The TNR Question: How should Democratic candidates approach the immigration issue?

A recent study by Democracy Corps, a left-leaning research and polling firm, asked independent voters to pick two reasons “why the country is going in the wrong direction.” The top answer, chosen by 40 percent of respondents, was the following: “Our borders have been left unprotected and illegal immigration is growing.” Commentators judged the survey to be bad news for Democrats, who might have difficulty addressing the concerns of these voters without alienating their traditional supporters. Already, Hillary Clinton has been damaged by her conflicted answer to a debate question about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. We asked five Democratic strategists and consultants for their advice on how presidential candidates should approach immigration.

Hank Sheinkopf
, founder of Sheinkopf Communications; former consultant for Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer

The rational response here is to get away from the immigration issue, because anything that touches it on either side of the aisle can amount to no good. This is the third rail of 2008, and as the country goes through economic turmoil, which right now seems like a reasonable thing to predict for 2008, you realize it's probably going to get worse.

What you have to keep in mind is that it's the economically downscale voters in the Midwest that the Democrats really need, and those are the voters who think the Democrats are soft on immigration. And in a time of terror, the issue of border security becomes increasingly significant above and beyond the economic impacts of immigration.

What the Democratic candidates ought to say is, “We have to protect American jobs, and when I'm President we're going to come up with an immigration solution that accomplishes that.” But in terms of specifics, you can only lose support the more you talk about it, and that’s particularly hurtful in the four states where this election will be decided--Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. In those states there are a lot of economically sensitive white Catholic men, and like it or not, it's an issue. For those voters, it's just not going to be sufficient for the Democrats to say they're not Bush.

The downside, of course, is that Latinos are an important Democratic constituency and would like to hear a stronger pro-immigration message. But there are other ways to reach out to Latinos that don't open you up to attacks. And the fact of the matter is, where else are Latinos going to go? The Republican Party has all but said, “We don't want your vote.” So I think Democrats can appeal to white working-class voters on immigration without losing support among Latinos.

Bob Shrum, former senior adviser to the presidential campaigns of John Kerry and Al Gore; currently a professor at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University

All the major candidates, as far as I can figure, support comprehensive immigration reform along the lines of Kennedy-McCain--and that’s a sensible, popular position. Obviously, the difficulty comes when you get into more specific 'gotcha' questions. But I think even there, the best approach is simply to take a clear position and stick with it. I think just about everyone would agree at this point that Hillary would have been better off answering the question [about issuing driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants in the October 30 debate], with either a yes or no answer. Character issues are going to play a central role in this election, and it's probably more important to have an image of being a consistent truth-teller than it is to line up with the majority on every single issue--particularly one like immigration, which, in the end, isn't going to be the most important thing in determining how people vote.

Guy Molyneux, currently a partner with Hart Research Associates; veteran of survey and focus-group work for Dick Durbin and the AFL-CIO

Any candidate needs to understand one very important distinction: The difference between dealing with the issue of future immigration versus how we treat those already in the country. I think that Americans, although they do not want to reward illegal behavior by granting blanket amnesty, realize that it’s not practical to deport those already here. People instead want to be assured that there will be steps to reduce illegal immigration in the future, that we won’t do things for people currently here that will encourage more of it. I have a bunch of polling data that says people are worried the [New York] driver’s license issue would do just that.

Basically, if you want to talk to Americans about practical, reasonable steps to deal with people who are already here, you need to convince them that you’re serious about the problem of more illegal immigrants coming down the road. If you’re able to do that, then I think they’ll want to hear you talk about things to do for the people already here: providing public services, issuing them driver’s licenses. People don’t expect the borders to be sealed tomorrow. They don’t expect perfection. But we can--and should--do a whole lot better than we’re doing now.

Stanley Greenberg
, chairman and CEO of the research and consulting firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner

I don’t think immigration is like the gun issue, which Democrats have essentially decided not to contest. Immigration is too central, too much a part of the set of issues voters are angry about. Voters think both business and political leaders aren’t addressing the needs of the middle class, and they are angry that the borders haven’t been secured, and that people who receive employment and government benefits are here illegally. It's not defensible to ordinary voters. They're looking for leaders to address it, which Republicans have. It allows Republicans, at least on one issue, to be leaders for change.

Democrats have to start addressing the issue by showing they're very clear on borders, enforcement at the workplace, and the distribution of government benefits. That will then serve as a basis for a more expansive discussion about paths to citizenship for the law-abiding. But remember, people are pragmatic. Bill Clinton took up welfare reform as a signal to voters that you could trust him to resolve these thorny kinds of issues. I think there's a similar opportunity for a progressive candidate with a progressive policy.

Norman Adler, president of the consulting firm Bolton-St. John’s

I don’t believe [the Democracy Corps poll]. I absolutely don’t believe it. I’ve been doing polling around New York state for some of my clients, and when we ask an open-ended question about what people are concerned about, immigration comes in well behind taxes, the economy, and health care.

Still, I don’t know how you come up with an immigration proposal that satisfies the base of the party during the nomination process, because at the base of the party, you’ve got a lot of people who lean left, who want to be generous in their treatment of undocumented residents. However, in the general election you have a large group of voters, especially white working-class voters, that the party lost to the Republicans years ago and could get back because of Iraq and the economy--but this is a group that is strongly opposed to treating illegals in a way that makes them less illegal. So when you look at what the Democrats are trying to do, which is put together a new majority coalition, if you’re talking about Iraq and the economy and health care, you have a very broad appeal. The minute you talk about immigration, you have an appeal that nationally runs the risk of making you into the minority party again.

You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t. I think that in small cuts, like House districts, you could probably go one way or the other because they tend to be a lot more homogeneous. But in a national election, I would have a two-word piece of advice: Run away.