It wasn’t long ago that conservative proponents of comprehensive immigration reform were insisting that the idea is popular among Republican voters. In 2014, the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin told us, “nope, immigration reform [isn’t] toxic” and that “the anti-immigration forces are loud but in the distinct minority” within the Republican party.
To be fair, Rubin and others of the same view backed up their claim with poll data, but they didn’t persuade me. I remembered how, during the 2012 primary season, Republican presidential candidates, whose polling operations have an enormous interest in being right, treated immigration reform as “toxic” indeed. I remembered the beating Rick Perry took just for defending his state’s use of in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants ( “you have no heart” and all that).
Flash forward to the current campaign season, and Rubin’s claim seems laughable. Donald Trump moved to the head of the pack on the strength of attacking the character of illegal immigrants from Mexico and proposing that all illegals be rounded up and deported. Ted Cruz has left Marco Rubio in the dust by pounding the Florida Senator for sponsoring comprehensive immigration legislation.
Rubio responds not by defending his legislation — he admits it was a mistake — but by saying, in effect, that Cruz was just as bad on the issue, having supported a path to legalization for illegal immigrants. Meanwhile Jeb Bush, a steadfast believer in amnesty, has gone from putative frontrunner to low single digits.
Clearly, the “anti immigration forces” are not “in the distinct minority” within the GOP.
But Rubin didn’t make up the poll numbers she cited. And even allowing for the possibility of manipulation by the pollsters (e.g., through the wording of questions) and/or a shift in opinion since the Obama amnesty, a goodly share of the Republican electorate probably support immigration reform that confers legal status on the bulk of those who are currently here illegally.
The Republican split almost surely isn’t 54-37 in favor, as a poll cited by Rubin found. But it might be 37-54.
If so, then Rubio’s campaign is hardly doomed. In a three-way race in which his two rivals are taking a hard line on immigration, Rubio’s candidacy should be viable given (a) his overall attractiveness as a candidate, (b) his solid conservatism on other issues, (c) the argument that he’s the most electable Republican standing, and (d) the resources of the establishment, assuming it coalesces behind him.
Shrink the field to two candidates — Trump and Rubio or Cruz and Rubio — and Rubio is likely to be shlonged. But as long as Trump and Cruz both remain viable, so (in theory) can Rubio.
I say “in theory” because Rubio probably needs some early results that confirm he’s a leading contender. He’s struggling in Iowa. In New Hampshire, he’s barely ahead in the race to be the leading candidate not named Trump. And if Rubio fails to win, or at least run a strong second, in his home state primary — a distinct possibility if Jeb Bush remains in the race — his campaign may go on life support.
Marco Rubio went to bat big time for the GOP establishment when he signed onto the Gang of Eight amnesty legislation. It was a huge mistake. If the establishment doesn’t make a serious, concerted effort to boost Rubio’s campaign, and soon, the experience will be all the more bitter.
I should add that I’m not taking no position here on the comparative merits of Rubio and Cruz (though on immigration, I’m with Cruz). Like Scott, I’ll leave that one for another day. All I’m offering here is “horse race” analysis.