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Continental Divide

Last Thursday, to great fanfare, senators announced that they had agreed on a bipartisan immigration bill that allows illegal immigrants a path to citizenship and authorizes 400,000 low-wage temporary workers a year. This week, the bill went to the Senate floor for consideration. But I'll be surprised if it ever becomes law. One reason is the complexity of the 326-page bill. The other reason is the complexity of the politics of immigration. Both parties have an interest in preventing it from reaching the president's desk.

The politics of immigration resemble those of abortion. Support of and opposition to increased immigration (or to the assimilation of illegal immigrants) cuts across party lines. Black Democrats, as well as white working-class Republicans, oppose increases in immigration; upscale Republicans and Democrats back increases. And immigration's impact on elections can't be measured simply by who favors or opposes it in national opinion polls. Instead, what matters is which groups care enough about the issue to cast their votes on the basis of that issue alone. What matters is salience.

Both parties are divided on immigration, but the Republican divide is more problematic. The most intense opposition to assimilating illegal immigrants is concentrated in the Republican Party. If you look at what issues matter to Republican primary voters, immigration always ranks near the top. In the May 12-16 Iowa Poll, 27 percent of Republican voters ranked immigration as "extremely important," ahead of tax policy, abortion, gay marriage, and the economy and jobs, and behind only faith and values (with 29 percent) and several issues related to terrorism and national security. In a poll taken in North Carolina on May 1-3, Republican voters ranked immigration second only to the war in Iraq and ahead of moral or family values, taxes, and the economy and jobs. That's a good reason why Arizona Senator John McCain, who has championed the cause of assimilation, is lagging in some state polls.

Based on extensive surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center and earlier by Hamilton University, one can construct a profile of Republican anti-immigration voters. They are very similar to the white working-class voters who became Republicans in the 1970s and 1980s due to opposition to desegregation and the counter-culture. They are, typically, white evangelical Protestants from the South, Midwest, and non-Pacific West with lower incomes and without college degrees. They live in small towns and rural areas--usually away from concentrations of immigrants--and consider themselves to be "conservatives."

But, within the Republican Party, they are at odds with college-educated managers and professionals, and with many of the party's business funders who favor increased immigration. In Arizona, for instance, the Chamber of Commerce and other Republican-dominated business groups opposed the anti-immigrant Proposition 200 in 2004, while conservative Republican legislators were its most fervent supporters. That has set up a nasty clash within state parties and within the national party--as evidenced by the array of response to the current immigration compromise.

Generally, there is far less intense interest in immigration in the Democratic Party. Black Democrats don't favor increased immigration or amnesty for illegal immigrants, but they don't vote for candidates on that basis. Liberal professionals back assimilation, but as an expression of tolerance. In the Iowa Poll, Democratic voters rated immigration sixth among seven issues in importance; in the North Carolina poll, it trailed eleven issues. But immigration remains important to the party's future. There are white working-class voters in the Midwest and in the Plains and Rocky Mountain states whom Democrats want to attract in state and national elections and who, while not as intensely animated about illegal immigration as the typical white working-class Republican, would be put off if the party were closely identified with a bill that backed increased immigration.

The Democratic base also includes Latino voters, who, of all the electorate, are the most intensely committed to their side of the immigration debate. Latinos favor increased immigration and the assimilation of illegal immigrations, but, most important, they oppose what they see as the xenophobia implicit in conservative Republican approaches. In 2006, Latinos swung heavily in favor of Democrats in reaction to the anti-immigrant sentiments they saw in Washington. The Latino vote in congressional elections went from around 59 percent in 2004 to 69 percent in 2006. Latinos are an important voting bloc in California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Illinois, Florida, and Colorado--all key states in presidential elections.

If the history California is any indication, the salience of the immigration issue favors the Democrats. In 1994, Governor Pete Wilson, trailing Democrat Kathleen Brown Rice (my favorite California political name), pulled out the immigration card by backing Proposition 187, which denied social services to illegal immigrants. Wilson defeated Brown, and the results closely tracked the voters' response to Proposition 187. Of the 59 percent of Californians who voted for the measure, 75 percent of them voted for Wilson. Brown, on the other hand, won 75 percent of the Latino vote--and 77 percent of Latinos opposed Proposition 187. But, in subsequent elections, Latinos continued to oppose Republicans as the anti-immigrant party, while other Californians drifted off to other concerns.

In 2006, Republicans hoped for a replay of Wilson's victory, but they were sorely disappointed. While Latino voters moved sharply into the Democratic column, white working-class voters didn't respond equally to the Republicans' anti-immigrant measure and to anti-illegal immigrant appeals during the election. Republican Senate candidates used these appeals in Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Washington. Of these races, they won only Arizona, and they would have won that race anyway. Republican gubernatorial candidates tried to capitalize on anti-immigrant sentiment in Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, and Wisconsin. They lost all of those races. And Republican House candidates played the immigration card in races in Arizona, Indiana, and Colorado. They lost two seats in Arizona, one in Colorado, and another in Indiana.

What'll happen in 2008? That depends partly on the outcome of the Senate immigration bill, but, at this point, the Republicans are in a somewhat difficult position. If the current bill--presumably with a few draconian amendments to attract more Republicans--were to pass, then Republicans could potentially alienate part of their base without winning over Latino voters who will continue to see Democrats as more friendly to their cause. So Republicans are probably best off if the bill gets bottled up and dies.

Democrats, on the other hand, also have reason to hope a bill doesn't pass. As long as they position themselves as being more friendly to illegal immigrants than the anti-immigrant Republicans, they stand to get the kind of support they got from Latino voters in 2006. But if they can also warn that that temporary workers can bring wages down, and argue for better border enforcement, they stand a better chance of winning white working-class voters in states like Wyoming, Montana, and Michigan. That was the tack taken successfully by Arizona and Colorado Democrats and by Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius in the last election. And it's easier to do that if no bill passes. That's why I think there is little chance the bill will ever make it to the president's desk.