Polls and the Immigration Paradox

Christy Orgeta

Steve Poizner, the California insurance commissioner and the Republican contender for governor, was a goner the moment he hitched his campaign to Arizona's immigration law.

Before you call me crazy for saying that, let me anticipate your reply. What are you talking about? Surveys show that more Californians support the law than oppose it; that's especially true among Republican primary voters. Poizner himself closed the gap with Whitman when he seized on the issue.

All of that's true, but the polling numbers showing support for Arizona's law and other tough-on-immigration measures are highly deceptive. Remember the paradox of Prop 187, the victorious 1994 ballot initiative that sought to deny public benefits to unauthorized immigrants. 187 won. It might well win again if it were on the ballot today. And nevertheless, 187 did lasting damage to the California Republican party, helping propel it to the minority.

How does that work? Because the polls don't measure intensity. Simply put, the issue matters more to opponents of laws like 187 and the Arizona immigration bill than to supporters. Don't believe me? Look at a recent USC/LA Times poll. Meg Whitman, who opposed the Arizona law, actually performed better among voters who support the law than Poizner.

The poll and other surveys suggest that Poizner did lasting damage to himself -- in effect, making himself unelectable in a general election -- by hitching himself to the law.

Those who oppose the law strongly oppose it, and many of them are Latino voters that a Republican needs to get elected statewide. Meg Whitman clearly understands this -- she opposes the Arizona law and has been trying to disassociate herself from even her own ads on the subject.

The opposition is intense because such tough-on-immigration laws feel like attacks on immigrant families -- and members of these families are a fast-growing piece of the electorate. Many of these families know from experience how arbitrary and strange immigration laws -- and enforcement of these laws -- can be. They know that immigration laws can keep families apart -- in fact, it may be keeping them apart from members of their own family. They've seen the immigration laws cost people jobs, or forced family members to take children out of school.

So only a foolish politician would be seduced by polls supporting tough immigration restrictions. To do what Poizner did is to make enemies of voters who will take what you say very personally, because it is personal.

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