abortion that are threshold tests in a Republican primary, but others like immigration are more complex. Voters may tolerate a fairly wide range of responses provided that the candidate’s head and heart seem to be in the right place. Alternatively, issues that do not seem all that salient may become much more so if the candidate cannot explain them adequately or if his position seems insincere.

One thing that Mr. Gingrich has going for him is that conservatives feel that both his head and his heart are indeed in the right place. The heart part is easy: after the time he spent as speaker of the House feuding with President Clinton on the welfare state and most everything else, there are few doubts about his conservative team spirit. By contrast, many influential Republican commentators say point-blank that Mitt Romney is not a real conservative at heart and is instead a Northeastern (i.e. moderate) Republican. One significant piece of evidence for this, of course, is that Mr. Romney’s only elected office was the governor of Massachusetts, and that he took generally moderate positions there.

Mr. Perry has also had some issues in this department. But some of this is because he was relatively new to the national scene — his name recognition was perhaps 40 or 50 percent before he decided to run for president, whereas Mr. Gingrich’s was in the 80s. That means that voters are weighing each new piece of information about Mr. Perry — each potential transgression against conservatism — fairly carefully. But it would take a lot to tip the scales for a candidate who has been around as long as Mr. Gingrich.

As far as the “head” part goes: both Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich are capable of delivering some exceptionally thoughtful policy responses. But the perception about Mr. Romney is sometimes that the calculation he is engaging in is about how to calibrate his response to voters optimally — and not necessarily about what he thinks is the right policy idea deep down. At some of his worst moments in the debates, Mr. Romney has even seemed to give the impression that he is making these calculations explicitly.

Mr. Gingrich’s responses, on the other hand — although sometimes equivocal and grandiloquent — seem to be wrestling with a different question: what is the “right” response based on his understanding of conservative principles. Mr. Gingrich is a 1980s-era conservative so sometimes these responses may seem out of step with the Tea Party version. But basically, he seems to be in a perpetual struggle to answer the question of “What Would Reagan Do?”. Any response that appears to emerge out of that particular thought process — particularly if the candidate makes sure to name-check Reagan — will probably be defensible at a minimum to today’s conservative voters.

In some fundamental sense, the nomination battle so far has been about Republicans trying to decide whether they trust that Mr. Romney is a conservative at heart — and if not, whether they might be willing to nominate him anyway. Given Mr. Romney’s decent but stagnant position in the polls, neither of these issues seem to have been resolved one way or the other yet.

Some of this, probably, boils down to style rather than substance. If Mr. Romney is often unflappable during debates, he can also come across as overly polished and overly slick — a quality that some voters instinctively associate with untrustworthiness when they see it in a politician.

Mr. Gingrich, on the other hand, has a lot of warts — and he tries to get voters to accept him warts and all. Lately, this strategy seems to be working. Although Mr. Gingrich still has major obstacles to the nomination, I would not expect that his immigration views will be foremost among them.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.