The Republican Party has grown more conservative over the past couple of decades. But news commentators sometimes wrongly imply that GOP voters take an extremist position on every issue.
As I described on Friday, for example, Jeb Bush’s support of Common Core educational standards isn’t likely to hurt him if he runs for president in 2016; the issue is neither all that relevant to most Republicans nor all that divisive. If candidates running to Bush’s right are looking for a wedge issue, they’ll probably have some better choices.
What about immigration policy, for instance? Bush has staked out a moderate position on immigration, both rhetorically and substantively; last Sunday, he described immigrants who come to the United States illegally looking for work as having committed an “act of love.”
Immigration is a higher visibility issue than education policy. Even so, many Republican voters are sympathetic toward immigrants and immigration reform. Last year, FiveThirtyEight’s Micah Cohen compiled polls on Republican attitudes toward a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants and found that support varied depending on the requirements. An average of 37 percent of Republicans supported a pathway to citizenship without requirements, while 72 percent supported one if additional conditions, like the payment of back taxes and a criminal background check, were met.
What about attitudes among Republican primary voters, who are often more conservative than Republicans as a whole? Their views are also more equivocal than you might assume from news accounts. The 2012 exit poll of Republican primary voters in Arizona, which has some of the country’s most conservative immigration policies, asked them what should be done about “illegal immigrants working in the U.S.” Only 34 percent said such immigrants should be deported; the same fraction, 34 percent, said they should be offered a chance to apply for citizenship. (The remaining 28 percent of voters said these immigrants should be allowed to stay as temporary workers.)
We can also compare attitudes on immigration to views on other major issues. I’ve done that in the chart below. It provides the partisan split on a pathway to citizenship (both with and without requirements) and on abortion, education, global warming, gun control, health care, inequality, the minimum wage, same-sex marriage and U.S. policy toward Israel, as based on recent polls.
A pathway to citizenship with requirements is the least divisive of these issues; 72 percent of Republicans support one, as compared with 83 percent of Democrats. A pathway to citizenship without requirements is more controversial, and produces a 32-point partisan gap between Democrats and Republicans.
Many issues are more divisive. A recent Quinnipiac poll on the 2010 health care bill — known as Obamacare — found that 77 percent of Democrats supported it, compared to just 3 percent of Republicans, making for a 74-point partisan split. The partisan divide on abortion, global warming, the minimum wage, gun rights and the distribution of wealth was also larger than that for immigration.
This is not to say that Bush’s position on immigration is risk-free. These polls do not measure the intensity of support; it may be that Republicans who are opposed to immigration reform feel more strongly about it than those who support it. And backing immigration reform in theory can be easier than articulating policies toward it; Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who led an effort to pass an immigration reform bill in the Senate last year, has since seen his standing decline among potential GOP primary voters.
But Bush’s stance on immigration also has rewards. The GOP is trying to improve its performance among young voters and Hispanics, groups that largely support immigration reform. Organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which could direct considerable resources toward Bush in the primaries, also support immigration reform.
Furthermore, breaking from the party orthodoxy could allow Bush to portray himself as a “compassionate conservative” at a time when the Republican Party has a strongly negative image among moderate and independent voters. The extent to which the news media exaggerates the uniformity of Republican opposition to immigration reform could help Bush in this regard. The “narrative” of the campaign may be that Bush has taken an exceptionally bold position, when in fact many constituencies within the Republican Party share his views.