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Scott Walker’s Legal Immigration Faux Pas

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker just stepped in it.

While he was (purposely?) vague, Walker hinted in an interview with Glenn Beck that the United States might want to limit legal immigration. The polling and reaction to Walker’s comments suggest that such a position could hurt him in the 2016 Republican presidential primary.

Walker is considered a top-tier contender in large part because he appeals to both the GOP’s conservative base and its more moderate establishment wing. Walker is far more conservative than recent Republican presidential nominees, but he has also won election multiple times in a swing state and — generally — not said outlandish things. Advocating for cutting legal immigration upsets that balance, hurting his ability to compete in the invisible primary, the pre-voting race for endorsements and money. That competition is refereed by elected officials and big donors, and increasing or maintaining legal immigration levels is a very popular stance among most both groups.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, Sen. John McCain, Sen. Rob Portman and Sen. John Thune all criticized Walker’s comments. The first three are among the more moderate Republicans in the Senate (though still conservative), but Thune, the Republican Conference chairman, was slightly to the right of the median Republican senator last Congress. Even Sen. Ted Cruz has voiced strong support for legal immigration within the past month.1

In this case, the senators are following the lead of the Republican Party’s major donors. The Koch Brothers, who are big fans of Walker, don’t want decreases in legal immigration. The Chamber of Commerce — also a fan of Walker — is with the Koch Brothers.

Alienating elected officials and donors is an enormous no-no in a presidential primary, especially at this stage. The party actors help guide voters in primaries, where ideological differences are less pronounced than in general elections. In the era of the super PAC, you don’t want to upset people who can spend you into the ground.

What about GOP voters?

You’re going to hear a lot about polls that show Republicans are in favor of decreasing legal immigration levels. Indeed, some polls seem to show this. But the way these polls are worded makes a big difference.

Gallup discovered in 2014 that 50 percent of Republicans support a decrease in immigration, but the question didn’t specify legal or illegal immigration. A different poll from Fox News put 67 percent of Republicans in favor of a decrease in legal immigration. Case closed, right? While that poll definitely suggests that there are GOP voters who are sympathetic to cutting legal immigration, it also didn’t give respondents the option of saying they’d keep legal immigration levels constant.

When you do offer respondents that option and ask specifically about legal immigration, a majority of Republicans have not been in favor of decreasing immigration levels. A Pew Research Center survey from May 2013 found 53 percent of self-identified Republicans wanted legal immigration levels either increased (20 percent) or kept constant (33 percent). A CBS News poll from April 2013 found that 60 percent of Republicans wanted legal immigration levels either increased (22 percent) or kept constant (38 percent). And conservative Republicans were about as likely as liberal and moderate Republicans to favor maintaining or increasing legal immigration levels, according to the Pew survey.

If Walker could make legal immigration a binary question (increase or decrease) or tie it to illegal immigration, he might be able to sell a “lower legal immigration” position in a Republican primary. The problem: Party actors, as discussed above, are unlikely to let this happen.

Given the backlash Walker has already encountered, we’ll see if he’ll stick to his guns. He’s already been accused of changing his position on illegal immigration. Flip-flopping isn’t great for politicians, but advocating a position that neither voters or the party establishment support is probably worse.


  1. The only senator to support Walker’s move vocally was Sen. Jeff Sessions.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.