Immigration reform: Can a supporter win GOP nomination in 2016?

Although Republicans in general have been under pressure to warm up to immigration reform, such an approach might not resonate in early-primary states, where GOP voters tend to be socially conservative and largely white.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
US Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) departs following the weekly Republican caucus luncheon at the US Capitol on Tuesday.

Hanging over the Washington battle about immigration reform is the dicey question of how the issue might affect the White House hopes of those Republicans supporting the legislation. Namely, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and former Sunshine State governor Jeb Bush.

One broader political narrative in play is that the GOP must make a move to woo the nation’s growing Hispanic voter population – and that if lawmakers stand in the way of reform, they’re further alienating citizens who have already shown a deepening allegiance to the Democratic Party. Hispanics twice backed Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

But in key early caucus and primary states, Iowa in particular, Republican primary voters are socially conservative, largely white, and prone to supporting firebrands who rail against abortion, for example, and to courting Evangelicals. They wrap themselves in the flag. Often effectively.

See winners like Mike Huckabee in Iowa (2008) and Pat Buchanan in New Hampshire (1996).

So for Republicans, there’s an obvious tension in positioning around the immigration issue. Should GOP hopefuls aim to win 2016 primary contests with an anti-immigration reform stance that could potentially turn off valuable general-election swing voters? Think potential White House wannabes Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, who have made clear their views against reform and for a stronger border.

Or is it perhaps more politically astute to think long, carve out some middle ground on the issue, and seek compromise with Democrats?

“Pro-reform candidates could have a hard time in the caucuses and primaries, but let’s remember there are other issues that drive activists, too,” says David Yepsen, a longtime Des Moines Register political reporter. “Electability in November and likability on the stump are two.”

After two White House losses, Republicans will be “hungry” to win come November 2016, says Mr. Yepsen, now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. One consideration: If immigration reform passes soon, that leaves at least two years before a presidential primary campaign gets going in earnest. Voters are likely to turn their attention to other issues by then. In other words, the fervor over this debate might fade.

“If a candidate puts together a package that’s attractive overall, some hard-liners may overlook a single issue in favor of getting a candidate who might actually stand a chance of winning,” Yepsen says.  

In New Hampshire, where Democrats hold the governor’s office and three of four congressional assignments, the immigration reform issue doesn’t read as it might in more-conservative states, says Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

The state, which holds America’s first primary, is typically “less isolationist, more internationally oriented,” Professor Scala says. It’s not primarily a white, working-class state; manufacturing jobs have dried up. Instead, the Granite State tends to boast a strong high-tech industry and well-educated residents. Many in the business community have weighed in favorably in support of immigration reform. All reasons, among others, that the state’s lone congressional Republican – Sen. Kelly Ayotte – is on board.

“Look at the last two New Hampshire [primary] winners – [John] McCain, Romney: They’re much more center-right Republicans, and inasmuch as immigration reform is becoming an acceptable mainstream Republican position, people who are outside and make a point of it, I think that might damage people’s enthusiasm” for candidates with such views, Scala says.

The national numbers themselves tell an important story for candidates as they begin to think about how to distinguish themselves from what is expected to be a crowded pack of Republican aspirants. Among Latinos in 2012, Mr. Obama bested his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, 71 percent to 27 percent. And the number of registered Latino voters is on the rise: Between the 2008 and 2012 contests, it increased by 26 percent.

So perhaps Senators Paul and Cruz and other like-minded Republicans with their eyes on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue should heed GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham’s caution. He hails from South Carolina, which holds the third contest for the presidential nomination and whose primary voters skew decidedly conservative. Earlier this month, Senator Graham said the GOP is in a “demographic death spiral.”

"If we don't pass immigration reform, if we don't get it off the table in a reasonable, practical way, it doesn't matter who you run in 2016," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press.”

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