Why Playing the Immigration Card Didn’t Work

Public Opinion by Ruy Teixeira

In the campaigns for the Virginia State Legislature this year, conservatives assumed that playing the immigration card—trying to stir up a backlash against undocumented immigrants—would greatly boost their candidates and roll back the gains progressives had made in the last several elections in that state. But that didn’t happen this past Tuesday. Instead, progressives took the Virginia State Senate and made significant gains in the Virginia House of Delegates.

A quick glance at the data tells us why this is so. First, the public generally favors a tough, but not punitive, approach to the illegal immigration problem and supports a path toward legal status for those already here, provided certain requirements are met. In an early November ABC News/Washington Post (ABC/WP) poll, for example, 51 percent supported giving illegal immigrants now living in the United States the right to live here legally provided they pay a fine and meet other requirements, compared with 44 percent who opposed these steps.

These views are virtually unchanged since the last time ABC/WP asked this question in June (see chart below). This hardly suggests a tsunami of anti-immigrant sentiment that will turn around the current progressive trends in American politics.

The other reason that conservatives had so little success with their anti-immigrant crusade is that illegal immigration for most Americans is a concern, but not a top-ranked voting issue. Here are data from the same ABC/WP poll showing how far below Iraq, the economy, and health care immigration currently ranks as an issue. Only 8 percent mention it as one of their two top voting issues, compared with 45 percent for Iraq, 29 percent for the economy, and 27 percent for health care (see chart below).

Conservatives are obviously desperate for something—anything—that can roll back progressive gains. But on the evidence of these data and the recent election results, playing the immigration card won’t work.

For more information on the public opinion on this issue, see:
President Bush Fails America’s Children
Everyone but Bush Supports SCHIP Reauthorization and Expansion