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Signs of a Shift on Immigration Among G.O.P. Rank-and-File

With notable speed after the Nov. 6 presidential election, a number of Republican politicians and opinions makers — from House Speaker John A. Boehner to the talk show host Sean Hannityaltered their positions on immigration and expressed a new openness to comprehensive reform.

Since then, the push to overhaul the nation’s immigration system appears to have sustained momentum. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll found a jump in public approval of President Obama’s handling of immigration, and most recent polls have found a majority of Americans support providing immigrants who have come here illegally a pathway to United States citizenship.

So, has the shift on immigration among some — but not all — Republican legislators, strategists and media personalities filtered down to rank-and-file Republicans?

The polling evidence — with a few significant caveats — says “possibly, yes.” There are signs of an uptick in Republican support for a pathway to citizenship, or at least a conditional pathway to citizenship.

First, the caveats. Tracking opinions on immigration policy over time is tricky because each pollster asks different questions with different options, making for apples-to-oranges comparisons. In addition, when narrowing the focus to self-identified Republicans and Republican leaners, small sample sizes and large margin of sampling errors become a problem. A typical national survey includes about 1,000 respondents, making the subsample of Republicans pretty small, usually around 200 to 300.

But keeping those disclaimers in mind, the most recent polls on immigration suggest an increase in the percentage of Republicans who favor immigration reform that includes a route to United States citizenship.

On average, the share of Republicans who favor providing undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship is 48 percent among the six national polls released so far in 2013 and included in the database. (The release of a CNN poll conducted Jan. 14-15 did not provide a breakdown by political party and is not included in the average).

Among the six previous polls that asked about a pathway to citizenship and released results by party identification, an average of only 38 percent of Republicans favored providing a path to citizenship.

Question wording has an effect here. Two of the polls that found the highest level of Republican support emphasized the requirements illegal immigrants might have to meet to become citizens. Conservative voters might be more likely to support a path to citizenship if it involves certain qualifications.

For instance, a Fox News poll conducted Jan. 15-17 among registered voters found that 56 percent of Republicans said the government should “allow illegal immigrants to remain in the country and eventually qualify for U.S. citizenship, but only if they meet certain requirements like paying back taxes, learning English, and passing a background check.”

And a Gallup poll released this week found that 59 percent of Republicans would vote for “a law that would allow undocumented immigrants living in the United States the chance to become legal residents or citizens if they meet certain requirements.”

On the other hand, a CBS News poll of adults conducted Jan. 24-27 found that only 35 percent of Republicans said illegal immigrants currently working in the country “should be allowed to stay in their jobs and to eventually apply for U.S. citizenship.” (CBS found that 25 percent of Republicans said illegal immigrants should be able to stay as guest workers and 36 percent said they should be required to leave the United States).

The apples-to-apples comparisons we have are more mixed: Republican support in the mid-January AP/GfK poll jumped to 53 percent from 31 percent in 2010. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll moved to 42 percent Republican support for a path to citizenship from 37 percent in November 2012 (that’s inside the margin of sampling error). The CBS News poll did not move at all, finding 35 percent Republican support in both its December 2012 and late January 2013 surveys. And Quinnipiac polls, released on Thursday and in early December 2012, both found roughly 40 percent of registered Republicans support a path to citizenship and just more than 10 percent support legal status without citizenship.

An uptick in Republican support for a pathway to citizenship could be statistical noise. And even if it is real, it could reverse itself. Some political science research suggests that anti-immigrant attitudes increase when immigration is in the news.

But there are reasons to think that immigration, over all, has become less of a hot-button issue. A Pew study found that the number of illegal immigrants living in the United States has dropped since the 2007 push for change. Another Pew survey found that only 44 percent of Republicans see dealing with immigration as a top priority. That’s down from previous peaks of 69 percent in 2007 and 61 percent in 2011.

Further polling is needed before a more concrete picture of Republican attitudes
emerges. But if Republican voters have warmed to providing a conditional path to citizenship, it could increase the likelihood of an overhaul becoming law by freeing House Republicans, in particular, to back some kind of reform.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.