No, Immigration is Not a “Poison Pill” for Jeb

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (photo credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (photo credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Over the past several months, Jeb Bush has earned a reputation for bucking purity tests on a number of issues. Some of them, like Common Core, are obvious disadvantages for anyone wanting to win the Presidency.  On immigration, though, the National Journal points out that the last two Republican Presidential nominees both rejected immigration reform, only to lose the general election:

While John McCain and Mitt Romney, the eventual nominees in the 2008 and 2012 contests, earlier indicated support for citizenship to varying degrees, each man backed away from that position during his race…

Bush, obviously wary of the dangers of flip flopping on this issue, is taking a different approach:

Bush made a very different calculation earlier this month in New Hampshire when he reasserted that he would support a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented, so long as it imposed demanding conditions and was embedded in comprehensive immigration-reform legislation that included tougher security.

While no one argues that the Republican nominee will need to do a lot better among Hispanics in the general election (Romney received just 27% of their vote in 2012), the conventional argument is that supporting immigration reform will hurt Bush during the primaries. The polling tells a different story:

Polling conducted by longtime GOP pollster Whit Ayres for AAF last year found that a 56 percent to 36 percent majority of likely GOP primary voters would accept a legal status “that does not provide full citizenship.” But by a 48 percent to 44 percent plurality, GOP primary voters rejected citizenship, the survey found. Polls by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center during the 2013 immigration debate likewise found that, while a solid majority of about three-fifths of Republicans believed the undocumented should be allowed to legally remain in the United States, only about one-third of GOP partisans endorsed citizenship.

In both polls, clear majorities of Republicans support a path to legalized status for immigrants, and even the opposition to citizenship is not as vehement as the media claim.  My hunch is that Republicans will respond better to someone with a clear, consistent approach to reform than a candidate who changes his position to gather a few extra votes.  Bush has a real opportunity to be a unity candidate who breaks the Democratic monopoly on Hispanic voters (much like his brother in 2004).  Here’s hoping he sticks to his principles.

Nick Arnold is a researcher for American Principles in Action.