Remember when Republicans were the masters of the “wedge issue” — masterfully manipulating public opinion splits on same-sex marriage and other policies to divide the Democratic coalition and cruise to victory? No more. Marriage equality, in fact, now seems to work as a wedge in the other direction, splitting the GOP coalition and forcing moderates into the Democratic camp.
Though few have noticed, it’s starting to look like immigration reform is following the same agenda. Immigration used to divide the Democratic coalition, but now it threatens to split the GOP — and for reasons entirely independent of losing the Latino vote.
Check out these results from a new Public Religion Research institute poll. PRRI asked respondents how the immigration system should deal with undocumented immigrants living in the United States, and found that the vast majority — 63 percent — of Americans said they should be offered a pathway to citizenship. 18 percent said undocumented immigrants should be allowed to become permanent legal residents but not citizens, while a mere 14 percent said they should be identified and deported:
Here’s the amazing thing: while 63 percent overall supported a path to citizenship, so did 60 percent of Republicans! The latter number is actually higher than support levels among independents (57 percent). Support for a path to citizenship has clearly gone mainstream — and bipartisan.
So if there’s bipartisan support, where’s the bipartisan action? The answer is simple: division in the Republican Party. Tea Party Republicans tend to be adamantly, furiously opposed to immigration reform, and they wield a huge amount of influence inside today’s GOP. The chart below from Alan Abramowitz illustrates the extent of that influence:
Tea Party supporters are 52 percent of all Republicans, 57 percent of general election voters, 64 percent of primary voters, 76 percent of rally attendees and a remarkable 80 percent of donors. No wonder immigration reform isn’t getting anywhere.
So where does that leave Republicans who favor a path to citizenship? Until things change — and the Tea Party looks as strong as ever after some post-2013 election rumblings — the issue is pushing them right out of the party.
Immigration reform is generally viewed as an issue where GOP intransigence could wind up supergluing Latinos to the Democratic Party. That’s right, but these data suggest there’s another part to the equation. The GOP could wind up not just failing to gain Latino support but actively losing part of their own coalition. For a party that’s already battling the effects of long-term demographic change, that’s very bad news.